12-Bar Blues

Fender American Standard Stratocaster Neck

I can’t think of a better time to write about something than in the middle of the night. Been pondering the need to describe the main structure of the Blues when it comes to guitar, but I didn’t quite feel like I had an entire grip on it and ended up pushing back for quite a while.

As I was rotating between learning some licks and conquering the feel behind BG’s “Damn Right I got the Blues”, I realized that I finally understood how the Twelve-Bar Blues works, what it is and how I would’ve explained it. For me, it took a loooooong time until Professor George W. Russell Jr. managed to get it all to make sense during one of his exceptionally engaging music courses. Much gratitude.

I had difficulties in comprehending the concept of the 12-Bar Blues, and figured there is some other poor boy who is getting discouraged from being confused. I lacked the structure and started at the end instead of patiently learning from the foundation.


I (Dominant 7th Chord) 4 bars of First “My baby gone left me…” 

I believe that the main reason behind my slow learning was the lack of structure in my music education. Therefore I found myself wasting a lot of time learning all sorts of random things and missing the key points instead of starting at the beginning.

Any song has structure and it is built of measures. These measures are called “bars” and each song consists of a number of these bars. Blues music, in its prime form consists of twelve measures and therefore is called “12 Bar Blues”. It is not the only way the Blues can be played. There is also 8, 16 bar Blues but that will come later. When you get a grip on it, you will realize that this pattern can be found in many forms of modern western music.

You will need to know the names of guitar chords, you will need to pick the one that will be your tonal center (the root one to build an entire song around), you will need to learn dominant 7th chords that look like “A7”, “B7” etc. on the sheet and you will need to understand what is an octave.

A single bar can be divided by the number of beats. If you are playing alone, try paying attention to the beats of your foot and counting them. Imagine that each four stomps means one bar until you reach twelve and remember how it goes.

White Stripes – Ball And Biscuit


Guitar Chord Names/Octave

The playing of one single Twelve Bar Blues Progression comes in two halves of 12 bars each. So in total it actually makes up for 24. It’s most basic form (let’s go with the key of E) would be playing the 12 bars of story, then playing the 12 bars of resolve with turnaround. See if the stuff below helps:

We going for tom tom tum tum tom tom tum tum tom tom tum tum and so on on… 2 bottom strings – E,A are strummed together throughout the first 4 “sets” while you hold an open E5 chord.

I woke up this morning  (E5 to OpenE/C#) 4 Sets
Feeling a little Blue (E5 to OpenE/C#) 4 Sets
Oh I woke up this morning (A5 to OpenA/F) 4 Sets
Feeling so damn Blue – IV (E5 to OpenE/C#) 4 Sets
My woman left me – V (B5 – Putting pinky on the 4th string G) 2 Sets
She didnt cook me nothing too – VI (A5 – OpenA/F) 2 Sets
Turnaround before you start over – 4 Sets

IV (Dominant 7th Chords) 2 bars of Fourth “My baby gone left me…” 

The very basic info that you need to know is that there are 7 primary names for guitar chords and they are E-F-G-A-B-C-D. There are flats and sharps in between but for the sake of underwhelming you, we will ignore them for now. You should also view these letter chords as numbers 1-2-3-4-5-6-7. Your E will be 1 and your B will be 5. You can start with any chord letter and it will become your tonal center or your root note. If you start with the most common C-D-E-F-G-A-B, you will have a C = 1 as your root, G = 5 and so on. It get easy very fast.

The same principal works with notes since they are named the same as the chords. A distance between notes is called an interval and each 8th note in the order is a start-over, making it look like E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E-F-G…etc. The range between two of the same notes is called an octave because there will always be 8 intervals between E and E, A and A, G and G and so on. The distance between two of the same notes in different pitch is called an octave.

So if I was to tell you that you are supposed to play a “1”, a “4” and a “5” with a root note of “E”, you would know to play E-A-B. This is because E1-F-G-A4B5-C-D-E. Luckily for us, I-IV-V is exactly the structure that is used in playing the Twelve Bar Blues.

