Ahh, the blues..one of my favorite forms of music. The blues are a musician’s playground for expression. A canvas, of sorts. Blues can be played sad, happy, mellow, fast, slow, or somewhere in the middle of all of those, or combinations of all of them.
Many guitarists, including me, love hearing the blues because you get to really hear what music is in someone’s heart, someone’s soul, and more to the point, what they can REALLY do on the guitar. I love many of the classics like Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and too many more to name.
In this lesson, I’m going to teach you the blues guitar chords, and how to get started playing the blues from a rhythm guitarist’s perspective. This will not be a lesson on blues lead guitar or solos. That’s another topic for another article. Buckle up and let’s get going!
Introduction: The Basics Of The Blues
In general, the blues is an improvised form of music. In other words, it’s made up on the spot. It’s very similar to its cousin, jazz. In fact, it’s often said that the blues is a bridge to jazz.
Although the blues does contain a large amount of improvisation, there are some consistencies in the way it is played. One of those things that is consistent in almost all of blues music is the chord progression that is played while the soloist is improvising.
The soloist is the guy that’s usually going to be playing single note melodies, licks, solos, and so forth. But for him to be able to express himself with these solos he’s going to need some accompaniment. He’s going to need something to “play over,” and someone to back him up. Sometimes this can be a bass player, a rhythm guitarist, or as is often the case, both.
In this lesson I’m going to teach you what it takes to be that person the improviser needs. I’ll teach you how to lay down the chords that the soloist needs to provide something to play “on top of”. This is often referred to as “comping” which comes from the word, accompanying. It all starts with learning what chords to play and in what order. Let’s do that now!
Introduction To The 12 Bar Blues Chord Progression
Blues music is played using a chord progression known as the 12 bar blues chord progression. The term “bars” actually refers to music measures. So we’re dealing with a form of music that is 12 measures long, that repeats itself over and over until the end of the song.
One time through the 12 measures is often called a “chorus.” For instance, the soloist may “take four choruses” to improvise over. This is different than a traditional song that has verses and bridges and so on. One trip through the chorus in blues means a trip through all 12 measures, then it repeats.
So what are those chords? They are usually dominant chords. That’s not always the case, as I’ll explain below, but it is for the most part. I’ll discuss specific chords shortly, but for now, let’s take a look at the 12 bar form in terms of chord relationships to each other.
How To Play The Blues In A Specific Key
The blues are always played in a certain key. For example if we’re playing blues in G, than G will be known as our 1 chord. This is what the blues chord progression begins with.
After the 1 chord, comes the 4 chord. This is going to be a Perfect 4th away from G, which would be C in this case. That’s why it’s called the 4 chord.
The other chord that’s played is the Perfect 5th away from the root note of the key we’re playing in. In this case a Perfect 5th away from G is D.
This leads us to something called a 1-4-5 group of chords that make up the 12 bar blues progression. As I said it is usually dominant chords that are played but that doesn’t necessarily have to always be the case.
Below is a picture of where you can find the root notes of these chords, in the key of G, on the guitar neck. There is a group on frets 3-5, and a group on frets 8-10. Your choice of chord shapes will determine where you play the chords or vice versa.
Of course, the same groups of root notes can be shifted around, and played anywhere on the neck to accommodate different keys. To play in A, go up 2 frets higher. To play in F, go to frets lower. You get the idea, right?
The Basic 12 Bar Blues Chord Progression Order
Now let’s discuss the order in which these chords are played.
- The first four measures (1-4) are played with the 1 chord, or the chord of the key of the blues is being played in.
- The next two measures (5-6), are played with the 4 chord.
- The next two measures (7-8), are played with the 1 chord again.
- On measure 9, we jump up to the 5 chord.
- On measure 10 we go back to the 4 chord.
- Then on measure 11 we go back the 1 chord.
- The last measure, measure 12, can be played with the 1 chord. Or it’s often played using the 5 chord to set up something called a “turnaround” for the next chorus which will go back into 1 chord.
To make it easier to visualize, take a look at the table below.
This progression is the absolute basic 12 bar blues progression. Now, you can officially say you know it!
Take a look at these crazy fools enjoying the heck out of the basic 12 bar blues progression with the blues standard, Sweet Home Chicago.
But we can change it up a tad to make it a bit more “flavorful” (if you want to, of course).
Spice It Up With The “Quick-Change” Blues Progression
Those first four measures of the same chord, played over and over can be a bit repetitive at times. Especially if you’re playing slow blues. To fix that we can change it up with something known as “quick-change” blues.
This is an extremely simple thing to do. You just play the 4 chord on measure 2. Swap the 1 chord out, add the 4 chord in. That’s it! Try it. It adds a little variety to the progression. The table below lays it out for you, just so you can see it.
It’s not a whole lot different than the basic 12 bar blues, but it’s a nice way to add a little “flavor.” An example of the quick change blues is in Statesboro Blues by The Allman Brother’s Band.
Note: All playing samples of me playing below, will be of this “quick-change” version of the blues, because that’s how I usually play it.
Now, let’s talk about which actual chords are usually used to play the blues.
Blues Guitar Chords: What Are They?
The blues are usually played with chords known as dominant chords.
What is a dominant chord?
A dominant chord is any chord that has a major 3rd and minor 7th interval. Dominant chords have a “sassy” sound to them. That is why they’re popular in blues and jazz, because they are versatile. You can add notes to them, and play a wide variety of melodies on top of them.
Here is a dominant chord G7 with audio of me playing it.
