Aug 14

The blues chord progression, or 12 bar blues progression, is a standard I-IV-V chord progression that spans twelve measures. While there are a few extremely common twelve bar progressions that repeatedly pop up, there are even more variations on the standard formula. Take a look at my earlier post about the 12 Bar Blues Progression for the basic outline and general information, because in this post, we’ll be looking at some of the common variations.

Standard Variations

These first two blues progressions are basic in their construction, only changing a few chords, primarily the durations of the V chords and placements of the IV chord. Take a look.

Simple Blues

This first progression is the most basic, but notice how I notate each of the changes. The changes are relative to each other.

For example, if one were to play in the key of E:

  • The I chord would be an E
  • The IV chord would be an A
  • The V chord would be a B

If one were to play in the key of C:

  • The I chord would be an C
  • The IV chord would be an F
  • The V chord would be a G

The keys of E and A are more popular with guitarists than with pianists, who prefer C or G, because of the tuning of the guitar and the number of accidentals on piano. Let’s look at a common modification to blues chord progressions.

Common Blues

  • Notice the addition of the IV chord in the second bar, this serves to break up the beginning of the blues progression. Without it, the progression can become stale while sitting on the I chord. This is the most common chordal variation on the blues progression.
  • Also notice the addition of the IV chord in the 10th measure, this serves to create more movement, leading to the return of the I or root chord. This is another very common variation.
  • And last is the addition of the V in the last measure, this serves as the “turnaround,” a common blues device that states the end of a progression.

Jazz Variations

The use of blues chord progressions is extremely common in jazz, especially in the big band or bebop genres. Below are some examples of typical variations, however, this time I’ve included the changes in the key of F for simplicities’ sake.

Big Band Blues (Basie Blues)

  • Notice the similar construction in the first four bars, the only changes are the addition of the diminished chord and the minor 7th chord which serve to create movement and color.
  • Again, in the 5th bar, we see the diminished chord following the IV chord. The basic idea behind the placement of the diminished chord is that the harmony remains relatively stable while the bass note raises a half step to create tension.
  • In the 8th bar, we see the chord change to a VI chord, a change uncommon in basic blues. This serves to create color and movement leading into the cadence (or last four measures).
  • In the 10th bar we see a distinct departure from the standard blues cadence, the IIm7 chord creates some tension and is an inversion of a V9th chord.  Again, we see implied chordal harmonies adjusting with changes to the bass note.

Bebop Blues

  • Notice the similarities in the bebop blues and big band blues? While they are very similar, bebop blues are designed to be played extremely fast. At these high speeds, the chordal harmonies often act as the melody. Each chord change leads nicely to the next.
  • The first four bars are identical, but the bebop blues is without the diminished chord.
  • The second four bars are very similar, but the bebop blues adds a IIIm7 chord before the VI7 chord, again, to create movement leading to the cadence.
  • The first two bars of the cadence are identical to the big band changes but the turnaround (final two bars) are not. They lead down in perfect major fourths to the root, A-D-G-C and finally back to F. This creates movement that anticipates the I chord.
Jul 22

In the blues, and in many other styles of music, most notably jazz, a swing rhythm is a rhythmic concept that elongates the first note and shortens the second. This subdivision effectively “swings” the notes. When this “swing” rhythm is repeated multiple times, one directly after the other, the effect is a “shuffle”. A shuffle is simply a “groove” of repeatedly “swung” notes.

Straight Rhythm

A straight rhythm is often notated plainly, with eighth notes appearing one after the other with not modulation. You will usually see no accompanying directions besides that the tune is to be played “straight.”

Shuffle Rhythm

Shuffle rhythms are notated in western music as triplets. The first note in the triplet is twice the length of the second note, leaving the impression of an elongated first note and shortened second note. Below is a literal notation of 4 swung pairs of eighth notes. The repetition of swung notes is what makes a shuffle.

Swing rhythm

Swing rhythm isn’t as pronounced as shuffle rhythm. In a shuffle, the backing instrument will play a continuous stream of swung eight notes. In swing, a bass player may play a walking quarter note bassline while the drummer taps out a simple swing rhythm.

Swing and shuffle in common sheet music

It helps to think of swing of shuffle rhythms as “feels” or “grooves” and not direct notation styles. Often you’ll find that a lead sheet will note notate swing rhythms at all, but will show a small text note at the top of the page that reads “Medium Swing” or “Shuffle.”

The reason composers or transposers don’t literally notate swing rhythms is because they tend to become very messy and difficult to read. Most proficient musicians can simply take an otherwise straight piece of music and impose different “grooves” into the music.

Jul 9

Most blues guitarists use a simple variety of scales. While most of them likely learned from emulating their favorites, they may consider their playing as being derived from a scale, its just what they play. Its worth noting that that the minor pentatonic scale and the blues scale are often called upon by guitarists to give them the blues sound that they desire.

In this article we’ll be talking about the theory and construction of both the minor pentatonic and the blues scale. By understanding some of the theory, you can start to piece together some good places to employ either of these scales and how to vary them as you play.

The Pentatonic Scale

The pentatonic scale is a five note scale noted not only for its simplicity, but for its ease of deployment in musical situations. Lacking some of the extraneous notes, the pentatonic scale tends to fit nicely over a variety of chord changes with minimal fuss. The pentatonic flavor we shall focus on is the minor pentatonic.