Clarence Gatemouth – Somebody Else


Chord Structure

I (Dominant 7th Chords) 2 bars of First again

As mentioned above, the structure of a 12 Bar Blues is a I (1) – IV (4) – V (5). This means that if I start with root note/chord of E, I will then follow with A and B further down the song.

The 7th Dominant Chords are traditionally considered best-sounding for Blues Guitar and the 12 Bar structure. They are so Delta… After learning all the names of the notes, all the notes on the neck and at least the basic open and barre chords, these 7th are a great thing to add to your knowledge pool and a must for us to continue our journey in search of Blues Guitar. The chords used in it are the dominant 7th’s and should not be confused with Major 7th or any other 7th. When you will look for them, it will be the ones with just a letter and a number “7” e.g. A7. It does not mean that you can’t play any other chords instead so do try all of them. Here’s a list of a few for you to experiment with:

A list of different dominant 7th guitar Blues chords

This is where the whole 12 bars concept comes in play and this is how it traditionally looks:

The structure of the basic twelve bar blues form

Imagine that each slash “/” is one strum and it will make things easier. You play your root (E) for the first 4 bars, then your fourth chord (A) for two bars, move to the root (E) for two more, play your fifth (B) chord for two, fourth chord (A) for two and turn back around to the beginning. In other words you play your root note then you play your next chord for twice less and move to your first chord for the same amount. Afterwards you resolve your whole thing with the last of three chords, repeat the second one and start from the beginning.

This is where I got lost a lot and had a number of questions which no one seemed to answer. For example, why in the name of all that’s holy, the structure that is supposed to be a I-IV-V is in reality a I-I-IV-I-V-IV-I? Well, It’s the same as the two-semi tones in our CDEFGABC, it’s just there and there to be memorized. You can create an infinite variety of Blues patterns after memorizing this basic structure and you can insert any of the chords as your root, ultimately making it even more unique. After learning the foundation, embellishments will follow with inserting small licks in between or instead your chords, replacing your basic A7 with any chord in the pattern and writing the next “Satisfaction” which is a 12 bar but with notes instead of chords.

12 Bar Blues

V (Dominant 7th Chords) 2 bars of Fifth “I gave her my heart but she be searching for a fee…”

At this point, I truly hope that the basic concept has been delivered and you are jamming to your first soul-mending Blues. As you will progress in your understanding of the 12 bar, you will start adding your own notes in between the chords and your own embellishments. Keep going! The variety of these progressions is endless and it can be modified to any preference or tone. If you lend an ear to the old Blues records, you will find that most of them are based on this basic three chord progression with a couple of tricks added to them. It really isn’t hard to master and it will help you greatly when your friends will offer you a social gathering in a form of a good old Blues jam. If you are still having troubles, try learning about it from different sources like 12Bar.de or free online videos on YouTube that are swamped with different kinds of it. I tried but was overwhelmed at first and ultimately discouraged.

Albert King – Blue Suede Shoes

I have one thing and one thing to ask of you:

Keep the feel in mind when you learn the Blues. Experiment, don’t follow examples and pick what you would love listening to. In a short time, everyone will learn your stuff if you have patience.

Blues music isn’t hard to play but it did not influence the world and history through being played alone. It was felt and it can still be felt in the records of old and new guitarists, in the solo of young and wise and in the hearts of good men feeling bad.

Focus on the feel of it and keep in mind that the Blues is what will give you strength, playing it will give you much needed rest, will show you love, will be a loyal friend and make your fears turn into your courage, make your dreams turn into reality and make you look back with a sincere smile and know that you did not waste the life that was given to you. You lived and felt and that is all that matters. Twelve Bar Blues is a logical form of the Blues progression and should be experimented with as much as possible. Try turning everything upside down, twisting your fingers, changing key and adding your own things to it. That is the Blues for you – playing what you feel.

Blues Children of Chicago in 1941

IV (Dominant 7th Chords) 2 bars of Fourth and start all over again… 

Make Some Noise