Premier Guitar: Essential Blues Progressions

by Mike Cramer of Premier Guitar... 

To successfully participate in a jam session, whether it’s a formal session or just some friends getting together to pick in the living room, you’ve got to know tunes—or at least the chord progressions to those tunes. This is true of any style of music, including the blues. The focus of this lesson will be on the essential chord progressions you’re expected to know as a blues rhythm guitarist. We’ll survey chord patterns that every aspiring blues guitarist needs to know, so if you’re just getting started with the blues, this lesson should serve you well.

12-Bar Blues 

 Let’s start off with the most common blues progression: the 12-bar form. Countless songs—in many styles—are based on this structure. Fig. 1 shows its basic form. Roman numerals indicate the quality of the chord (i.e., major or minor), as well as the position the chord occupies in the key. For example, if we’re in the key of A, the I chord is A, the IV chord is D, and the V chord is E. Uppercase Roman numerals indicate a major chord and lowercase Roman numerals indicate a minor chord. The benefit of learning a progression this way is it’s not locked to a specific key. This makes it easier to transpose the progression to a new key—you simply need to know the key you’ll be playing in and that becomes your I chord.

It’s common to move to the IV chord in the second measure and then back to the I chord in measure three. This is referred to as a “quick change.” If you’re jamming on a blues tune you’re unfamiliar with, keep your ears open because not all tunes employ the quick change.

A turnaround usually occurs in the 11th and 12th measures of the progression. These two measures set things up to bring you back to the top of the form. The turnaround ends with the V chord, and this creates tension. The ear wants to hear the resolution to the I chord, which it gets when the form starts over.

Now that we’ve laid the foundation for a basic 12-bar progression, let’s explore ways to embellish it. By the time we work through these variations, you’ll be able to negotiate everything from a simple blues to its jazzier adaptations. Fig. 2 shows a basic 12-bar blues with the quick change in the key of A. Both these examples serve as a starting point for the variations we’ll discuss from this point on.

Listen to fig. 2  here

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