The minor pentatonic is a stack of five notes. Starting with the root, a minor third is stacked upon that. After the minor third, a standard fourth is added. After the fourth, a standard fifth is appended. And finally the minor seventh, or flatted seventh is added. In the end you get these handy intervals:

  • Root
  • Minor Third
  • Fourth
  • Fifth
  • Minor Seventh

It’s worth noting that these intervals are also the basis of the blues scale. The minor pentatonic is great for using over any chord progression that resides in a minor key. An easy way to tell if a chord progression is minor is to look for the minor chord in a progression, especially if it is the first chord. This will tell you which minor key to use. An A Minor chord means you should probably use the A minor pentatonic scale.

The Blues Scale

Now that you’ve seen how simple the minor pentatonic scale is, we’re going to effectively add another note and turn that minor pentatonic scale into a blues scale. We’ll do that by adding a flat fifth in addition to the other five notes. The intervals in a blues scale are shown below:

  • Root
  • Flatted Third (blue note)
  • Fourth
  • Flatted Fifth (blue note)
  • Fifth
  • Flatted Seventh (blue note)

You’ll notice that I also tagged some of the notes as blue notes. That is because they are often contrasting against the major tonality of the chords in a standard twelve bar blues progression. The great thing about this is that the ‘blueness’ of the scale is built into the relationship of the blues progression and the scale.

As you move to the IV and V chords in the blues progression, the flatted seventh of the blues scale becomes the fourth and the minor third of the chords, respectively. These relationships mean that you can keep wailing on a single blues scale for the entirety of a blues progression. In my opinion, this help keep you in ‘the zone’. You don’t have to worry about chord changes, you just have to play your heart out.


Now that you’ve got a little taste of some of the theory behind it, go out and play this stuff!

Jul 7

Call and Response is one of the most basic musical concepts in popular music. Although the use of call and response is found as far back as the middle ages in antiphonic music, or music with “opposite voices”, the version we tend to refer to started in African work songs and is hallmark to the continuation of early African tradition into modern blues.

As a part of the tradition brought to America from Africa, African American’s in the 17th and 18th century would sing work songs heavily based on a call and response. In the early 19th century, this evolved into rural and urban blues before settling into the wide genre of blues. It is worth noting that many modern types of music, including country-western and hip-hop, have the early blues to thank for this concept.

Typically, in the blues, there are three lines of lyrics per verse. The first two lines are often repeated while the third line will often time resolve the lyric. For example, let’s look at “Cross-Cut Saw” as recorded by Albert King.


I’m a crosscut saw, baby just drag me across your log.
You know I’m a crosscut saw, just drag me across your log.
I’ll cut your wood so easy for you, you can’t help but say, “Hot Dog!”


After each call in this song, it’s typical to hear a response. The call and response would be the lyrics and guitar riff, respectively. It is also worth noting that this lyric and guitar riff isn’t the only call and response you can find. Often times the response can be a lyrics as well. In the case of a guitar duet, both call and response can be a guitar riff.


Probably the most common way to hear the call and response is two measures of lyrics of call followed by two measures of instrumental or full band response. Often times the response can be minimal, perhaps a bump note or a short burst of notes, but it is worth noting that it is a very common concept in the blues and many other types of music.

I bet you can find call and response in some unlikely places.

Jul 6

In several scales, there are notes that are often referred to as blues notes. In a decidedly non-creative naming convention, these blue notes were named after their huge presence in the blues. The blue notes are often flatted notes of an otherwise major scale, often to enhance the expressiveness of the music.

While a blue note can sound somber and lonesome, it can sound enticing and exciting in another context. Let’s learn a little more about some blue notes.


1. The Flatted Third (b3rd)

Often referred to as the minor interval, this blue note is popular for contrasting color over a major chord. As we should all know, a major chord contains the root, the major third and the fifth. The flatted third blue note plays in contrast to the major third. The flatted third is often a part of a melody or solo that sounds higher musically than the major third.

A common example of a minor third blue note is in a blues scale. A blues scale contains a root, flatted third, fourth, flatted fifth, fifth, and flatted seventh. This flatted third creates tension with the first chord’s major third in the blues progression of the same key.

2. The Flatted Fifth (b5th)

Often used as a leading tone before going to the IV and V chords of the 12 bar blues progression, the flatted fifth is another common blue note. While its popularity can rest soundly in how nicely it resolves to the next chord in a blues progression, this blue note is also useful for other things. A popular use is found in the ability for guitars to bend into the flatted fifth from the forth by way of using a half-step bend. Commonly they will bend past the blue note and hit the fifth too.

Another popular use for this blue note is as a passing tone. A passing tone is a note that is used to get to another note. While it can be a leading note for chord changes, it excels at being in a peculiar place that resides neatly by other tones commonly found in other chords in a progression.

3. The Flatted Seventh (b7th)

This blue note is renowned for giving the color to dominant seventh chords. A full step below the root (two frets), it is easy to find, easy to play, and, best of all, sounds absolutely great.

A common use of the flatted seventh is when a dominant seventh chord arrises, often the first chord of a blues progression can be dominant. It is also easy to bend from the flat seventh blue note to the root of the chord with a full step bend. Just make sure to play both of the notes by fretting them so you know when you’ve hit the root.


Now that you’ve gotten a good overview of the three most common blue notes, its time to play them. Load up your favorite blues song, find the key, and play some of these notes. Right away, you should notice the tension they create. Listen to your favorite songs and see how the greats employ those notes and emulate their playing.

Have fun!

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