Blues In Depth

Wanna' learn about the blues? This lesson is an in-depth experience behind the mechanics of the blues. It should take you from beginner blues, to night-club playing in no-time!

Blues In Depth
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01. 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.

02. 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 writtenon standard notation like this:
E E  =  Q   E
|-3-|
Shuffle is kind of hard to explain using words, but much easier using your ear; I'll try both. 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.
|-------------------0-----|
|-------------0---2---3/5-|
|-----2b3-0h1---1---------|
|---2---------------------|
|-------------------------|
|-0-----------------------|

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.

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.

03. 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 beEmaj (I),Amaj (2), andBmaj (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:
I   I   I   I
IV IV I I
V IV I V
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 barblues, and doesn't haveas 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 chordslike: E7, E7#9, E9, E11, E13, etc. for dominant chords. The use of the dominant chordsadd 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.

Quick-Change. 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.

04. 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 thiscase D# to E) in a blues riff context. The bolded note is the major 7 used over the I chord conservatively:
|------------------|
|------------------|
|-----9-9-7-7--7h8-|
|------------------|
|-7-7--------------|
|------------------|
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.

05. 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
|-----0-|--3b-------------|
|-0h2---|--2b-------------|
|-------|-----------------|
|-------|-----------------|
|-------|-----------------|
|-------|-----------------|
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.

06. 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 musicalgenre the V chord is the best chord to resolve back to the tonic with becausethe 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]B[/b] C

C (I): C E G
G (V): G [b]B[/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...

07. 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)
|----------------------|------------------|
|----------------------|--------7---------|
|----------------------|-------7----------|
|------7-----7-----7---|-7----6-----------|
|-0--4---4-5---5-6---6-|-7---7------------|
|----------------------|------------------|

C G9
|----------------|------------------|
|----------------|-----4\3----------|
|----3-----------|-----3\2----------|
|--------7-7-6-6-|-5---4\3----------|
|-/3---3-3-3-3-3-|-3----------------|
|----------------|------------------|

E E B7
|------0-----0-----0----|-----------2------|
|-----------------------|-----------0------|
|---/4-----3-----2------|-1---------2------|
|-----------------------|-----------1------|
|---/5-----4-----3------|-2---0-1-2-2------|
|-0------0-----0------0-|------------------|

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

08. 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 basedoff of the C majorscale though. So, fora 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.

09. 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 getstuck, and want to try something new.
8 Bar Blues

I7 V7 IV7 IV7
I7 V7 I7 V7

or

I7 I7 IV7 IV7
I7 V7 I7 V7

--------
[b]16 Bar Blues[/b]

I I I I7
IV7 IV7 I I7
IV7 IV7 I I
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!

