Complete Blues Lesson


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08-30-2005, 05:43 PM
Blues: Everything

Table of Contents
The Feel
Standard 12 Bar Blues
Breakdown of the I chord
Breakdown of the IV chord
Breakdown of the V chord
The Turnaround
Minor Blues
Other Blues Forms (8 bar, 16 bar)

1. Intro
Well, I'm taking on this lesson, and we'll see how it goes, I'm hoping it goes well. This could take a while, and it might be pretty long, but I hope it cuts it. I'm going to need a lot of critique and addition to this (seeing as I don't know everything, and would love some additions. Also, make sure you know how to form chords, and how to name them before reading this lesson.

Before you go any further!
I want you to read this lesson and absorb it, but don't become held down by it. If you over analyze this music, your playing starts sounding too technical, too stiff, etc. When you play this kind of music, you have to get your feelings out and you have to relax, and let it flow. That's what blues is about.

2. The Feel
The main thing about feel would be the shuffle rhythm. If you know how to play with a shuffle skip down to the next paragraph. If you don't, keep on reading. The shuffle rhythm is written on standard notation like this:

E E = Q E

Shuffle is kind of hard to explain using words, but much easier using your ear; I'll try both.
Text Description:
When you count out the rhythm you're going to want to let the "beat" get the longer duration, and the "and" get the shorter duration.

ONE....and TWO....and Three....and Four....and

Using your ear:
Find a standard blues song, and listen to the drums in the background and the roll of the music, and that would be the shuffle. Try to emulate while tapping on a book or a desk, or anything to replicate that feel. That's all there is to shuffle, just keeping that rhythm going.

Why does it sound so distinct?
Good question, there can be several reasons for this, but some of the most common reasons are:
- The shuffle
- Playing out of key tones over it
- The lyrical form

For playing the out of key tones, I'll go into more depth here.

When you're playing a standard major blues, you could play a little lick like this, and the bolded notes are out of key.


In any other musical form, this kind of passage would sound wrong (expect in a more bluesy rock context). The out of key notes are borrowed from the parent minor scale (E major, and E minor) and the blues scale. This kind of playing adds tension to the music and that's what blues revolves around, tension and release.

On to the lyrical form...

The lyrics in blues are based off of hard-times, struggles, or good feelings. You might think, what am I talking about good feelings and hard-times, but it's true. The blues is about feeling the music and really meaning it. I'm going to present one lyrical form here that builds on the tension and release aspect. If anyone knows anything about poetry, you know that rhyming lines are assigned a letter, and then the next line that isn't part of the same rhyme gets assigned a new letter. For instance, a poem could have the rhyming scheme of AABBCDCD where the first two lines rhyme, and so do the next two. Lines 5 and 7 would rhyme, as well as 6 and 8. We're going to apply the same context here, but with the entire lines themselves (minus the minor variations, just the general line). Here's an example:

When I was in Missouri, would not let me be,
When I was in Missouri, would not let me be,
Wouldn't rest content, till I came to Tennessee.

That lyrical stanza would get this as it's scheme: AAB. Lines one and two are the same, and thus receive the same letter. The repetition of the first two lines build tension because you are repeating it, especially over two different chords (the first line over the I chord, the next line over the IV chord - more on that later). It also builds tension by leaving the conflict described through the lyrics unresolved. The third line is a new line and thus starts the process of release. You know resolve the conflict in the first two lines over the turnaround (which acts as the "release" for the music itself).

This kind of lyrical scheme is very common in blues music. Notice the emphasis on the word very.

You may be wondering why I included this section here, and I'll tell you why. I included it because I felt that the vocals and lyrics are very much a big part of the music.

Now that you have the feel down, continue on to the next section...

3. Standard 12 Bar Blues
I'm sure you have heard of the blues being 12 bars, 12 Bar Blues, etc. Well, it's true; any 12 bar blues has a pattern. There are only three chords used. The chords are the I chord, the IV chord, and the V chord. These chords are also known as the tonic, subdominant, and dominant chords. So, for instance, in the key of E major, the three chords that we would use would be Emaj (I), Amaj (2), and Bmaj (3). For sake of space and time, I'll be using the I, IV, and V method of notation for naming these chords in the pattern. The pattern is this: The first four bars in the 12 Bar Blues are made up of the tonic (I). The next two bars consist of the subdominant (IV), followed by two more bars of the tonic. Next, there is one bar of the dominant (V), one bar of the subdominant, and then one bar of the tonic. Last but not least, the dominant chord is played for the final bar, resolving the progression back to the tonic (which starts a new passage of 12 bars). Here's a diagram type thing to show the I, IV, and V chords if you couldn't really understand what I meant. Each number (I, IV, V) represents one bar:


Hopefully now you will understand the concept being conveyed here about how long each chord is played and which chord is played for the duration of the 12 bars.

