If you’re wondering what to do with that guitar you got for Christmas, then how about putting it to good use and learning to play the blues? I love blues guitar, and even after 20 years of playing, it’s a style I keep going back to and learning new things. It’s fun to play live and people love to hear it too; and the truth is, the blues just sounds good no matter how simple the chord progression or riff, which is why we’ve put together a quick guide to getting your first 12 bar blues up and running—so the next time you’re handed a guitar at a party, you’ll know exactly what to do.
12 Bar Blues Explained
The term 12 Bar Blues simply refers to the standard blues progression you’ve probably heard countless times before in tunes like SRV’s Pride and Joy, Crossroads and Strange Brew by Cream, Johnny B. Goode, most of BB King’s stuff, and tons of others, only now you know what it’s called. In its simplest form it uses three chords, which can be major, dominant 7, or even minor chords.
In this guide we’ll look at major and dominant 7 chords, and a blues in the key of E. If you play the lowest string on your guitar, the open E, then the next string, the open A, followed by the B which you’ll find at the second fret on the A string, you have the basic idea—play the E again and notice how the B resolves nicely back to the E—this is the essence of blues: tension and release!
This is what a basic 12 Bar Blues chart looks like:
We have 12 bars and three different chords. Simply count 4 beats for each bar (1-2-3-4) and make sure to tap your foot in order to internalize the rhythm. If you find you’re getting lost, then count as follows:
1-2-3-4, 2-2-3-4, 3-2-3-4, 4-2-3-4
5-2-3-4, 6-2-3-4, 7-2-3-4, 8-2-3-4
9-2-3-4, 10-2-3-4, 11-2-3-4, 12-2-3-4
Next we’ll need a few options for chord shapes to use. Check out the following shapes, the numbers below the boxes tell you where to put your fingers.
Once you’ve mastered the basic chord progression for a 12 bar blues, you’ll probably want to start improvising, or throwing in a lick here and there. Your go-to scale shape will be E Minor Pentatonic in the open position. It’s a nice pattern as you can use all the open strings.
Check out the following diagram which shows the root notes (E) in red and the other scale notes in black.
Look at the following diagram. The notes in blue are the ones you can bend. Don’t worry if you haven’t perfected bending yet as even a slight bend on these notes will make things sound a whole lot more bluesy.
If you’re a little more advanced you can go straight into the blues scale itself, which adds the ‘blue note’, the flat 5. Be sure to use it as a passing tone, as if you hang on it for too long, you’ll have people wincing. Check it out below.
If you enjoyed this introduction to the 12 bar blues, you’ll love the wide range of online courses on offer at the NYC Guitar School! Check them out here.