12 bar blues is a chord progression that defines the number of bars or measures in a typical blues song structure. In this lesson we are going to learn the standard blues progression, listen to some famous examples of 12 bar blues songs and learn to play some blues on the piano.
12 Bar Blues Chord Progression
The 12 bar blues progression uses chords I IV V – the primary chords and is typically in a 4/4 time signature.
Have a look at this diagram of the progression:
You can see clearly that it has 12 bars (hence the name!!) and uses the primary chords (I, IV, V).
The chord in the 12th bar is chord I if the piece is finishing.
However, if the piece is continuing then chord V is often used – this is called a turnaround chord.
12 Bar Blues in C
Let’s try this standard progression out in C major.
The chord pattern in C major is as follows:
Let’s have a listen to how the twelve bar blues progression sounds in C major played on the piano:
We call this 12 bar blues in C as it is played in C major.
Can you hear how the overall structure has a clear sense of balance to it?
Also, you can hear how I have used chord V in the 12th bar as a turnaround chord because the piece is continuing.
Twelve Bar Blues Variations
There are many ways in which you can vary the typical 12 bar blues structure.
One of the most obvious ways is that it can be played in any key!
The example above was in C major, but we could have 12 bar blues in G, in E Flat or even in C sharp major if you felt like a real challenge!!
It can also be played in both major and minor keys.
12 bar blues in a minor key gives a fantastic moody feel to a song!
You will often find that composers change the chord in the 2nd bar from Chord I to Chord IV.
This is called quick-change or quick four and can be very effective.
Have a listen to this example of quick-change blues in E major:
Famous 12 bar blues songs
There is a huge back catalogue of blues music.
Here are just a few famous 12 bar blues examples:
Jonny B Goode
This song by Chuck Berry recorded in 1959 is one of the most famous 12 bar blues songs.
It follows the standard blues progression in B flat major and is a great example to listen to:
This iconic song by Elvis Presley from 1956 follows twelve bar blues in C:
This 1955 hit from Little Richard features some fantastic blues piano playing in F major:
How to Play Twelve Bar Blues Piano
We are going to have a look at how to play some 12 bar blues on the piano.
In order to do this we need to have a look at the bassline, the chords and the melody.
For each part I am going to give you a beginner task to try followed by a more advanced task.
The groove of a twelve bar blues piece is largely built on the bassline, which provides a foundation for the rhythmic feel and also the chord structure.
The bassline is built on the root note of each chord.
So, if we are playing 12 bar blues in C then the 1st bass note we play will be the note C as C major is the 1st chord in the progression.
When the chord changes to an F in bar 5 then we will change our bass note to F, etc…
It is possible to play blues piano with a very simple left hand bass just using a single note for each chord:
This works fine, but the groove is quite limited.
So, we can have a go at making the bassline more complicated.
Have a listen to this bassline that is based on a broken chord pattern and see if you can have a go at playing it:
You can hear how this is starting to give a bit more energy and groove to the song.
However, we can go even further by extending the bassline to a pattern based on the blues scale.
Have a go at this bassline (it may well take a bit of practice to get it right as it is quite complex):
The next part we add is the chords.
Blues music uses a lot of added chords to give it a bluesy feel.
Added chords are simply where an extra note(s) is added to the basic chord triad.
In the first chord example below I have added an A to the basic C major chord (C-E-G) – this gives it a jazz/blues sound.
I have used an added chord for each bar in the progression.
Have a go at playing these chords:
When you have practised this you can try combining the bassline and chords:
Blues melodies are created by using the notes of the blues scales.
Have a look/listen to the melody I have written for our piano blues piece below.
You can see how I have added some short sections of melody to the chords we have already practised:
Have a go at each of the bassline, chords and melody in turn.
With a bit of practising, hopefully you will be able to play a some twelve bar blues on the piano!