12 Bars Blues Guitar Lesson

If you’ve ever heard the blues, you might know that you’ve been listening to something called a blues progression. Maybe you’ve already learned it, but if you haven’t here’s the pattern in E. Each chord separated by a vertical line represents a bar of music. (4 beats per bar in this case, with the chord letters and slashes each representing one beat).

12 Bar Blues Chords

Click here to listen to the 12 bar blues progression shown above.

Or if you’re familiar with basic chord theory:

I | I | I | I
IV | IV | I | I
V | IV | I | I

…where I= the root of the key you’re playing in (E in our example above), IV = the fourth (A in the example, and V = the fifth (B in this case).

A few blues progressions just using three simple chords in different keys provide the backbone for the blues. The twelve-bar blues is the most common. “Johnny B. Goode” and “What’d I Say” are great examples. When you consider substitutions, you start to see how blues progressions are the basis of most popular music.

Why should (nearly) every guitar player should learn the twelve-bar blues? Once you’ve done that, what are some basic things you can do with it? Well it’s the ultimate resource to draw on when you’ve got a few people together who want to jam.

No matter the skill level, musicians that know how to play a blues progression can work together to make music, maybe even music that doesn’t sound half bad. If you’ve tried your hand at lead playing, you can take turns soloing. Part of what’s so great about the twelve-bar is that it never seems to get old in a jam session.

Maybe that was too obvious? Jammin’ is just what you do and you don’t need anyone telling you that. Well ok, you and me both. But if you pay attention to what you play, no matter the skill level, working through the blues will help you get better.

How good you are at rhythm guitar doesn’t really boil down to how you strum or how pick. It’s about rhythm and it’s about how you get from one chord to the next. It’s the second part, the transitions, which playing around with this progression can help you with. You never need to just change from one chord to the next, because almost always you can drop in a lick or a lead in that will either bring you into the next chord smoothly, or just plain sound good.

Now you can try to memorize a whole bunch of interesting ways to change chords, but the best way to find out what you like to do is to experiment. This might work best if you know a bit about scales, but if you don’t: give it a shot. You’ve got nothing to lose and screwin’ around with this progression is fun. If you’d like some examples before you start to cutting your own path, here's a resource worth checking out

If you go there you’ll see a great collection of blues turnarounds. The turnaround is the last two measures of the twelve bar blues, after you go from the V chord to the IV chord. Instead of playing the simplest possible chords, you substitute something interesting that leads you back into the first chord of the progression.

A cool turnaround can be addictive and work to extend a great jam session. So go to that free resource, find a turnaround that matches your skill level, and try it out.

If you have an real interest in learning to play the blues, you might out want to check out Griff Hamlin's approach

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