Blues is one of the most influential styles of music in the world. Since its birth in the Deep South of the United States in the late 19th century, blues music spread across the USA and around the world, inspiring guitarists, singers, and other musicians with its swampy rhythms and soulful melodies.
In fact, every rock band in the world owes its existence to those original bluesmen, whether the music they play is “bluesy” or not. If early rock guitarists like Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and others hadn’t listened to blues guitarists like Robert Johnson, Fred McDowell, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and so on, rock and roll would have never existed.
But let’s not focus on history too much… instead, let’s keep the tradition of blues alive by playing it. There are just a few simple things you need to know before you start, but after you get these things down, you’ll be well on your way to playing your own original and authentic blues songs. Plus, knowing this trick will help you play songs in every style
... so let’s get started!
1. Blues music follows a simple chord progression
There are exceptions to this (such as 8, 16, and 24 bar blues), but most blues songs follow a “12 bar” (or 12 measure) chord progression, which I’ll show you below. Don’t freak out if you don’t understand it, just take a look, then I’ll explain everything below.
To make it easier to remember, I’m going to break up the 12 bars into 3 sections of 4 bars each. Here’s the first section:
I - I - I - I
Yes, that’s the letter “I” there, but read it like a Roman numeral: “one, one, one, one.” Got it? Alright, on to the second section:
IV - IV - I - I
Reading that as Roman numerals, that would be “four, four, one, one.” And here’s the third section, which is called the “turnaround”:
V - IV - I - V
The turnaround goes “five, four, one, five.” And after that, the whole thing starts over again:
I - I - I - I
IV - IV - I - I
V - IV - I - V
Once you memorize this simple chord progression, you can play the blues in any key.
“But wait,” you may be thinking. “Those are numbers, not chords. What am I supposed to do with numbers?”
Those numbers represent the major chords of a key. So, for example, if you’re playing in the key of A, the I chord is A, the IV chord is D, and the V chord is E. Which means, a 12 bar blues in the key of A would look like this:
A - A - A - A
D - D - A - A
E - D - A - E
...and you can use the chords from any key in the 12 bar blues progression. For the key of G you’d use G, C, and D, for the key of D you’d use D, G, and A, and so on. But for now, let’s just stick with blues in the key of A.
And let’s talk about how long to play each chord, too. Each “bar” or measure gets played for a “four count.” So for the first section, you could count it out like this:
“A, two, three, four, A, two, three, four, A, two, three, four, A, two, three, four...”
The second section would go like this:
“D, two, three, four, D, two, three, four, A, two, three, four, A, two, three, four...”
And the turnaround would go like this:
“E, two, three, four, D, two, three, four, A, two, three, four, E, two, three, four...”
...and then it starts all over again. Most blues songs follow this chord progression or one very similar to it, and it just repeats over and over again through the verses and the solo sections.
So first off, you need to memorize this chord progression. Next up, I’m going to show you how to find the IV and V chords in any key with barre chords.
2. Using barre chords to find the IV and V chords
As I mentioned above, you can use the 12 bar blues progression to play blues in any key. I talked about a 12 bar blues progression in the key of A (where A is the I chord, D is the IV, and E is the V), and also the keys of G (G, C, D) and D (D, G, A).
If you’ve studied chords any, you might know a little about keys. For the keys listed above, you can play 12 bar blues with open chords if you want.
But for right now, we’re going to play blues in the key of A using barre chords. If you have a guitar handy, pick it up and make the chords as you read, but if you don’t have one handy, just try to picture your fretboard in your head.
For A, use a 6th string barre chord at the fifth fret.
Alright, that’s the I chord. The next chord is going to be D, the IV chord. To play a D barre chord, you have 2 options. Option 1 is to slide your 6th string barre chord up to the tenth fret. And you can do that, and it’s perfectly OK if that sounds better to you, but for now, let’s go with the other option:
For D, use a 5th string barre chord at the fifth fret.
Using the 5th string barre chord is easier here, because you don’t have to count frets. And there’s another reason I will explain in a minute, but for now let’s just move ahead to the V chord.
For E, use a 5th string barre chord at the seventh fret.
When you get to the turnaround, just move the 5th string barre chord up two frets. This changes the barre chord from D to E, and it gives you the V chord you need to complete the progression.
OK, now we’re getting to the cool part… let’s take a quick look at a couple other keys really quick, and I’ll show you what I mean.
Let’s go with the key of G, since it’s a key you might already know. But instead of using open chords, let’s use barre chords. And let’s start with a 6th string barre chord, like we did with the key of A.
The sixth string barre chord for G is at the third fret. That’s the I chord.
Where’s C, the IV chord? If you use a 5th string barre chord, it’s also right there at the third fret. And guess what? D, the V chord, is a 5th string barre chord moved up two frets, to the 5th fret.
The same pattern works for the key of D: start with a 6th string barre chord at the 10th fret (D), then play a 5th string barre chord at the same fret (G), then move the 5th string barre chord up two frets for A.
It’s not super-comfortable to play blues in D that high on the neck - especially if you’re playing an acoustic guitar - but the chord pattern is the same.
You can use that same pattern to find the IV and V chords for any key. Try it out in a few different keys, then I’ll show you something else that’s pretty cool.
3. Playing 12 bar blues with a capo
When you use a capo, you can change the key without changing chord shapes.
For example, if you’re comfortable playing the open chord shapes for the key of G (G, C, and D), but your voice doesn’t fit the key of G, a capo can fix that problem quick.
Let’s start by putting a capo on the second fret. When you have the capo ready, with all 6 strings ringing out clearly, make a G chord shape.
When you make a G chord without a capo, the note you play on the 6th string is a G. But now that everything’s moved up two frets, the 6th string note is an A.
Which means, you’re making a G chord shape, but you’re actually playing an A chord.
It works the same way with C and D shapes: with the capo on the second fret, the C shape becomes a D chord, and the D shape becomes an E chord.
Open chord shapes can be a lot of fun to play blues with, because you can easily add hammer-on and pull-off licks to your chord changes. I’ll show you a few licks next time, plus I’ll tell you a little about blues rhythms.
Until then, have fun and keep practicing!
Let me know in the comments section below!