Blues 102

Welcome to Blues 102,

Is the class sitting comfortably and paying attention? Then let’s begin…

We’ll start today’s lesson with a practical experiment that doesn’t involve a guitar. Instead you’ll require a computer or similar device (whatever you’re using to read this article on will probably do). And on that computer or similar device, you will need the following ready to go;

  • A web browser, opened on a search engine of your choice
  • A text-editing/note-making or similar kind of app, open and ready to type
  • The skills to copy and paste text from the web browser app to the text editing app

Your challenge

  • Find as many examples as you can of songs that are 12-bar blues
  • Copy the song titles and artist names from the web browser into the text app

It really is that simple. Oh, and you have just 2 minutes to complete this task.

Ready? GO!!!!

And your time’s up already…

…so go and total up your high-speed research. I’ve just tried this as well, and came up with the following;

Pride and Joy – Stevie Ray Vaughan

Rock and Roll – Led Zeppelin

Tush – ZZ Top

Johnny B. Goode – Chuck Berry

Going Up The Country – Canned Heat

Hound Dog – Elvis Presley

Tutti Frutti – Little Richard

The Thrill is Gone – B.B. King

Crossroads – Eric Clapton

Ball and Biscuit – The White Stripes

I Got You (I Feel Good) – James Brown

Rock Around the Clock – Bill Haley & His Comets

Something Like Olivia – John Mayer

Give Me One Reason – Tracy Chapman

Red House – Jimi Hendrix

I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man – Muddy Waters

Crosscut Saw – Albert King

T-Bone Shuffle – T-Bone Walker

Rock and Roll Music – The Beatles

Move It On Over – George Thorogood

Buckets of Rain – Bob Dylan

Ice Cream Man – John Lee Hooker

Sweet Home Chicago – Robert Johnson

Viola Lee Blues – The Grateful Dead

Still Haven’t found What I’m Lookin’ For – U2

Call Me The Breeze – Lynyrd Skynyrd

The Jack – AC/DC

Rave On – Buddy Holly

Blues With a Feeling – Little Walter

Dust My Broom – Elmore James

Folsom Prison Blues – Johnny Cash

Stuck In The Middle With You – Stealers Wheel

Maybellene – Chuck Berry

Kansas City – Wilbert Harrison

Good Golly Miss Molly – Little Richard

Little Red Rooster – Rolling Stones

Boom Boom – John Lee Hooker

Mustang Sally – Buddy Guy

Going Down – Freddie King

Blue and Lonesome – The Rolling Stones

Have You Ever Loved a Woman? – Derek & The Dominos

Mary Had a Little Lamb – Stevie Ray Vaughan

Strange Brew – Cream

Boogie Shoes – KC & The Sunshine Band

I Can’t Quit You, Baby – Led Zeppelin

Baby What You Want Me To Do – Jimmy Reed

Born Under A Bad Sign – Albert King

Iceman – Albert Collins

Rock Me Baby – Johnny Winter

All Your Love – John Mayall

Killing Floor – Howlin’ Wolf

Ten Long Years – B.B. King

Bye Bye Johnny – Chuck Berry

Let’s Work Together – Canned Heat

Teddy Bear – Elvis Presley

Rainy Day Women – Bob Dylan

Route 66 – Rolling Stones

Let’s ignore the fact that a few artists crop up more than once – that’s to be expected when doing fact-finding against the clock. Let’s not dwell too much on the mix of musical eras demonstrated here, spanning the best part of a full century – a good musical idea will always endure. And let’s not even get too surprised at some of the results – James Brown, U2 and The White Stripes are all superb musicians, so why wouldn’t they use this most common of forms to create superb music.

But let’s particularly not feel surprised that I’ve found 57 different examples of a 12-bar blues song in just 2 minutes. FYI, my personal best at this game is actually 74. And someone with better research skills (and a more reliable mouse than I’ve got attached to my computer) could easily beat that.

The 12-bar blues, whether you consider it a chord structure or even a musical form, is pretty much the most popular way of writing popular music there has ever been. Especially on guitar.

So, what is the 12-bar blues?

We covered this briefly in Blues 101, but to recap; it’s simply a pattern of chords played over 12 bars of music. And then repeated over and over, using different lyrics and solo sections to keep the interest alive.

The most basic form of the 12-bar uses just three chords;

  • The Tonic (the key that the song is based on – our Root chord or note). This is the first degree or step of our chosen key or scale, and so can also be referred to as ‘chord 1’ or I in roman numerals
  • The Subdominant – a major 4th above the key/chord/note that the song is written in, referred to as ‘chord 4’ or IV in roman numerals
  • The Dominant – a perfect 5th above the key/chord/note that the song is written in, referred to as ‘chord 5’ or V in roman numerals

If you’ve never really dipped your toe into the wonderfully weird world of music theory then don’t be scared by the language used here. All of this makes much more sense when you write all 12 bars out in order and actually add chord names.

We’ve put this example in E major (this IS a guitar article after all), so you can see that E is the Tonic (or chord I), A is the Subdominant (or chord IV) and B is the Dominant (or chord V)

Of course, you don’t have to just play your 12-bar blues in E – this table shows the chords you can use in a few other keys, working upwards from the root. Yes, we’re doing some theory homework for you here. We’re nice like that.

So, can we play some blues now?

Ohhhh yeah!  But first, let’s place that simple 12-bar in E actually onto some music with chord boxes:

Simple and effective. But is it too simple? Is it ‘bluesy’ enough?

One other major defining feature of blues music in general (discussed in Blues 101) is that it uses a lot of 7th chords to give that characteristic feel. And remember that the 12-bar blues tends to be used as a repeating pattern. Bearing all this in mind, let’s make a few changes;

  • We’ll change a few of the existing chords into 7ths (or ‘Dominant 7th’ chords to be precise)
  • We’ll change the chord in bar 2 from an E to an A (i.e. chord I to chord IV, or the Tonic to the Subdominant) – this happens quite a lot in blues music
  • We’ll make the whole thing repeat as many times as it needs to! This is easily done by bracketing the 12-bar section with start repeat (written as ||: ) and end repeat (written as :|| ) bar-lines. If you want to repeat then simply end the 12-bar section with the bar that has ‘Repeats’ written above it, and bounce straight back to the start. If you want to wrap it up then simply skip the ‘Repeats’ bar and go straight to the ‘Ending’ bar.

Straight away that’s sounding much more authentic. And why stick to one key? Here’s the same thing written in G, but notice how we’re using barre chords? Which means you could slide this whole structure up or down the guitar neck into any key you want…

And it’s break-time already

Yes, there goes the bell for recess. In a school this generally means students will do one of two things;

  • Head into the playground and cause general mayhem.
  • Head into the music room, pick up guitars and cause musical mayhem.

This is why music teachers look so worn out all of the time…

Time to tap out for now. We’ll finish things up next week, so stay tuned and…

Peace Out!

Editor's Picks


  • Clayton Beeson
    It would be nice if you explain those funny looking markings on the staff below the chord pictures. Does it depict a downward stroke, or what?
  • Bob
    Where are the pictures?

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