Understanding Twelve Bar Blues

If you've never understood twelve bar blues than chances are your at a disadvantage to other guitarists. But don't stress because I have prepared a crash course in Twelve bar blues to get you understanding it in a few minutes.

Ultimate Guitar
You're probably wondering what's so great about twelve bar blues. But twelve bar blues is a crucial piece of music that all up and coming guitarists must know. There are many great songs that use twelve bar blues and if you look carefully even some modern songs use this pattern.

Understanding The Progression

Twelve bar blues is generally a progression with three chords the first, fourth and fifth chords ill explain this in greater detail latter. I will take it that you understand the basics behind sheet music layout. The progression is as follows bear in mind that a bar is four beats and in the diagram below one number represents one bar: Four bars of the first chord, two bars of the fourth chord, two bars of the first chord, two of the fifth and two of the first.
1 / 1 / 1 / 1
4 / 4 / 1 / 1
5 / 5 / 1 / 1
That is traditionally the twelve bar blues chord progression, though I and most of the guitarists I play with substitute the last four bars of the fifth and first chords to the following: One bar of the fifth chord, one bar of the fourth chord and two bars of the first chord.
1 / 1 / 1 / 1
4 / 4 / 1 / 1
5 / 4 / 1 / 1
You're probably a bit confused if this is new to you but you should do some googleing and try to find some sheet music so you can visually see what I'm trying to explain. Now we know where the chords go I will talk about what chords to actually play.

First, Fourth and Fifth Chords Explained

When you're playing any song you play in a key. Here is where the numbers comes in! Let's say you're playing in the key of E a common blues key. E chord will be not only the key you're playing in but also the first chord. Now the fourth chord will be the A chord and the fifth chord B. How did I get this? Let's see. Look at the row of letters bellow. These are all the natural notes in the musical alphabet. Natural notes are notes that aren't sharps of flats. Now the first chord from the left is E, the fourth from the left is A and the fifth from the left is B.
It is the same for any Key let's see another example. We will now imagine we are writing on a piece of paper to find out the chords within a key. Let's put C at the start and write down all the natural notes in the musical Alphabet. The first chord is C, the fourth is F and the fifth is G.
This can be applied to any key. I hope that isn't too hard to understand. Because now we are going to add the two parts together and if you're a bit stumped it should make since when we combine these parts.

Twelve Bar Blues

Let's go back to the key of E. So we've just learnt that the first, fourth and fifth chords are E, A and B. Now we will see how these are added to the twelve bars. We would play the following: Four Bars of E, two Bars of A, two bars of E, two bars of B and two bars of E
E / E / E / E
A / A / E / E
B / B / E / E
Now give this a try for yourself.

Getting a Bluesy Sound

One great way to get a more bluesy sound is to use 7th chords as they add a bluesy feel and differ from regular chords. I hope you understood this lesson and that it helped you. Though if a beginner slightly confusing twelve bar blues will prove to be a valuable asset. I wish you the best of wishes on your guitar playing endeavours and in the words of Tommy Emmanuel "Get to work."

9 comments sorted by best / new / date

    TL;DR play the first, fourth and fifth and do some "googleing" to find out the rest
    Mate, you build the chords off the E major scale to find the chords diatonic to the E. You have built the chords off the C major scale starting on E. Big difference dude.
    Yeah, I know but i thought that for the sake of simplicity it might be a bit easier for beginners to comprehend. Thanks for your comment mate.
    It's better to not teach something at all than teach something incorrectly. You could have easily made the progression in C major and used the same notes, you could have used the correct notes in the example. You could have gotten away with not explaining the chords at all. However instead it is stated incorrectly.
    that works for me thanks for taking your time to explain !if all the critic's are all knowing ?why don't they post it and make it more understandable instead of just setting back and picking .
    Kev B
    Thanx dude, always wondered what the mystery was about but its just a simple formula, i like formulas lol Thanx for helpin the laymen
    If your in E it should be: E F# G# A B C# D# E. In the example in the lesson the 4th and 5th chord would be the Am and B-half diminished, because the scale is E Phrygian and not E major like in the example above. In short, the chord numbers match in the lesson, but the scale doesn't.
    Thanks. Checked this out as I am learning Johnny B. Goode and its a good example of a 12 bar blues rhythm. Wanted to learn a bit more.