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Basic Blues Progressions

Basic 12 bar blues progressions provide a basis for some forms of rock music, country and jazz. The blues form provides a solid foundation to learn to play tunes and to follow a song form. The structure can be used for any type of song. Blues is a style which developed in the 19th and 20th centuries based on the mood or feeling that accompanied the Black Experience in America. The variety and types of blues music in the world is truly astounding.

For blues to be blues, certain voicings (chords) and rhythms need to be sounded [for Major keys, this means Dominant type chords, as shown below]. We start with the most basic form, and will make modifications to make the 12 bar progressions more interesting [and more in line with what is most popularly utilized].

Simplest 12 Bar on Earth

basic blues 12 bar

This progression is a very basic from of the 12 bar blues. It's a whole bunch of I chords [I = the key we are playing in].


The term bar is another word for measure. Bar and measure both mean a grouping of beats. In the example above, the beat grouping is 4. There are 4 beats per measure (bar) in this exercise. Bars are created or separated by bar lines (the vertical lines).

Slash marks

The slash marks are a visual substitute for the quarter note (in 4/4 time) [not to be confused with slash chords]. Since the slash mark is a quarter note, you can also play eighth notes (strum down-up or down-down for each slash).

You can also play triplets (rounded feel of 3 strums per beat) in place of each slash [ / = trip-o-let, or 1-2-3]. To get the blues shuffle rhythm, you play triplets, but miss the middle strum [ / = trip- -let, or 1- -3]. When we do this, this is called swinging the 8ths. Try playing triplets, & swung 8ths all down strumming.

The above progression can be a blueprint or a template for 12 bar. We can play the progression in any key (any of the 12 tones can be the I).

I IV and V chords in All Keys

one four five in all keys

These are triads, but we can use Dominants as shown in our examples.

Changing bar 10 to the IV chord

After playing the simplest form of the blues, we can start making some changes. Our first change is measure 10. Going forward, we will keep any previous changes.

12 bar with IV chord in measure 10

With this change, the 10th measure is the IV chord rather than the V. This creates a bit more interest in our harmonic rhythm.

Changing bar 12 to the V chord

12 bar with V chord in measure 12

With this change, the 12th measure is the V chord rather than the I. This gets us on the path of the turnaround. A turnaround is a creative & common way to get back around to the head, or the beginning. It involves a harmonic movement which leads the player & listener back to the beginning. The turnaround typically begins in measure 11.

Quick Four or Quick Change

quick four 12 bar

With this change, we are plugged right into one of the most common 12 bar progressions, the Quick Change or Quick Four, titled for the quickness which the IV chord arrives (measure 2).

At playing gatherings, we see the Quick 4 quite often (but even with a further alteration - the complete turnaround).

It is important to listen & follow the changes of blues tunes. Blues musicians do not use only one type of 12 bar, & they use 8 & 16 bar forms. Check out the Blues Types tab on the progressions lesson. And, New Blues provides a realization for 12 bar that isn't necessarily bluesy, but riffy.

And here are some Dominant type blues chords to plug into these 12 bar progressions.