They are labeled with the root letter, followed by a number. The number is usually a 7 (for the minor 7th that’s included), unless an “extension” is played. If a 9th, 11th, or 13th is added to it, the chord name takes on that number and replaces the 7. A couple examples would be G7, G9, or G13. Sometimes they’ll even contain “altered” notes such as flat and sharp 5ths, and 9ths. In this case, it’ll be called a G7#5, or G7b9.
- b = flat
- # = sharp
The common denominator is that all dominant chords contain a major 3rd, and minor 7th away from the root note. If that’s confusing, don’t worry too much. This isn’t a lesson on chord formulas, so we’ll look at that another time.
Here is an example of a quick-change 12 bar blues progression in the key of G using all dominant 7 chords, with audio.
We don’t have to be limited by 7 chords though. We can throw in some 9 chords, and even some dominant sharp 9s. Take a look at this progression and listen.
13th Chords And Jazz-Blues
You can also use dominant 13th chords. These are common in jazz, and they have a nice mellow sound to them. I’m not going to provide a example, but you can do your own research on jazz/blues when you reach that point and want to explore beyond just the basic blues.
A great instructional course that I highly recommend is the Jazz Comping Survival Guide, available from TrueFire. The instructor does a great job of laying it all out. Although it is a jazz focused course, roughly, the first half is dedicated to the 12 bar blues progression. It has helped me a lot and is great!
Common Dominant Chord Shapes
Here are some actual diagrams of some chord shapes that you can use.
3 Chords for the Key of E
I’ll start off with a set of 3 chords that can be used for blues in E. Two of the chords are open chords, and the other is a dominant B7 barre chord. This is a good set of chords to start off with when learning the blues. Blues played in E is pretty common, and these chords are pretty beginner friendly.
The 1 chord would be the E7. The 4 chord would be the A7. The 5 chord would be the B7. Try them out using the 12 bar blues progression!
In case you need help, here’s the 12 bar blues in E. Below the chart is a sound file of me playing these chords.
Movable Dominant Chords For The Blues
Now let’s talk about chords that can be used anywhere on the neck to play the blues. I’ll give you some chords with roots on the 6th string first, and then the 5th string. Make sure you know your guitar notes on those strings because you need to be able to find the root notes. Here they are in case you need them.
Sharps and flats are not included. To play in a sharp key, go up 1 fret from the natural note. To play in a flat key, go down 1 fret from the natural note. For instance, to play in Eb (“E flat”), you’d play on the 6th fret/5th string, or the 11th fret/6th string.
6th String Root Dominant Chords
I’m giving you 2 different fingerings of a 7 chord, a 9 chord, and a 13 chord, all with 6 string roots. These are all worth having in your blues chord tool bag. They are MOVABLE shapes, meaning you can play them anywhere. I’ve given you all these in A, but they can be played anywhere on the neck for any note!
5th String Root Dominant Chords
Here are some options for dominant chords that have roots on the 5th string. Once again, these are D chords, but can be moved anywhere on the neck for any note.
Using 3 Note “Shell” Voicings For The Blues
Did you know that you can play chords that are only 3 notes? You don’t absolutely HAVE TO play all 5 or 6 stings. As I’ve mentioned previously, the only requirement for a dominant chord is a root note, a major 3rd, and a minor 7th. That is how you build a dominant chord. This makes it super simple to play the blues with dominant chords.
Of course, you can add 5ths, 6ths, 9ths, 11ths, 13ths, etc. However, the major 3rd and minor 7th are the only essential notes to form a dominant chord. You can even play these chords without the root and still get the same sound from the chord. For now, let’s keep those roots in there.
The reason they’re called shell chords are because they only contain the bare minimum of notes to get the sound we want. Sometimes too many notes can muddy up the sound, and gives us more than is necessary. Sometimes, less is more, especially when comping for a soloist. Here are the chords with roots on the 6th and 5th strings.
These may not be super easy at first, and you may not be experienced playing these. If you do find them challenging at first, keep at it! You’ll probably find that they’re easier to play than the bigger chords you’re used to playing.
And here is audio of me playing blues in A using only shell chords:
What About Minor Blues And Other Chords?
While it is true that the dominant chord is the bread and butter of blues chords, that doesn’t mean the blues cannot be played using other chords, such as minor, major, or with power (5) chords..
The 12 bar blues chord progression, used with the 1, 4, & 5 chords in the order I’ve shown you, can be used in multiple ways. You can use all minor chords or even all major chords. Sometimes these may be referred to as a “major groove” or a “minor groove” but it still may use the 12 bar format with the 1, 4, & 5 chords.
Here’s a minor groove I came up with that uses a 12 bar blues outline.
Rock music often uses the 12 bar blues progression, but usually with power chords/5 chords. Rock, pop, and country music all borrow certain parts of the 12 bar blues progression. Sometimes it’s played in full, but other times it’s modified a little. Start paying attention to the music you listen to and it won’t be long before you’ll notice parts of the blues form being used. It’s everywhere!
The Blues Shuffle Rhythm
No beginner blues rhythm lesson would be complete if we didn’t discuss the shuffle rhythm that’s typically used in the blues. It’s similar to a swing rhythm in the fact that it’s not a “straight 8s” rhythm.
In other words, the 8th notes are played with a triplet feel. Imagine it like this. Instead of saying…
Listen to this version of Stormy Monday by The Allman Brothers to get an idea of what I’m talking about.
I certainly did not cover all there is to know about laying down blues guitar chords for a soloist, but there are so many more lessons I plan to write about this topic.
I hope the info I gave you here will at least get you started with learning how to play the 12 bar blues progression as well as a handful of chord shapes to use with it. Now, go practice and make sure you get this information burned into your brain. Good luck!