There are probably more American guitar players dedicated to playing Blues, than any other type of music. Almost every guitar player in the world knows some blues licks. And, Blues have infiltrated most other styles of popular music, including Country, Rock and Roll, and even Jazz.
This lesson will introduce you to 12-Bar Blues. Our friend Michael ‘Hawkeye’ Herman, teacher at Jamplay will guide you through the ins-and-outs of this basic blues format. Hawkeye has been playing blues for over 40 years and has been featured in several guitar publications. He served for 6 years on the Board of Directors for the Blues Foundation in Memphis, Tn., and was inducted into the Iowa Blues Hall of Fame in 2004. Trust me, he knows what he is doing.
There are many types of Blues. It’s roots lie in the misery of African Americans being held in slavery in the 19th century, and later under the burden of racial inequality during the first 2/3rds of the 20th century. Originally dominated by black musicians, it was one of their only means of communicating the sorry conditions they were forced to live in. The music is heavily-laced with 7th chords, which puts forth the feelings of desperation, depression, and melancholy.
Original, or Traditional Blues (sometimes also referred to as Acoustic Blues) consisted of a solo guitar player who also sang the song. Good examples of Traditional Blues are Statesboro Blues-Blind Wille McTell-1928, Hobo Blues-John Lee Hooker-1948, and Rollin Stone-Muddy Waters-1950.
Later on, during the 1930s, in the southern Mississippi Valley, slide guitar licks were added, and the new style was called the Delta Blues. Good examples are Guitar Rag-Sylvester Weaver-1927, Dark Was The Night-Blind Willie Jones-1927, Crossroad-Robert Johnson-1936 and Boogie Chillen-John Lee Hookler-1948.
During the 1940s, Swing and Big Band Music was combined with Blues to create Swing, Chicago, or St. Louis Blues (depending on which location you prefer). Full orchestrations with brass and saxophones made this a very distinctive sound, but the guitar was still the main instrument. Examples include Mannish Boy-Muddy Waters-1955, Texas Flood-Larry Davis-1958, How Blue Can You Get-B.B. King-1964, Born Under A Bad Sign-Albert King-1967, and Dust My Broom-Elmore James-1951. Swing Blues is considered the to be the precursor to Rock and Roll, emerging in the 1950s. The 1940s and 50s also saw the rise of Country Blues, which combined elements of Folk, Bluegrass and Country Music with Traditional Blues. Examples are Country Blues-Doc Watson, Jogo Blues-Jimmy Rogers, Highway Of Pain-Seldom Scene, and Workin Man Blues-Merle Haggard. The newest form of Blues is Rock Blues, and is very popular worldwide. Good examples are Cocaine-Eric Clapton, On The Road Again-Canned Heat, Pride and Joy-Stevie Ray Vaughan, and A Cold Day In Hell-Gary Moore.
As you can see, Blues have infiltrated almost every type of modern music there is. You should listen to the examples listed, and become familiar with the different types so you can recognize the styles when you hear them.
12-Bar Blues is not really a type of Blues, but a format, or template. By now you should know what a ‘Bar’ is, and 12-Bar Blues is exactly what it sounds like….12 bars of music, divided into 3 sections of 4 bars each. It is structured much like some poetry, with a set number of syllables in a set number of lines. By now, you should also have a good working knowledge of chord progressions, so when we say that 12-Bar Blues is built around the chords I, IV, and V, you know what we are talking about. If not, then before proceeding further, go back and review those lessons until you understand them.
Although Blues can be played in any key, most of the chord positions will be out of either ‘A’, or ‘E’, because they allow for so much open-string embellishments in 7ths. As Hawkeye shows you, the basic format is:
- I-4 bars
- I-2 bars
- V-1 bar
- IV-1 bars
- I-2 bars , or you can go to V for the last bar, in what is known as a “turn-around”, that will lead you into the next 12-bar section.
I could write pages of technical descriptions of this, that would sound great, and be very confusing, but the very best way to get a feel for 12-Bar music is to listen to it, and them you will immediately recognize it when you hear it, or if someone says to you, "We’ll do this in 12-Bar Blues", you will instantly know what to do. Here are some great examples:
- Pride and Joy-Stevie Ray Vaughan
- Goin Up The Country-Canned Heat
- Hound Dog-Elvis Presley
- Tutti Frutti-Little Richard
- The chorus to Lucille, also from Little Richard
- The original Mustang Sally by Sir Mack Rice
I can’t stress this enough. What we are showing you here are basic guidelines, and not written in stone. Some 12-Bar Blues songs may stay in I for all 4 sections, then change in the next, such as Hootchie-Cootchie Man-John Lee Hooker. There are all kinds of variations. The main thing you should get out of this lesson is that 12-bar Blues are 3 sections of 4 bars each. There are lots of possible chord variations within this format. Blues, like Jazz, is a free-form style of music, who’s motto is (or should be) "Rules Are Made To Be Broken". Don’t be afraid to improvise when it feels right, and don’t get too hung up on structure.
Hawkeye’s musical intro is a good version of 12-Bar Blues. When he talks about the A-A-B format, he is referring to lyrics, not chords, so don’t let that throw you. By now, you should have a working knowledge of chord, and chord progression structure, so when he talks about the Tonic Chord, that, of course, is the key chord. In other words, if you are in the key of ‘E’. then E is the Tonic Chord. Your Sub-Dominant would be the IV chord, in this case, the ‘A’, and the Dominant would be V, or ‘B’.
When Hawkeye goes into the vocal parts, notice that this is where the A-A-B comes in. The second line has the same words as the first, but not necessarily the same tune (melody). As long as the words are the same, you’re OK, as far as vocal structure goes. And the 3rd line can be anything, as long as it rhymes with the other two lines. Hawkeye’s counting method is pretty standard in Music Theory, and when you are starting out, it’s good to use this so you can develop a natural inner-rhythm. If you practice enough, it won’t be long before the counting will become subconscious and automatic.
Hawkeye’s suggestion about thinking ahead is right on the mark. You need to be thinking about where you are going next, not what you are doing at that second. That’s really all there is to basic Blues. Now, go out and practice, practice, practice.
About the author
Hi there! I'm Gianca, a guitar teacher and a software engineer from Italy. I originally created this site to be a tool for my students, and now it's available, for free, to anyone looking to get better at guitar. If it's your first time here, jump to the welcome page. To stay updated on new articles and lessons click here
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