Variations In The Blues

Have lol you ever heard someone complain that the blues has no variation? "Its always the same 12 bars over and over?"

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Have you ever heard someone complain that the blues has no variation? "Its always the same 12 bars over and over?" Let me challange you and state that the blues has as much variations as your imagination allows it to have.

What does this mean? This means that the blues is present in so many populair music forms and genres today that to know the blues is to know popular music. When I was younger and my knowledge of the blues didn"t go any further than those 1990"s blues brother reissue movie, I had no clue that the blues was so much deeper than I ever could have imagined. There is somuch more than the same 12 bars over and over again.

But with MTV playing cartoons instead of music videos and an abundance of mind-clutter today, there is hardly any way to come into contact with this steaming, hot and juicy part of the blues. When !Walk the line", the movie that tells the story of Johnny Cash, was released to the big public in 1995, Johnny Cash was re-introduced an enjoyed by a whole new generation. Since B.B. King probably will be around for a couple more years and I suppose a movie about the man is not for anytime soon I wrote this article to showcase the deep world that the blues is made off.

Letʼs get started with our good old 12 bar progression. This is one off the first things most people learn when they take guitarlessons. This is part of the reason why they wrongly assume the blues is easy and boring.

Standard 12 bar blues

Ok, I admit, we want to move away as quickly as possibly from this kind of guitar playing.

It IS quite boring! But this doesn't mean we have to move away from the idea of using 12 bars to play to blues. The 12 bar progression is the backbone of the blues and it is the basis off thousands of blues songs. So it's quite common, but this doesn't mean it's boring at all. Let's take a look into some of the ways to put some variation into this 12 bar progression.

Here we are playing the same shuffle-rhythm, but with a little variation inserted at the end of each bar. This spices things up a little, but we should take this a little bit further I think. Let's incorporate some chords in this rhythm.

Now we are playing the same shuffle as above, but we insert some chords during the rhythm. We can use any dominant 7th chord for this matter. For this sort of playing I really love to use the 7#9 chord, as found in the last bar of the following 12 bar progression.

In the following example, things are starting to get really hot! It's the same 12 bar progression, but we are starting at the 5th fret right now. Play this one with attitude, hit your strings hard, they can take it!

If your having trouble with the rhythm of this example, try playing it at half speed. Simply tap your foot to the quarternotes in the example below. If you find this alot easier, just start playing twice as fast and you"ll get the example above.

Nowadays people seem to be forgotten that rock has deep roots in blues music. Let this next example serve as living proof. The first bar is the same rhythm we played in the previous examples, while in the second bar we are digging in to some syncopated powerchord riff.

I hope I have given you some insight in the various ways blues guitar can be approached. If you are interested in learning to play blues music, one of the best words off advice I could give you is to listen to what turns you on. Go find music you like and try playing along with the record and really listen to the music! This article is just the tip of the iceberg and the possibility"s are endless. We can turn this 12 bar upside down with jazz-chords or compose a rock-riff out of it. The choice is yours. Just remember, the next time someone tells you the blues has no variation tell him the blues is present in so much variation all around us, all the time.

About the Author:Antony Reynaert is a blues guitarist from Belgium. On his website www.antonyreynaert.com you will find hot blues licks videos to learn from. Get the tab for each blues lick here.

18 comments sorted by best / new / date

    tommaso.zillio
    Yep, blues is everywhere! A strong foundation in blues is the best thing for players of all styles. It gives the sense of rhythm and groove, and it makes you learn how to make the guitar sing. Great article Antony!
    SilverSpurs616
    Seems more like the blues-rock rhythm at the start but I like how you gradually show us new ideas and ways to change it. Good article
    tehREALcaptain
    how about going into the different harmonic options offered by a blues form instead of showing people meaningless licks? stuff like tritone substitution, use of a Diminished chord a half step higher then a dominant and adding ii-V's and back cycling?
    CavSkout
    ChancesEX : Excellent, man! more please POSTED: 07/08/2010 - 016 pm / quote +1
    crazysam23_Atax
    tehREALcaptain wrote: how about going into the different harmonic options offered by a blues form instead of showing people meaningless licks? stuff like tritone substitution, use of a Diminished chord a half step higher then a dominant and adding ii-V's and back cycling?
    Cuz that'd be too complex... /end sarcasm
    Icarus Lives
    I was dissapointed with this. It just gives licks to play around that same 12 bar progression. Personally I love all blues. There are blues songs with incredibly complex chord progressions. They lean a bit towards jazz but its still very much blues.
    korn_dawg
    tehREALcaptain wrote: how about going into the different harmonic options offered by a blues form instead of showing people meaningless licks? stuff like tritone substitution, use of a Diminished chord a half step higher then a dominant and adding ii-V's and back cycling?
    Was going to say the same thing. From a theory standpoint, you didn't show us anything besides the standard 12 bar progression (and adding the 7th to the V chord, which is also very standard).
    ripoffhitman
    Good article. I've never thought of blues in the boring progression though. Prolly cause I started from listening to Derek and The Dominos and Robert Johnson and everything between.
    mrddrm
    I agree, you explain well and slowly add new concepts to the existing structure. Though I do not have much interest in ~just~ rhythm and blues, slowly getting into jazz, but there is a lot of similarities between the two. I mean, just look at 12 bar blues : P
    rickthepick
    Good article. Blues players are the best at pitch bending and commonly have much better vibrato than most metal players. Some of the best blues riffs that I've written are 14 or 16 bars, and my favorite is 10 bars of 6/8. I like mixing Dorian and Minor modes with minor pentatonic licks. It sounds cool to go from a min7th arp. to a blues lick or double string bend. Hendrix-Born Under a Bad Sign from his Blues album is a great example of the variations that can be played over a repeating pentatonic bass line.
    GREG X
    Great lesson - I was lucky enough to attend Anthony's Blues Masterclass in the UK last month -he really knows how to play blues !!! Well explained keep it up man!
    the_wassel
    But with MTV playing cartoons instead of music videos and an abundance of mind-clutter today, there is hardly any way to come into contact with this steaming, hot and juicy part of the blues.
    As I read that, all I could think about was poop.
    abbydaddy03
    Very well written. Yeah it all started with the 12 bar, Elvis, even the Who, and Zeppelin have it hiding in their tunes.
    Zeppelin Addict
    mrddrm wrote: I agree, you explain well and slowly add new concepts to the existing structure. Though I do not have much interest in ~just~ rhythm and blues, slowly getting into jazz, but there is a lot of similarities between the two. I mean, just look at 12 bar blues : P
    indeed, jazz and blues traded all kinds of characteristics from their respective styles for decades and decades in the first half of the 19th century.. rhythmic concepts, progression and the whole concept that is improvisation were only refined by jazz and blues so its more then just a coincidence that youre seeing similarities great article dude, awesome job at showing how easy it is to expand on a simple 12-bar progression