Music Theory

What is a "12 Bar Blues?"

By Hoffman Academy Team
What is a 12 Bar Blues?

What’s a 12 Bar Blues? Cheer up! Mr. Alex will tell you all about it in this video. Then, at the end of this post, you’ll learn how to play a 12 Bar Blues yourself!

12-bar blues is nothing more than a structure for playing music. It’s not just limited to the blues. In fact, thousands of pop, rock, and jazz songs use a 12-bar form! Let’s take a closer look at how it’s constructed and what makes it work so well.

The Basic Structure

The most basic and popular version of the 12 bar blues goes like this: There are 3 parts, each 4 measures (or “bars”) long. Each bar uses either the I, IV, or V chord.

  • 1-4:      I – I – I – I
  • 5-8:      IV – IV – I – I
  • 9-12:    V – IV – I – I

After 12 bars of music, the musician repeats the progression again and again. What’s nice about the 12 bar blues progression is that it’s formulaic. The above pattern can be applied to any major key. The more you practice, the more comfortable it’ll start to feel. Once the standard pattern feels natural, try exploring other variations. 

In the quick change variation, a IV chord is used in the second bar of music. This abrupt change interrupts the standard 12 bar blues pattern and adds another unexpected layer for the listener. Also take note that the last chord in the sequence is a V chord. Listen for this variation in Eric Clapton’s Before You Accuse Me

  • 1-4:      I – IV – I – I
  • 5-8:      IV – IV – I – I
  • 9-12:    V – IV – I – V

Famous Songs Using 12 Bar Blues

Not sure if you’ve heard a 12 Bar Blues song before? Actually, you probably have! The 12 bar blues is a prominent chord progression often used in rock and roll.  I Feel Good by James Brown and Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley are all examples of 12 bar blues progressions. Other examples include Johnny B. Goode by Chuck Berry, Hound Dog by Elvis Presley and Ball and Biscuit by the White Stripes.

What Makes It Work?

By starting with 4 entire measures of nothing but the I chord, the standard progression anchors the sound of the tonic (the “home” key) in our ears. As it shifts momentarily to the IV chord, we get a sense of a rising tension. The high point in the form is where we see the only measure of the V chord. Here, the chords change much more quickly, which feels like the V and the IV are cascading back down to the I chord one final time before the form starts over again.

Where did the 12 bar blues originate?

No one can say for sure who created the first 12 bar blues. However it is known that the 12 bar blues developed through decades of oral tradition, passed down from one person to the next. The blues genre developed within Southern Black communities in the United States, near the end of the Civil War. As these people sang and played music from their home country and over time, it fused with other local music styles and developed into a whole other genre. The rhythmic and soulful style of the blues imitates the call-and-response patterns of work songs and spirituals. The lyrics often talk about nostalgia, freedom, and hardships, describing the experience of people of color in the South and across the United States. 

What is the 12 bar blues sequence in C major?

Let’s start with the I chord in C major. C is the first tone in the scale so the I chord is C, E, and G. Move up four tones from C (don’t forget to include C as you count up!) and we arrive at the IV chord: F, A, and C. Go up one more tone on the scale, and we arrive at the V chord: G, B, and D. The 12 bar blues progression is the following for C major.

  • 1-4:      C – C – C – C
  • 5-8:      F – F – C – C
  • 9-12:    G – F – C – C

Listen to Can’t Buy Me Love by the Beatles, written in C major. In this song, the Beatles began experimenting with a 12 bar blues progression, and it topped the charts in the United States. The progression can be heard in each verse with the C, F, and G major chords. 

Time to Play!

Learning to play a 12-bar blues can open a world of music for your playing. It’s also a really fun way to jam with other musicians. Occasionally you might come across slight variations in the form or the harmonies, but if you start with this basic form, those little changes will be easy to pick up as you encounter them. The goal is to have fun and see what you can do with it. If you’re interested, check out our more in-depth video on How To Play 12-Bar Blues:

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