91 comments sorted by best / new / date

comments policy
    Edge_Rocks
    Pigfeets Dupree wrote: BLIND MISSISSIPPI WHITE BOY PIGFEETS DUPREE Strat Man, you gots a hole in your sole daddy. Can we say boring. Man the blues ain,t all dat. you either gots dem or you don,t. So all you bland wannabe partime burnt out melonheads wake up. it aint all that 1 4 5 tunaround. it,s all about the feeling. John Lee Hooker said it best You got to let that boy boogie woogie cause its in..... and its got to come out. Man you talkin straight uptight rhymin simon type stuff. Come down to Basin st. at about fo in da mornin then you know what the blues is. Build on minor pentotonics, throw out every thing you know about theory, and let the bon temps rollez. just got to flow. feel the groove. Hit the pocket rocket and let the mind take off and your fingers guide your soul. then pass around some solo's an fine out who got a hole in da sole and who hurtin way deep down. IT AIN'T ABOUT 4 CHORDS, ITS ABOUT HEART. IF YOU GOT TO BE TAUGHT OR YOU DON,T KNOW WHO BUKKA WHITE OR HUBERT SUNLIN WAS DEN STAY ON DA PORCH AND WATCH THE DOWN DOGS HOWL. BULLFROG SITTIN ON A HOLLA STUMP, GOT SO MANY WOMEN DONT KNOW WHEN TO JUMP. I GUARANTEE. YOU AIN,T ALLTHAT CAT. Sorry to treat you so rough. you wanna learn look me up. BLIND MISSISSIPPI WHITE BOY PIGFEETS DUPREE.
    LOL yes, thats right, everyone throw away all their theory knowledge. Clearly no one should learn how to express themselves intelligently on a guitar, or listen to the genious of some guy who feels kind enough to share his knowledge of the blues to the entire world. I bet you never read a note in your life and are proud of it. Then if I asked you to play me 2 hours of music youd Id hear MAYBE 15-20 rifs.. if that, repeated over and over again in random sequences. Stuff like this makes me sick... If you're only learning the rifs, you're only learning half the music, and you're guaranteed to never be an original. Amazing Lessons Man, You Know Your Stuff.
    zObiPhiOn
    Pigfeets Dupree wrote: BLIND MISSISSIPPI WHITE BOY PIGFEETS DUPREE Strat Man, you gots a hole in your sole daddy. Can we say boring. Man the blues ain,t all dat. you either gots dem or you don,t. So all you bland wannabe partime burnt out melonheads wake up. it aint all that 1 4 5 tunaround. it,s all about the feeling. John Lee Hooker said it best You got to let that boy boogie woogie cause its in..... and its got to come out. Man you talkin straight uptight rhymin simon type stuff. Come down to Basin st. at about fo in da mornin then you know what the blues is. Build on minor pentotonics, throw out every thing you know about theory, and let the bon temps rollez. just got to flow. feel the groove. Hit the pocket rocket and let the mind take off and your fingers guide your soul. then pass around some solo's an fine out who got a hole in da sole and who hurtin way deep down. IT AIN'T ABOUT 4 CHORDS, ITS ABOUT HEART. IF YOU GOT TO BE TAUGHT OR YOU DON,T KNOW WHO BUKKA WHITE OR HUBERT SUNLIN WAS DEN STAY ON DA PORCH AND WATCH THE DOWN DOGS HOWL. BULLFROG SITTIN ON A HOLLA STUMP, GOT SO MANY WOMEN DONT KNOW WHEN TO JUMP. I GUARANTEE. YOU AIN,T ALLTHAT CAT. Sorry to treat you so rough. you wanna learn look me up. BLIND MISSISSIPPI WHITE BOY PIGFEETS DUPREE.
    I agree that you need feeling, but first you need at least a bit of technique and theory; even with the best feeling in the world, if you play random notes its just going to sound awful. Anyways, you can't really explain feeling in a lesson, this was about theory. Anyways, really good lesson!
    Icebolt
    fishergirl106 wrote: Actually, by AAB, he doesnt mean the rhyme pattern at all. he means that the first line (A) is repeated twice, then there is a different line to finish it(B). thus the lyrical structure is AAB, not the rhyme pattern.
    Fishergirl is right, full stop people.
    hicksman
    yeah man...ive been playin for almost 3 months now, can flow through the pentatonic nice and this article is openin my eyes and helping the creativity along...i can have all the emotion in the world but if i am not aware of how to let it out on the fretboard nothins happenin wit all that emotion. appreciate it man, rock out
    fishergirl106
    I_Dont_Know wrote: Nosf3ratu wrote: Good article, but: 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. That's entirely incorrect. It would be AAA, because all three lines RHYME. It has nothing to do with the lines being the same. A better example: Went to see my baby in Tenessee, Spent my last few coins on gas Get there, she don't wanna see me, so I feel like an ass. That would be ABAB. no because the me rhymes it would be more complicated
    actually, by AAB, he doesnt mean the rhyme pattern at all. he means that the first line (A) is repeated twice, then there is a different line to finish it(B). thus the lyrical structure is AAB, not the rhyme pattern.
    hicksman
    if only i could figure out how to play a freakin B chord! i know the fingering, but damn, any help is appreciated
    smurfsatemyshoe
    hicksman, if you're struggling with the B, then i'm assuming that you're trying to play it as a barre chord at the second fret, which is freakin hard. What I'd suggest is either trying to play the 2nd 3rd and 4th strings with one finger (ring finger) or just playing the E major barre shape at the 7th fretm giving you an easier alternative for a B. Fantastic lesson, shame about all the opinionated posts about the bloody lyrical structur bit, its just an example to illustrate a point damnit, cheers stratman
    TominatioN
    Yo dude forget all the bit-chin' that was a wicked article. yeah blues, metal, jazz its all about expressing emotion and feeling but you can't do that without some of the basic tools - i only learned the pentatonic scales and add in chromatic notes to get the bluesy sounds or the 12bar blues notes and you can use theese but its great to know all of this structure and stuff. erm ive probably lost you as i have myself so i think ill quietly excuse myself.....
