How to Play Twelve Bar Blues

Two Parts:Learning the Basic ProgressionPlaying 12-Bar Blues Riffs and Solos

The twelve bar blues progression is perhaps the most common chord progression in American music. Every group of musicians is familiar with the twelve bar blues, and its ubiquity means that anyone can jump into the fray instantly and know exactly where the song is going.

Note: While not strictly necessary, this is much easier to learn if you have a basic grasp of music theory.

Part 1
Learning the Basic Progression

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    Focus on learning the progression in one key to get used to the sound and movement. The twelve bar blues are a chord progression -- a set structure of movement to build a blues song. Thus learning the form in one place completely makes it easy to transpose to any key. For example, you could memorize the chords in the key of E, then worry about getting other keys later on. For this tutorial, stick to E. The standard blues progression has only three chords -- the I, the IV, and the V, where the starting cord (the I) is an E. The fourth chord (IV) is an A, and the five chord (V) is a B.
    • If the Roman numerals are confusing you can just ignore them. They correspond to the number of the note in the major scale -- the first, fourth, and fifth note. The fourth note of the E-major scale is an A, the fifth a B.
    • Make sure you know at least the major scale and the minor penatonic scale before continuing.
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    Set a metronome to 4/4 time, at a speed you can comfortably play along with. The twelve bar blues is simply a set chord pattern played in 4/4 time, which is the most common time signature in music -- turn on any radio song and count "1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, 1..." if you need help getting a feel for it. One bar is this count from 1-4, so the twelve bar blues is a progression of 12 of these counts.
    • Metronomes are essential practice tools, as they help you time up your transitions where they should be and get used to the twelve bars, exactly.
    • Bars are also called "measures."
    • A good practice speed for beginners is 60 BPM or so.
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    Play the I chord for four bars to kick off the progression. For example, keeping the blues in E, you would start with four bars of an E. Simply strum it, keeping count, for four bars.
    • For a bigger, more bluesy sound you can play 7th chords, like an E7. For now, however, just focus on the progression.
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    Play the IV chord for two bars, then return to the I chord for two bars. Slide off your E and head to the A, which is the fourth chord in the key of E. Then return to the E for two more bars.
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    Play one bar of the V chord. You hit the V chord, here a B, once after the first eight bars are done. This is the beginning of the "turnaround," or the end of the twelve bars.
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    Play one bar of the IV, the I, and the V again to get back to the beginning. The ending a twelve bar blues is called the turnaround. You run quickly through every chord, hit the V one last time, and then start over. In the case of E major, you want to play one measure of B, A, E, and then a final B.
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    Return to four bars of the I chord and repeat. Once you get through all twelve bars you're back at the beginning. Just keep repeating the same pattern to keep your song rolling. This is the twelve bar blues in E. As long as you can figure out the intervals between the I, IV, and V using the major scale (remember, the 4th note of the scale is the IV chord), you can now play the blues in every key.
    • For example, in the key of A you would play A(I), D(IV), E(V).
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    Use the "shuffle" or swing feel when strumming. Most songs in 4/4 are "straight." This means that on every count (1, 2, 3, 4) you strum the guitar once. But the blues has a shuffle rhythm, or a swing step, that uses a quickly alternated up-down strumming pattern. Think of playing with the rhythm, "1 and, 2 and, 3 and, 4 and, 1 and..." You strum down on the "one" with a long stroke, then a quick upstroke on the "and." The final rhythm has a long-short, shuffling feel to it.
    • Listen to some old B.B. Kind or Muddy Waters, to hear the shuffle-strum in action. Not how it keeps the song moving forward, even on slower, sadder songs.

Part 2
Playing 12-Bar Blues Riffs and Solos

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    Play the root note of each chord at the beginning of the measure to keep the progression alive. If you want to play something a little more unique than straight chords you can pick up a riff that follows the chord progression. To keep the classic twelve-bar melody alive, you want to start each bar on the appropriate chord. If the chord is the I chord, here an E, you want the first note played in the measure to be an E. From here you can then improvise or play around to get new sounds on the 12-bar blues.
    • The following riff will continue in the key of E, and is a good example of how to add new notes and riffs to the basic blues. That said, feel free to take these licks and improvise on them to make them unique.
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    Start with two quick strums of the E power chord. You're going to kick things off exactly how you started the basic pattern. Turn the metronome on, and use the shuffle rhythm to count out a "1 and," on the E chord.
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    Place your ring finger two frets down, on the A, and strum two more quick strums. Simply stretch your ring finger down two frets and do the exact same pattern for "2 and." You want to keep your index finger down, so that whenever you pick the A up you're right back to your original E power chord. Putting it all together, you should end up with half a bar of alternating notes.
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    Keep alternating the E and A for four full bars. You'll play each note twice in each bar. If you were counting it out, it would sound like: "E and, A and, E and, A and..." Complete this for four bars.
    • This is exactly the same amount of time you'd play the I chord, or the E, in a normal twelve-bar chord progression.
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    Drop down one string to the A-chord after four bars. Again, you want to change chords at the exact time as the original twelve-bar progression learned above. Use your index finger to create the A power chord just like you created the E.
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    Again, place your ring finger two frets down and alternate every beat for two measures. Land your ring finger two frets down to the D. Play the quick up and down rhythm for "2 and," then release the ring finger back to the A on your index finger. Play this for another four bars.
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    Return to the E power chord pattern for two bars. Again, this is just like the original progression, which went E-E-E-E-A-A-E-E-B-A-E-B.
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    Add your ring finger one string down and two frets over to go from the E to a B. After your two bars of E, it's time to hit the V chord again, here a B. To get to a basic B power chord, simply add your ring finger two frets down, one string over. Like the rest of the measures, you'll strum this for a quick "1 and" before modifying it.
    • Use your second finger, when possible, to get to the 4th fret -- it will make the next step much easier.
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    Use your pinky to stretch all the way to the sixth fret on the G string. For E and A, you had to stretch two frets down with a second finger. But, since you're already using two fingers for the B, you need to stretch your pinky way down to the sixth fret to get the same alternating effect as the other two chords.
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    Use this alternating, two-note pattern through all three measures of the turnaround. Instead of hitting the next A chord, hit the A-D alternating chord. Then the pattern you started with for the E, followed by the A and a last run at the B. Basically you are using this riff in the place of the actual chords, simply using the first note (which always matches the twelve bar blues) to imply the basic structure and melody.
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    Add in some palm muting, the pentatonic scale, and mixed up rhythms for the second half of each bar for a unique riffing and solo style. Palm muting is placing the fatty part of your strumming hand lightly on the strings at the bottom of the guitar, making them sound dull and percussive. The minor pentatonic scale, often known as the blues scale, is a collection of notes perfect for any blues song, and you can add them in the last half of each bar for some blazing licks. And, while the shuffle rhythm is classic blues, the turnaround often features harder, more dramatic strumming, or even softer, lighter strums, depending on the mood. Either way, it is a good place to change things up.


  • The blues take a lifetime to learn and master. While this is a good place to start, you need to experiment, improvise, and keep learning to truly play the blues.
  • Don't get discouraged if you can't play a solo up to speed with all the chord changes; just take it easy to start and practice until you get really comfortable with it.
  • It is better to play along with a drummer or metronome so you have a beat to go along with.


  • Don't get discouraged. Keep practicing. It will come.

Things You'll Need

  • An instrument.
  • Partner (for soloing) (optional)
  • Rhythm background tape (optional).

Article Info

Categories: Music Techniques