Few things scream "guitar" as loud as playing the blues. The genre is deeply tied to the instrument, and nearly every guitarist worth their salt has at least fantasized about jamming out à la B.B. King or Buddy Guy.
With that in mind, we're going to dive into the world of blues chords and the basic 12-bar blues. By lesson's end, you should be ready to lay down some soulful blues rhythms and start creating your own blues style in earnest.
The standard 12-bar blues is a I-IV-V chord progression most typically divided into three four-bar segments. Blues progressions are almost exclusively played in 4/4 time and dominated by the root (I Chord), with the IV and V chords providing that extra bit of flavor to keep things interesting.
Here's an example of how a common blues progression goes:
At this point the 12-bar pattern would repeat, continuing the song. The above isn't the only way the 12-bar blues can work, but it is fairly representative of what you can expect from a blues progression and a good way to get started.
You can play the blues with major and minor chords, but one thing that helps add the distinctive sound associated with the genre is making liberal use of seventh chords in your playing. You can create such chords by adding the lowered seventh scale tone to the chord you're playing (hence the name), and the result is a unique sound that your standard chords alone can't quite achieve.
There are numerous permutations of the seventh chord you can apply to your blues playing. For today, though, we'll focus on how you'd create your chords (and blues progression) in the key of C Major.
Recall that you would play your open C Major chord (the I Chord, in this case) like so:
Now, if you wanted to "blues it up," you'd instead start our blues progression with a C7 Chord, like this:
Hear the difference between those two chords? That subtle change (adding a Bb to your C chord) makes the difference between a standard major-sounding chord and a bluesier alternative.
Let's take a look at the other chords in the C Major blues progression (and their seventh chord alternatives) so you can start playing the whole thing. Here's your IV Chord, a standard F Major bar chord:
Now, try your F7 bar chord and note the difference:
Just one note makes quite the difference, no? Let's move on to the V Chord in this progression, the open G Major chord:
Now, for comparison, try a G7 chord instead:
And with that, you've learned the chords for a 12-bar blues in the key of C Major! Try these out with the sample progression we provided above, and listen to the differences in using the regular major chords and the seventh chords.
Once you've practiced 12-bar blues progression and feel comfortable playing those seventh chords, you can get to work deepening your blues abilities by trying out different ways to play your chords.
Though you might have employed a simple quarter note strumming pattern in learning the above blues progression, that's not the only way to go about it. You can try out straight 8ths, shuffles, and even 16th note patterns to vary your rhythms and make your blues progression sound more interesting.
Study the blues greats for inspiration and guidance, then work at mixing up your own playing so that it doesn't sound stale. You'll also want to prepare yourself for playing the blues in other keys by expanding your arsenal of seventh chords.
Let's go over 3 of the most popular chords:
Continue learning chord shapes and working on strumming patterns to build your ability to play blues rhythms. Keep looking for inspiration wherever you may find it, and remember, happy practicing!
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