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Analysis & Tips: Long Form Blues

The 12 bar blues is a form that lends itself exceptionally well to modification and revision (perhaps because, knowingly or not, we are all so familiar with its sound). This backing track combines two methods of altering the blues form by lengthening its structure. In this post we'll examine them both. . .

First of all: let's get a quick reminder of how we expect a standard 12 bar blues to shape up:

This is the most common scheme. You may remember that we discussed the ins and outs of this pattern in this previous post. There are three chords at play: I, IV and V. Chord I is our tonic or 'home' sound: the baseline that we keep coming back to. Chords IV and V essentially do the same job as each other: they provide an excursion from -- and then a cadential return to -- our I chord. What is a cadence? The Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music and Musicians defines it as:

"a melodic or harmonic configuration that creates a sense of resolution"

- Don Michael Randel (1999).

Lets add in some actual chords. We are going to use the key of E minor for all of the examples, since that is the key of the backing track.

So that is our 12 bar blues in E minor. Now let's look at two ways of extending the sequence...

The 24 Bar Blues:

Often, when musicians talk about a 'long form' blues they are simply referring to a variation in which all of the chords have their durations doubled, resulting in a 24 bar form:

Conceptually, this is pretty simple. The harmonic pattern (the 'shape' of the progression) remains exactly the same.

There is a good chance you will have heard this form in action at some time. A couple of classic examples are Mustang Sally by Wilson Pickett, (written by Mack Rice) and the Junior Wells’ Chicago Blues Band version of Good Morning Schoolgirl.

16 Bar Blues:

There are actually several common variations on the 12 bar blues that result in a 16 bar form - this is just one of them. In most of those variations, the first 8 bars of the blues remain unchanged, and that is the case here too. The difference occurs when we reach bar 9 and enter the the turnaround section (the 'turnaround' is how the last line of a 12 bar blues is often referred to). Instead of the expected turnaround (V - IV - I - I) we embark on a longer excursion away from our 'home' sound, seesawing back and forth between chords V and IV and deferring the gratification of returning home to chord I, which gives the eventual resolution all the more impact.

For an example of this form, have a listen to Watermelon Man. Originally by Herbie Hancock, there are also great versions by blues guitarists Buddy Guy and Albert King.

A 26 Bar Blues:

Finally let's take a look at how the two methods above come together in our backing track:

What we have here is essentially the 24 bar blues but with the addition of the extended turnaround from the 16 bar blues. However, unlike the rest of the progression, the durations of the V and IV chords from the 16 bar-style turnaround have not been doubled. This results in an odd looking length of 26 bars - though I think you'll agree that it sounds perfectly natural.

Have fun jamming with the track. Hopefully, the things we have discussed in this post will give you some ideas for coming up with your own variations on the blues form.

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Until next time. . .




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