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How to Play 12-Bar Blues Guitar in the Key of E

Updated on May 19, 2018
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Music School Owner, Recording Artist, Guitarist, Composer, Performer & Educator. My goal is to make good music, make and keep good friends.

No Theory!

OK I lied. There will be some theory involved but I will try as much as possible in these beginning stages to keep information on a "Need to Know" basis. Lets just play first and ask questions later.

The main point of this article is for the student to memorize the chord changes to a typical 12-bar blues. Some other scale and improvisation information and links are included but first things first.

Overview of Basic Elements

Roughly divided into five elements they are as follows:

  1. Chords used
  2. Order in which the chords are played
  3. Rhythms
  4. Scales
  5. Putting it together



The blues examples will be in the key of E. What does it mean? It doesn't matter yet except that there are 3 chords to learn to get into this sound of a 12-bar blues progression.

You will learn the

Open Chords

E7, A7 and B7



12 Bar Blues Chord Progressions

A typical blues uses 3 chords and is a repeating 12 measure cycle. Oops theory time. A measure is 4 counts and is also know as a bar. So you could say a typical blues is a repeating 12 bar cycle hence the common name of 12 bar blues,

  • 4 bars of E7:
  • 2 bars of A7:
  • 2 bars of E7:
  • 1 bar of B7
  • 1 bar of A7
  • 1 bar of E7
  • 1 bar of B7

Add them up.

/ E7 / E7 / E7 / E7 / A7 / A7 / E7 / E7 / B7 / A7 / E7 / B7/ Repeat

12-Bar Variations

Quick Change (Quick IV, more on Roman Numerals coming up) AKA go to the A chord sooner.

E7 / A7 / E7 / E7 / A7 / A7 / E7 / E7 / B7 / A7 / E7 / B7 /

Other Than 12 Bars?

Technically the blues could be whatever amount of bars the songwriter chose but typically 12 bar is the most common followed by 8 bar blues or16 bar blues and even some 32 bar blues.

16-Bar "Hoochie Coochie Man"

E7 / E7 / E7 / E7 / E7 / E7 / E7 / E7 /

A7 / A7 / E7 / E7 / B7 / A7 / E7 / B7/ Repeat

8-Bar "Key To The Highway"

E7 / B7 / A7 / A7 / E7 / B7 / E7 / B7/ Repeat

There are even some blues that stay on one chord and are uneven in each verse. Since there are no chord changes this is not hard to do. John Lee Hooker was the king of one chord story songs.

Blues Rhythm

The simplest rhythm is 4 downstrokes per bar. Counted 1234. Try it about the speed of a clock ticking. Pretty boring perhaps, but it is absolutely necessary to learn the form of the blues. This means knowing without a doubt when the chords change.

If you don't get it right away jump ahead to the scales part (almost everyone does) but keep coming back to this.

12- Bar Blues Basic Rhythm

Boogie Rhythm on Open E Power Chord

This is a classic sound you might want to try if you are getting bored with the straight down-stroke rhythm. There would be 2 strokes to every count.

Classic Rhythm Pattern

Own It!

You will start to notice the majority of blues songs use this chord progression. Of course there are many variations but they are usually pretty small. Make sure the sound of this becomes ingrained. It doesn't matter what key you're in I-IV-V always sounds like I-IV-V.

Blues Styles

Also pay attention to the different tempos, rhythms and grooves used. The following is an extremely general list of overall styles that each have many subcategories of variations and tempos. A lot of these overlap and different musicians interpret these feels differently as well.

  • Shuffle Blues
  • Jump Blues
  • Jazz Blues
  • Straight/Rock Blues
  • Country Blues
  • Boogie Blues
  • Slow Blues
  • Funk Blues
  • Latin/Rhumba Blues
  • New Orleans (2nd line) Blues

This article is not specifically addressing these variations. Just sayin' be aware and start researching these things.

Blues by Number & Changing Keys

OK more theory. Sorry (not really). In any key (music stuff such as scales and chords that go together) there are 7 possible chords. We only care about 3 of them in blues. The 1st, 4th and 5th.

In the key of A that would be A, D and E. Roman numerals are used so A=I, D=IV and E=V.

So...If C is 1, then D is 2 and E is 3, F is 4 and G is 5.. Use Roman numerals and you are talking music language. I IV V in C = C F G

The 5 Keys of Open Chord Blues

I - IV - V

A7 D7 E7

C7 *F7 G7

D7 G7 D7

E7 A7 B7

G7 C7 D7

* OK ok F7 isn't really an open chord but the key of C is popular so suck it up and learn the d*** thing or use a plain F

Blues in A

E Minor Pentatonic Scale

Add an extra note on the 1st fret of the A string and 3rd fret of the B string to create the E "Blues Scale"
Add an extra note on the 1st fret of the A string and 3rd fret of the B string to create the E "Blues Scale"
Add an extra note on the 13th fret of the A string and 15th fret of the B string to create the E "Blues Scale"
Add an extra note on the 13th fret of the A string and 15th fret of the B string to create the E "Blues Scale"


The common scale to use is the 5-note minor pentatonic scale or it's basic variation called the blues scale which has 6 notes. In this lesson we are using the E minor pentatonic and the E blues scale.

On the guitar there are 5 places to play this scale but we will concentrate on the most used pattern which will have an open position fingering and a way up on the fretboard fingering.

Video Lesson

All 5 E Minor Pentatonic Patterns here. Learn the one called #1 1st

Bend Them Strings!

One of the 1st recognizable sounds on the blues guitar is the bending of the strings.

About Bending and Ideas in the #1 Pattern

Some Lead Guitar Concepts

These aren't all in the key of E but will give you some ideas to think about..

Improvisation Concepts

Some things to consider when learning how to improvise.

Soloing on One String

Horizontal ideas

Improvising On One Note

Keep it simple! Much can can be learned soloing on one note.

Two Measure Phrases

The secret to good blues guitar riffs.

More Rhythm

A little more advance but what the heck.



This is beyond the scope of this basics article but I know how you are.


© 2014 Mark Edward Fitchett


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