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Guitar Lesson : 12- Bar Blues.

Updated on January 14, 2022
Jon Green profile image

For many years I taught guitar in college, and here is an example of a topic we would cover.

Playing minor blues

Here are some ideas for playing a minor 12-bar blues. Blues in a major key is far more common, but a minor blues really has some advantages for the improvising guitarist. In its most basic form a 12-bar blues in Am would go like this:

Am7 (4bars) Dm7 (2 Bars) Am7 (2bars) Em7 Dm7 Am7 E7

Here's the same thing again, four strums on each chord:

Am7 /// Am7/// Am7/// Am7/// Dm7/// Dm7/// Am7/// Am7/// Em7/// Dm7/// Am7/// E7///

Since we can use an open A, D, and E string in this key we can use pedal tones. This is where the bass note stays constant, but the harmony or chord sequence moves around - leading to greater interest and harmonic complexity. You'll find a similar concept in many songs - Scarboro Fair is one, shamelessly stolen, one.

You could improvise with Am pentatonic scale, or Am blues scale, and try playing octaves too - a technique used by Wes Montgomery, Jimi Hendrix, and most other great improvisers since. The scale pattern for this that's easy to use is shown on the pictures below. Remember, it's like a map of possibilities, it sounds better if you play riffs with it, rather than going up and down the notes in a rigid pattern.

It's very important to memorise this material, and actually it's going to save you a lot of time and effort in the long run.

Guitar blues ideas


This blues can be as hard or as easy as you like - you can spice up the rhythm by playing with your thumb on the bass note, and picking the other notes of the chord slightly later.

Octaves are easier if you damp the middle string with your first finger.

Creative playing - one thing that really works is to take a chord shape you know, like E or Am7 and move it up the neck at random. You'll find some great new sounds this way, because often the addition of open strings to a chord will really bring it a new depth and make it sound more interesting - a bit of dissonance is good.

If you want to really study the chord possibilities on guitar, try Ted Greene books such as Modern Chord Progressions or Chord Chemistry, two veritable bibles for the aspiring guitarist. Ted was a great player and teacher, look him up on youtube. Tim Lerch continues his legacy with some great playing, also on Youtube.

More songs

Ain't No Sunshine, the Bill Withers classic, uses these chords and scales, just with the addition of a passing G7 chord. A good way to improve your playing is to replace the chords with some lead playing, taking care to preserve the correct bar length. Not easy at first, hit the chord on beat 1, then fill with single note improvisation.

One of the best minor 12-Bar blues is The Thrill Is Gone, by BB King. In the key of B minor, chords would be Bm7, Em7, G maj7, F sharp sus 4, F sharp 7. As we are moving up two frets from Am, all the scale patterns will work moved up 2 frets.


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