Blues Turnaround Riffs...

The "Blues Turnaround" is probably one of the most popular sounding set of chord changes we have in the blues style. Often cited in the earliest blues numbers, the turnaround chord changes will define the blues structure and anchor the accepted framework of the chord movements back to the top of the progression.

Used most commonly in the accompaniment chord arrangement of the 12-Bar Blues (format) progression, the turnaround uses the 5th, 4th and Tonic chords to flip the progression around to the top. The common idea used most often is one of simply playing through the typical full chords applied to measures 9, 10, 11,and 12 (of the 12-bar blues).

In the key of, "A", this harmony would evolve from the ninth measure of the 12-bar blues, moving from the fifth chord of, "E7," to the, "D7," chord down into the Tonic of, "A7," and finally wrap-up on the fifth chord of the cycle once again, (E7), in measure twelve. The movements are simple enough to learn and offer us a lot of room to play around with all kinds of ideas.

Many guitar students will often learn to apply "turnaround licks" to this set of chord changes, (generally starting at measure eleven). Everything from sixth interval lines to pedal point ideas are used to produce these classic sounding turnaround lick concepts. If you are unfamiliar with these 'turnaround lick' ideas, spend a few minuets reviewing my video on, "Blues Turnaround Licks," below...

There ate two main differences between a "Turnaround Lick" and a "Turnaround Riff." The first is that the riff will apply a greater amount of harmony and less single-note line elements than turnaround licks. The second is that the turnaround lick will operate off of measure eleven and the riffs will operate from measure nine.

Check out example one below. This turnaround riff applies 3-note chord shapes formatted between the upper four guitar strings. The riff also uses the extended style Dominant 9th chords on the V and IV chords harmonic degrees.

Listen to the audio clip for example one first, then practice the part until it feels comfortable to play smoothly at a decent tempo.


In example two, the riff is duplicated from chord to chord across measures; 9, 10, 11 and 12. The idea follows the intervals of each chord along every measure. This allows for a tight fit between the harmony of the original chord set and of the riff. Work on the parts slowly and try to pluck the strings with either using fingerstyle guitar technique or by using, "Hybrid Picking." The part could also be performed with a plectrum as well, however string muting would be paramount in order to produce the cleanest possible sound.

Prior to study of the riff, listen to the audio clip for example two first. Then practice the part until it feels comfortable to play smoothly at a decent tempo.


In example three, I have a riff that begins from a double-stop (two note chord) idea in every measure. Then the riff applies a short scale run from the Pentatonic scale. This repeating riff concept is applied into each chords principle chord tones. The result is a riff that ties itself very closely to the intervals which establish every chord across the turnaround measures. The dominant 9th chord is used once again in measure twelve to wrap up the phrase.

Prior to study of the riff, listen to the audio clip for example three first. Then practice the part until it feels comfortable to play smoothly at a decent tempo.


As you can tell, these turnaround riffs are applying all types of scalar and harmonic ideas. The use of; inversions, leading tones, double-stops, target tones, similar patterns, phrasing techniques, (slides, hammer-ons and pull-offs, etc.), and string-set groups are all being applied. These concepts along with varied rhythm concepts all come together to create the unique approach we find used to build these kinds of phrases.

When practicing and composing your own original riffs, take your time to test different chord tones and be sure you are happy with the way everything connects. Also, test out different playing approaches like strumming, flat-picked and hybrid style. For different riffs, you may find that a different playing approach will ultimately work best for maximum efficiency.

Thanks for checking out this week's Blogger post. I hope you enjoy these ideas!
- Andrew Wasson