Like I mentioned, that's a very basic 12 bar blues, and doesn't have as much harmonic function as newer blues forms. This is because the basic form of blues does not contain the dominant chords which mean major third, perfect fifth and b7 intervals in the chord. Remember not to confuse it with the chord naming above where the dominant chord is the V chord. You could use chords like: E7, E7#9, E9, E11, E13, etc. for dominant chords. The use of the dominant chords add the tension that gives the blues its drive and edge to complete its cycle. So, for a more updated version of blues, this form could be used:

I7 I7 I7 I7
IV7 IV7 I7 I7
V7 IV7 I7 V7

As long as you remember the basic pattern for the 12 bar blues (illustrated in the first example of this section), you can keep adding, and altering onto the chords as long as they remain in the parent tonality. Remember to always try and be original and make it sound good. Too complicated is not always good, as simple as just straight major chords can sound better than something too strained or complicated.

This kind of 12 bar blues is almost the same as the regular blues, but this time the second bar contains the IV chord, and not the I chord. You see this in a lot of newer stuff, and some of the newer Clapton blues.

4. Breakdown of the I Chord
Because all of the chords are dominant it would seem that there is no tonal center if you look at it theoretically. However, the strong presence of the root of each chord, drives the progression. With that in mind, think of it as a regular progression and try to not worry about playing out of key notes and just use your ear to determine what you think will go good next.

The function of the I chord (tonic) is to lay down the key of the song. Everything is going to resolve back to this chord at the end, so, this has to be your strong chord rhythmically. When you're playing over this chord, or playing a rhythm with the chord, you are going to want to make it sound good and keep the piece rolling. If you can get the first four bar passage rolling and moving smoothly, the rest will follow.

Over the I chord you don't really want to play anything one half step above, or below the root note. The major 7 and minor second are really no-no's as far as sounding good is concerned. HOWEVER, you can use these off notes as a chromatic build up if you'd like, especially if you are ending a bar of the I chord to start a new bar of the I chord. That way it seems as if you are connecting the two, kind of like in a riff sense. here's an example of using the major 7 (one half step lower than the root, in this case D# to E) in a blues riff context. The bolded note is the major 7 used over the I chord conservatively:


In blues you can use that kind of chromatic build up to lead to a new chord or another lick to connect everything together. Remember, when you're soloing, you always want to build up that tension and just release it, over and over again. Try playing along to a backing track and building on these strategies.

In bars 7 and 8 you want to start playing like you're hinting at the V chord by hitting the fifth note of the major scale for the key more than often. You can't do it too much, but do it enough to build up tension to when the V chord finally hits. Doing this will sophisticate your audience's ears a little bit more so that they will be able to begin appreciating that tension and release factor of blues.

08-30-2005, 05:43 PM
5. Breakdown of the IV Chord
The IV chord is probably one of the most underrated chords, especially in blues music. With this chord there can be some really special, harmonic moments when playing over it. This chord is where the tension starts to begin its ascent. When you play over this chord you can use a tritone as a good way to build tension.

The Tritone
A tritone is an interval of an augmented fourth or diminished fifth. In the transition between the I7 chord and the IV7 chord, there's a cool lick (that uses a tritone) that can be used to build tension and it's rather nifty. The tritone in the IV7 chord is between the major third and the b7 of the chord. Here's the lick used in transition:

I7 IV7

When you play this example, try gradually bending the tritone over the IV7 chord one quarter step.

If you're wondering why this sounds so intriguing or different, it's because the tritone contains notes from both the major and minor scales of the parent key (E major, E minor). The C# on the B string is taken from the E major scale, and the G on the high E string is taken from the minor scale. When playing this over the IV7 chord, you're just getting the major third and b7, not the root. So, it seems like you're missing something, but you still get the taste of the chord. This is a great way to add tension in your playing.

6. Breakdown of the V Chord
The V chord is where everything hits its peak. This is where the tension finally stops its ascent and begins its descent. The point of the V chord is for resolution, a place to stop and work your way into the I chord again. Over the V chord your lyrics begin resolving the conflict in the first two lines (of an AAB format). An end is finally in sight for the listeners. They can tell that something is happening when you finally hit the V chord.

In any musical genre the V chord is the best chord to resolve back to the tonic with because the third of the dominant is the leading tone of the tonic. If that makes no sense, keep reading, it will. Look at this:

C major scale: C D E F G A B C

C (I): C E G
G (V): G B D

Do you see how the major third in the G triad is the seventh tone in the C major scale. The seventh tone is one half step away from the root, which is why it has the tendency to resolve upwards to C. When you add the dominant seven form of G resolving to C, it resolves a little bit stronger. This is because the F in G7 (G B D F) is only one half step away from the major third in C (E). The F resolves downward and the B resolves upward making sound so distinct.

