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Learn The Universal Language of 12 Bar Blues

Last weekend I went to Venice. My wife and I were enjoying a nightcap when we bumped into a Bohemian – looking man with his dog. He was a celebrated artist, who’d been in Venice since the Sixties. Before long, he’d invited us to his house, which was a living gallery of incredible art. It was one of the most beautiful houses I’ve ever seen.

There were five acoustic guitars huddled together in his studio. Despite having had too much wine and grappa I asked if I could play. My host explained he travelled to the Deep South to play the blues each summer.

Before long there was an outbreak of 12 bar blues that lasted into the early hours. It’s a universal language for guitarists of all abilities and means two previously unacquainted musicians can jam for hours. It’s easy to learn and it’s part of the electric Grade One syllabus. My students love learning it and I try to start playing within three or four lessons, even from a standing start.

Two men playing blues guitar

But what is 12 bar blues?

To truly appreciate the 12-bar blues, we must take a trip back in time to the Mississippi Delta, where it all began. Picture yourself sitting on a porch, surrounded by the humid air and the earthy sounds of the Deep South in the early 20th century. African-American musicians, often self-taught, sought to express their joys and sorrows through music, creating what we now know as the blues.

The 12-bar blues structure emerged as a framework for storytelling through song. It consists of three lines, each containing four bars, hence the name "12-bar." This simple yet profound pattern allowed musicians to convey their emotions and experiences with a raw and authentic intensity that resonated deeply with audiences.

Influence and Evolution:

As the blues migrated from the Mississippi Delta to urban areas like Chicago, it found its way into the hearts of millions, sparking a musical revolution. The 12-bar blues became the foundation for numerous subgenres, such as Chicago blues, Delta blues, and Texas blues.

But the influence of the 12-bar blues extends far beyond its immediate genre. It played a pivotal role in shaping rock 'n' roll, R&B, jazz, and even country music. Legends like Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Eric Clapton, and Jimi Hendrix all embraced the 12-bar blues and harnessed its power to create groundbreaking music that continues to inspire generations.

Understanding the Structure:

Now, let's break down the structure of the 12-bar blues so you can start jamming like a pro. The basic chord progression follows a I-IV-V pattern, which means you'll use three chords: the tonic (I), the subdominant (IV), and the dominant (V). For instance, if you're playing in the key of A, you'll use the chords A, D, and E.

The typical 12-bar blues progression goes like this:




Feel free to experiment and add your own personal touch to the rhythm, timing, and variations of this progression. Remember, the beauty of the blues lies in its expressive freedom, so don't be afraid to make it your own.

two men playing blues guitar

Tips for Mastering the 12-Bar Blues:

  • Start slow: Begin by familiarizing yourself with the chord changes and strumming pattern. Practice playing the progression slowly and gradually increase your speed as you become more comfortable.

  • Add embellishments: Spice up your playing by incorporating bends, slides, hammer-ons, and pull-offs. These techniques can add soulful nuances to your blues licks.

  • Learn from the masters: Listen to recordings by blues legends and study their phrasing, tone, and improvisation. Pay attention to their use of dynamics and how they navigate the 12-bar structure.

  • Jam with others: Playing the blues is often a collaborative experience. Joining a jam session or finding fellow musicians to play with will enhance your understanding of the genre and improve your improvisation skills.

Last Friday night was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life. If music is a universal language, then the blues is its most common tongue. By learning to play 12 bar blues, I found a way to pass the time with a stranger in a blissfully happy state. I hope our audience enjoyed it as much as we did!

If you want to learn how to play the blues, and start expressing yourself quickly in a supportive environment, get in touch today!



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