The 12 bar blues is one of the most prevalent chord progressions in music. As well as forming the backbone of the blues genre it is also prominent in jazz and has had a formative and ongoing role in the development of rock music.
Whatever it is about this 12 bar pattern that draws us back time and time again, one thing is certain: it’s not going away anytime soon so we’d better get to grips with it...
One of the keys to following the form of the 12 bar blues is to familiarize yourself with the distinctive pattern of the chord changes. The specific changes may vary, but the pattern of motion remains similar. Let’s take a look at the basic harmonic form:
Think of this as three sections of 4 bars each:
Bars 1 - 4 firmly establishes the ‘home’ chord. This is the sound our ear will naturally gravitate back to.
In bars 5 - 8 we take an excursion to a new chord for two bars before returning to our home sound for the next two. Try to feel the mild tension caused by the move to chord IV (away) and the relief of that tension on returning to chord I (home).
Bars 9 - 12 are often referred to as the turnaround, and have several common variations (and many uncommon ones). The pattern is similar to that of the second line in that we go away for two bars before returning home again. This time the tension of being away may be felt more keenly due to the involvement of chord V which has a greater pull back to chord I than IV has. The two ‘away’ bars of this section often feature two different chords (V and IV here), giving this third section more movement than the second.
In terms of navigating the harmony things can be kept pretty straightforward. The Cm pentatonic or C blues scales can be used throughout the whole 12 bars. With these basic materials and plenty of practice you can do wonders. If you want to widen your choice of notes, try using the C natural minor scale (also known as the Aeolian mode). If you are looking to get a jazzier sound then try playing some ideas that include the major seventh and/or major sixth degrees on the Cm chord (those notes are B and A, respectively), but realise that those notes will sound a lot less stable and rely on thoughtful placement within a phrase to succeed.
You might also want to work on emphasizing notes from the arpeggios of the Cm and Fm during the appropriate bars to inject a sense of the underlying harmony into your solo.
The turnaround used here (bars 9 - 12) is the one most commonly used in a jazz minor blues. Again, it is fine to use the Cm pentatonic and C blues scale, but you can also work on emphasizing the Ab and G7 arpeggios. Those of you with a jazzier leaning might also consider using a more exotic scale on the G7 (e.g. G altered or G phrygian dominant).
The backing track is quite assertive rhythmically. Try to find your way into it by playing strong, simple phrases that work with the groove. Using short, choppy phrases in the right way can build excitement in your solo. Using repetition is a good way to build tension. Silence or long notes will relieve the tension.
The middle section of the track has a different feel - try to exploit this in the way you play over it. How you do this is up to you: for instance you might play longer notes, lengthen or shorten your phrases, increase or decrease the amount of tension in your playing, use a different range of your instrument, change your tone, favour wider or narrower intervals in your note choices, play more densely or more sparsely, etc… Experiment and see what works.
However you approach this one, be sure to have fun. Try to use what you know. Remember that you won’t go far wrong if you play with the three good T’s: good timing, a good tone and good taste (though the last of the three is highly subjective 😉).
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