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

Famous Songs Using 12 Bar Blues

Not sure if you’ve heard a 12 Bar Blues song before? Actually, you probably have!

Johnny B. Goode by Chuck Berry

Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley & His Comets

Can’t Buy Me Love by the Beatles

I Feel Good by James Brown

What Makes It Work?

By starting with 4 entire measures of nothing but the I chord, this form really 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.

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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