    zerohero
    I think guitared was right about playing the blues by feelings. I also think its good to know theory to make your music more dynamic.
    elliano
    Very informative lesson. Thanks for taking the time to write it and share it with everyone.
    Lazarus Draven
    Cool!...But A little Hard For me To swallow tho....i'm a beginner so i dun really know watchamacallit standard 12 bar blues.
    green boy
    when i started reading this lesson i thought the blues were about wallpaper...now i kno much more..thaks a million dude
    noahray
    If you really got the blues, and you're a decent musician, you will play the blues. If not, you will get confused and settle for Emo instead. And BTW he wasn't analysing the lyrics like you would analyze a stanza out of sonnet, he was analyzing the musical schematics, as these lines would be representative of two different rhythms/ in this case progressions I.E E 022100 E7 022130 B7 021202 Em13 xxx223 E E7 E E7 When I was in Missouri, would not let me be, E E7 E E7 When I was in Missouri, would not let me be, B7~ Em13 Wouldn't rest content, till I came to Tennessee. This is not a lesson in analyzing literature, but rather in making sweet blues music that will keep you rockin through divorce, lost dogs, drunken hazes, sleepless nights, pennyless days, you know.
    I_Dont_Know
    Nosf3ratu wrote: Good article, but: 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. That's entirely incorrect. It would be AAA, because all three lines RHYME. It has nothing to do with the lines being the same. A better example: Went to see my baby in Tenessee, Spent my last few coins on gas Get there, she don't wanna see me, so I feel like an ass. That would be ABAB.
    no because the me rhymes it would be more complicated
    dawiese
    Sweet Man! So when you said one...and two...and three... the first song that came to mind was LaGrange . No I understand. Thanks StratMan
    Cream-fan-#1
    SamboSkull wrote: Nosf3ratu, you are without doubt the biggest imbocele ever, it is AAB, he was right. I do music at college, and I can tell you now, he IS right. Douche. Sweet tutorial Strat-Man, I luuurv those blues. And BTW, if anyone wants help finding a song with the 'shuffle' rhythm, listen to 'George Thoroughgood - Bad to the Bone' Keep up the good work, there ought to be more like this on UG.
    no... its AAA, also its imbecile... Might I suggest you pay more attention in your lectures then you MIGHT be able to figure out the rhyme you douche
    dotele
    Hey man good lesson thanks for your effort some will learn some won't You can lead a blind pigfeet to water but he won't drink cause he be too busy flappin he gums.keep it coming
    MaryburghNo.1
    Good article you speak sense about the beat of a typical blues song the one...and two all that stuff makes alot of sense help me to understand it better thanks
    Darkblast
    Brilliant! Thanx, dude. Im gonna play myself some blues now! I learnt a lot!
    hyper000
    Thank you! this lesson it's been very helpful, basic but very well stated. keep it up!
    slowlybilly
    I like to play blues in key...still sounds bluesy to me if you just use your 3rd and 7th scale degrees for accent instead of the out of key notes, and then run modes for simple melodies....but all in the same key...almost always.
    edgeyyz
    boldaslove wrote: good article, but Pigfeets Dupree has a major point.
    yes, nut he could have explained it better and not seemed douchebagish
    zekk
    Great lesson on the theory of the blues. Now weither the people who read it can put it with their soul is outta your hands
    stratman45us
    nice but you cant teach the blues its inner soul music.you have to play from deep inside.nice job dude.
    manplusvan
    If I ever need to be operated on by a surgeon, I hope he / she is in the right frame of mind. Personally, it's more important to me that he/she has been to Medical School.
    Boogerman_02
    good lesson bro, i'm on the fence with this whole argument though with this PigFeets guy, he makes a valid point that the blues comes from the heart and is based on feeling and playing what you feel and what sounds good but i think you need some theory i.e. scales and chord progressions to back it up. i personally had to learn a little theory and shit before i could really make any of the blues i was trying to play sound good, and thats every guitarist that ever lived ok? don't be stupid, everybody knows the basic theory of the style they play in. i couldn't tell you what notes are in a i, iv, v chord progression in Eb but i know the scale pattern that would sound good to solo over the top of it. Then you can feel it and play what sounds good and feels good, don't be a dick saying that theres no theory, cuz there is and you know it, whether you learned it from some little bluesman sitting on the corner or from a book it's the same shit and don't think it ain't!
    Funkyfreako
    Gorgerous lesson... i'll look forward to going throug it when i've learned my theory (noob i am)..
    Scorched Black
    Just as everybody else has said, Great Job, and thank you for dedicating your time for this, we all really appreciate it.
    tinroof
    I've just printed out your lesson and am looking forward to getting stuck in straightaway!
    south_dude
    undefined wrote: undefined
    I think that lyrical system is diferent in blues. Blues are about building tension and releasing it. What strat_man tried to explain is that in lines A he was building up the tension and in line B it resolves the conflict from previous lines