So, now you know the basic harmony of the V chord is to resolve the progression. BUT, if you look at the 12 bar blues diagrams I made earlier, then you would know that the first time you play the V chord is doesn't go back to I. It travels to the IV chord. A little bit tricky, eh? This move partially resolves the tension but the tension really gets resolved in the next section, and you'll see how it's such a big deal...

7. The Turnaround
This is the MOST IMPORTANT part of the 12 bar blues. How so? Well, because everything gets fully resolved in this two bar passage. The turnaround can make or break any blues progression. So, when you're playing the turnaround or soloing over it you want to make it sound good. I'm not talking about half good, or semi-good, I'm talking good. The turnaround takes place over the I chord, and then back to the V chord. These two bars mark the end of your 12 bar progression, and how you're about to start over.

The turnaround usually consists of a downward or upward movement of three to four chords that usually end on the tonic, and then go directly into the dominant so you can resolve your progression. That's all a turnaround is, and you may think it sounds simple. It is simple, but, simply, it's the best part of the blues progression.

Here are a few tabbed examples of turnarounds that you could implement into your playing. Each one of these has a different overall sound, but convey the same message, that your 12 bars are up, and it's time for a new 12 bars:

A(I) A(I) E7(V)

C G9

E E B7

By building off of those three examples, you should be able to come up with some excellent turnarounds in your own blues playing.

8. Minor Blues
For the previous seven sections, the focus has been on major key blues. In this section the focus will be switched to a minor key setting. This kind of blues can be darker, and if played in a slow blues fashion, very emotional.

Instead of 12 bars of this:

|: I7 | IV7 | I7 | I7 | IV7 | IV7 |
I7 | I7 | V7 | IV7 | I7 | V7:|

we have 12 bars of this:

|: im7 | ivm7 | im7 | im7 | ivm7 | ivm7 |
im7 | im7 | bVImaj7 | V7#9 | im7 | V7#9 :|

To the naked eye, it looks pretty complicating but, really, it isn't. We're going to apply the latter formulas to a Cm Blues progression, so you can see how it works. All of these chords are based off of the C major scale though. So, for a im7 chord, we are going to make the C, a minor 7 chord (C Eb G Bb).

|: Cm7 | Fm7 | Cm7 | Cm7 | Fm7 | Fm7 |
Cm7 | Cm7 | Abmaj7 | G7#9 | Cm7 | G7#9 :|

That basically sums up the gist of minor blues, but for a more complete post try this by Redwing: The Minor Blues: A "Quick" Tutorial (
Material in this section borrowed from the above link

9. Other Blues Forms (8 bar, 16 bar)
Now that you know about the 12 bar blues forms, here are some more forms for you. An 8 bar blues form is one used to shorten the progression and a 16 bar form would be used to lengthen the progression. Like I said earlier, the main progression is 12 bars long, but these two can be used for variation, or for when you get stuck, and want to try something new.

8 Bar Blues

I7 V7 IV7 IV7
I7 V7 I7 V7


I7 I7 IV7 IV7
I7 V7 I7 V7

16 Bar Blues

I I I I7
IV7 IV7 I I7
V7 IV7 I V7

10. Conclusion
And this concludes my lesson on blues. I hope you enjoyed reading through this long lesson. I hope to have covered the basics and a little bit more than that on my journey through this daunting task. Please be grateful for what I've done here, and leave some comments. I hope you enjoy!

08-30-2005, 06:08 PM
Good lesson, I think maybe you should post some mp3s with examples of your turnarounds and rhythm examples.
In blues the turnaround really is the song, its the part people remember so having audio examples might help those who don't listen to alot of blues identify what you mean by the "feel".
Also I think you made a typo with "(expect in a more bluesy rock context)." and I think the structure of the lyrics should be discussed after the theory talk.

08-30-2005, 06:08 PM
Great article! It was very informative and helpful and will definately help my blues playing. 5 stars. :golfclap:

09-05-2005, 03:20 PM
1. Intro
Well, I'm taking on this lesson, and we'll see how it goes, I'm hoping it goes well. This could take a while, and it might be pretty long, but I hope it cuts it. I'm going to need a lot of critique and addition to this seeing as I don't know everything, and would love some additions. Also, make sure you know how to form chords, and how to name them before reading this lesson.

Fix that parentheses I deleted and you're good to go I think. Approved (with correction ;))

-SD :dance:

09-06-2005, 04:14 AM
Awesome lesson, well laid out and described. So long as SD agrees the info is correct we can close this.

09-06-2005, 03:51 PM
It looks good to me, although I didn't personally play through the examples.

-SD :dance:

09-06-2005, 05:04 PM
^ No worries, as long as the thories textbook. APPROVED.