12 Bar Blues for Beginners

In this hub, I want to introduce beginners to playing, or improvising (soloing) over, that popular and common chord sequence known as the 12 bar blues progression, which has been a favourite progression in Western music for many decades. It's a progression that has been extremely successful, not only in blues, but also in rock and pop styles, (e.g., the music of Staus Quo). Whatever style of music it appears in, the sound of a 12 bar blues progression is instantly recogniseable, even to non-musicians.

Although the hub is written for beginners to the blues, it's not for complete beginners to any instrument. Whether you play a harmonic instrument such as keyboards or guitar, or a melodic instrument such as clarinet or saxophone, you need to be able to locate the given chord tones (the notes that a chord consists of) on your instrument.


12 bar Blues Backing Track in E

I put together this backing track using Band in a Box software to provide the bluesy style within the chords that I chose. (The style name is 'JonLee.sty' for any interested Band in a Box users.)

The tracks are drums, bass, rhythm guitar and piano (all MIDI, converted to audio). The first verse contains all the instruments. The drums, bass and guitar provide an accompaniment, while the piano takes the lead and provides a combination of accompaniment with a lot of bluesy runs.

The second verse is your turn to take the lead. It leaves out the piano so that you can try some soloing in a bluesy style. You can learn how to approach that below.

The third and final verse brings the piano back in but at a lower volume. This is so you can again solo, but in this case you have to try to work with the piano. You have to complement the piano part. Time your runs to fill in the spaces left by the piano, so you're not always getting in each others way. It's similar to what you hear in a real blues performance. The singer sings a line and the guitarist follows with a different short melodic line in the gap. Playing it at the same time as the singer sings could easily obscure and confuse both parts. So it's not just a case of learning what to play but also when to play.

E G# B D
A C# E G
B D# F# A

Chord Tones

Chord tones are the notes that a chord is made up of. Here are the chord tones of the three chords used in this 12 bar blues in E. (they're also displayed in the video for each chord as it plays).

Chord tones are important. They comprise the harmony, and if you're playing the chords or soloing over the chords, they're safe notes that you can play with no danger of making a horribly discordant sound. These notes can be doubled at any octave and arranged and played in any order when its that chord's turn to be played. They can be played together as a chord or spread out in a pattern as an arpeggio.

Loosely speaking, the key of this blues can be called E major, but two of the chord tones, D & G, don't actually belong to the key of E major. But this is blues - and those notes sound very bluesy - so they're legitimate notes, just not legitimate members of the key of E major.

Non-Chord Tones

Non-chord tones are equally important. As their name suggests, they're notes that don't belong to the chord. They're essential for giving shape to melodic soloing and are often used as passing tones between chord tones. They also add dissonance, meaning they will clash with the chord to an extent. Don't think that dissonance is a bad thing, though. It's not. In fact, it's essential. It adds spice and drives the music forward. Music with no dissonance would be extremely bland and boring. The longer the duration of the non-chord tone when played against any chord, the more apparent its dissonance becomes. Great blues players are masters of judging exactly how long to let dissonance linger in your ear before resolving it to the nearest chord tone.

Playing a 12 Bar Blues Accompaniment

If you play a harmonic instrument such as piano or guitar, you can play any 12 bar blues as an accompaniment to sing over or for someone else to solo over. You just need to play the right chords at the right time with a bluesy rhythm and you've got the basics.

The example in the video consists of three 12-bar verses followed by a two bar ending (coda). There are a few variations possible in 12 bar blues progressions, and a common one that I've used here is in the second bar, which is A7 instead of just staying on E7. It adds a little more harmonic variety. So play those chords along with the video - changing chords at the same and following the rhythm that you can hear. When you can do that, play the same thing without the video. You'll now have a basic 12 bar blues accompaniment.

If you can play along quite easily, the next step, which is purely optional, is to add one or more non-chord tones to the chord tones of the chord you're playing, wherever you think they'll sound good. You can play them as single notes between chords, or you you can play them at the same time as the chord. If they're just brief add-ons, they're heard simply as decorations that don't change the chord. But if they're played for long enough, they will change the chord.

Adding B to A7 produces A9
Adding B to A7 produces A9 | Source

For example, if you add the non-chord tone, B, to the chord A7 when it comes along, you'll be playing A9, instead of A7. In other words, it's a non-chord tone of A7, but it's a chord tone of A9, which is an extension of A7 and closely related to it. That will give the song a more jazzy touch. If that's the sound you want, then it's fine. If not, don't use it. Adding the note C instead would give you an even jazzier chord called A7#9, (technically, the C in this chord is actually a B# ). It's also known as 'the Hendrix chord' thanks to Jimi and Purple Haze. Experience and knowledge of how chords are made are what's needed to progress in this type of 'harmonic improvisation'.

