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The 12 Bar Blues - Guitar Lesson 1

Guitar Lesson by Kirk Lorange
Difficulty Rating: Intermediate


12 Bar Blues Lesson 1 explained.

The 12 Bar Blues Lesson 2 is here
The 12 Bar Blues Lesson 3 is here

Here's a pretty basic 12 bar blues for you. You'll quickly hear that it's a very familiar sounding series of blues patterns that have been used again and again over they years, no doubt because they sound so cool that players from every generation of twangers have made sure they'd learn them and pass them on down through time. This particular version however is just another of countless variations, one that emerged from the soundbox of my old Gibson on the day. There is no one right way to play this kind of thing, so don't feel that you need to learn every little nuance and detail of my version. What you really want to try and emulate is "The Feel". I've often mention "feel" in my lessons. When it all boils down, it's really the most important ingredient in music. It's not easy to define, but it has to do with vibe, mood and emotion and is closely tied in with timing; it's the lilt, or the swing, or the grunt; it's way you attack a note and how long you let it ring on; it's the attitude. That's what you should be working on.

This one is in E which is most guitarists' favorite key. Having that open bass string there as root of the I chord is a good feeling, and having the open 5th string as root of the IV chord is just icing on the cake.

Just to quickly remind you, '12 bar blues' means that the chord progression goes for 12 measures ... it doesn't mean you have to go out on a drinking binge to a dozen clubs. There are a few standard ways to fill these 12 bars; this version uses the most basic way, which is:

4 bars of the I chord (E)
2 bars of the IV chord (A)
2 bars of the I chord (E)
1 bar of the V chord (B7)
1 bar of the IV chord (A)
1 bar of the I chord (E)
1 bar of the V chord (B7) and start again from the top. It all adds up to 12. Being the blues, each of those chords can be treated as a 7th chord. The V chord comes by its 7th extension naturally, the I and IV chords had the 7th added artificially -- by the players who first started writing this kind of music and didn't quite know the rules -- and it's this that makes it the blues.

From the top

I start out with an very familiar sounding riff that is a double stop (two notes played at once) moving down to a chord. The double stop consists of a 5 and b7 of an E chord, so right off the bat you're hearing that flat seven sound and you instantly know it's the blues. Notice that I slide into some of them from a semitone below ... more blues; notice that every once in a while I grab that thin string (which is a root) and let it ring while I continue milking that double stop; notice that my thumb keeps twanging that bass string (another root) on the beat, every beat. It's the pulse, keeping time. Notice that I'm choking that bass note off with the heel of my picking hand to keep the notes short and thick. Notice the little hammer-on when I get to the full E chord. That's a movement up from the flat 3 of E to the 3 ... more blues. Notice that when I repeat the first 2 measures, it's not quite an identical copy. That would be boring. Notice that when I strum the little E chord in bar 2 I'm muting the three thin strings to keep them quiet. Why? because I just want to hear a compact and bassy E chord there ... no other reason.

Bar 5 goes to the IV chord , the A, and here I let it open up a bit. I let most of the bass notes ring a bit including the bass notes, but notice that I snap the last one in bar 5 ... I'm not suggesting that you religiously follow that, but keep it in mind. It's the contrast and surprise that's effective in keeping the listener interested, and that's just one little example of that kind of thing. This again is a very '7th' section. I'm picking through a A7th chord and ending each arpeggio with a high G note on the 1st string ... another flat 7. The exact pattern of the picking isn't really vital but you'll find some work better that others. Again, it's the feel of the picking that's important, not so much the notes or sequence.

Bar 7 goes back to the I chord and I resume the shorter more muffled approach I set up at the beginning. The blues teaches you the tune in the first 4 bars, then goes away for a couple, then lets you know that you did indeed learn the tune by repeating it back to you. I introduce these two bars with a really quick strum of a full E chord -- not an E7 -- just to remind your ears what the center of tonality is: E.

Bar 9 goes to the V chord ... lets our ears know that an ending to the progression is imminent; bar 10 drops to the IV chord, but I keep the bass line going up by moving to a C# note, which is the 3 of the A chord. I also leave the B string open, turning the A7 into a A9, so in effect I'm playing A9/C# there ... more blues.

Bar 11 returns to the I chord but instead of going back to the initial pattern, I do a little chordal run-down. Even though I indicated 'E7' for the full bar in the movie, it really is E7 to E diminished to B7b9 to E ... you can see why I didn't bother switching between them. This passage is a very familiar blues sound.

Bar 12 starts on E then quickly goes to the V chord (B7) so you know that the whole sequence is about to end and start over again.

I think the best way to work on this is to get that thumb happening first. You should really be positive about the bass line. As simple as it may seem at first, keeping that steady pulse going throughout, without wavering, can be pretty tricky to nail. Once you do, though, you can add whatever you want above it and so long as that pulse keeps pulsating, you'll be playing the blues.

So that's it ... have fun with this. The various chord shapes, of course, are all moveable and will apply to any key. Some of the bits an pieces -- like the main double-stop riff -- will be with you forever more if you play the blues. They can be inverted, juggled around, tweaked, bent and warped into countless variations.

The tab below is pretty much exactly what I played in the video, but I'll say it one more time: don't get too hung up on reproducing my version. Get that feel happening; get part of your brain to be in the audience so you can listen to yourself while you play and make sure you're conveying that bluesy vibe.
Now let's try The 12 Bar Blues Lesson 2


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A big thanks in advance, Kirk Lorange