Improvised soloing over a 12 bar blues

As with their uses in accompaniments, chord tones are also important for solo (melodic) improvising because, as mentioned above, they're 'safe' notes that never sound wrong. Target them. You can always rely on them to sound at least ok, if not always exciting.

Non-chord tones are equally important precisely because they're not safe. They're edgy and often unpredictable. Controlling them is exactly what a great musician thrives on. This is where the 'art' lies. No great blues player ever played safe all the time.

Remember, you can use non-chord tones as passing notes between chord tones for smoother and more shapely melodic lines than chord tones alone will provide. Where non-chord tones appear in relation to the beats of the music also plays a part in how they sound. When playing them unaccented, i.e.,between the beats, their dissonance is far less noticeable than playing them accented (on the beat). Try playing any non chord tone on beat 1 of any bar and listen for any tendency of that note to resolve. For example the dissonance of the non-chord tone, G, over the E7 chord creates an expectation for it to resolve up to the chord tone G# or down to the root E.

Listen to the software-generated piano part. That's all it's doing - playing chord tones and non chord tones as chords and melodic runs that the software thinks sound bluesy. It's full of pre-programmed blues cliches that you can copy, more or less, until you can come up with your own original runs. But keep in mind that most of your listening and copying should be from real blues players - not a soulless software simulation.

Using Scales as Note Sources

Scales are often used as note sources that can be used to provide a ready-made set of notes that work well within the key and style.

You can see some commonly used scale-based note sources in the diagram below:

Some commonly used scale-based note sources
Some commonly used scale-based note sources | Source

These scales are like a ready-made template that you can use to ensure you only play notes that will (mostly) fit well or sound bluesy. But you should never restrict yourself to a single scale. Notice how they all contain good usable notes in relation to the three chords, but omit others. If you slavishly stick to a single scale, those missing notes would never be available to you.

In other words, a single scale can be very restricting and result in a very predictable style of playing. No self-respecting blues player would ever agree to a scale telling them what notes they can or can't play. They may 'dip into' any scales and make use of them whenever they work to their advantage, but it's chord tones that they really keep their eye (and ear) on, while using their experience and skill to bring in non-chord tones of their own choosing.


Blue notes are slightly lowered versions of the 3rd, 5th and 7th major scale notes and are a feature of blues and other styles, such as rock and country music. With fixed-pitch instruments like the piano, no slight lowering of notes is possible, so the note one semitone (one piano key or guitar fret) below is played instead.

For example, the note G natural is often played over the E7 chord. As described above, it clashes with the the G# in the chord in a way that sounds very bluesy. This bluesy dissonance can then be resolved either up a semitone to match the chord tone G# or dropped three semitones to match the root note, E, of the chord.

Blues in Different Keys

Blues can be in any key (including minor keys too).

In major keys, the 12 bar blues structure is the same regardless of the key. The best way to show the structure without any relation to a particular key is by adopting the common convention of using Roman numerals to indicate chords built on scale degrees.

I or IV
Basic 'major' 12 bar form with triads corresponding to major scale degrees of the key.

Here's the standard major key 12 bar sequence shown in Roman numerals. These show the chords in their simplest (triad) form. To make a 12 bar blues in any major key, simply apply those numbers to any major scale. That will give you the root notes of the required major chords in that key. You can then extend the chord to include 7ths or even 9ths or 13ths if you want a more bluesy or jazzy blues sound.

Note* If the key was minor instead of major, the chords would be minor too. The same Roman numerals would be used but written in lowercase (i, iv, v) to indicate minor chords. Some variations are possible with minor keys, though, such as major chords (or 7th chords) on V and VI

The Way Forward

Progress in blues playing is achieved by listening, internalising and shamelessly copying the runs, licks and techniques of great blues players.

Learn more about blues from these talented and knowledgeable players right here on HubPages. They're written for guitarists but much of the information is relevant to players of any instrument.

Blues Guitar Lesson

Lorne Hemmerling goes into great detail about the use of scales and scale combinations for a much more flexible approach to soloing. Inspiring stuff.

Blues turnarounds

Guitar Wizard expertly explains and illustrates blues turnarounds in his usual engaging style.

You should also learn how chords are constructed so that you will always know which notes are chord tones and which aren't no matter which key you're playing in. See my chord construction lesson for more info.

© 2014 chasmac

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