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Twelve-bar blues

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Typical boogie woogie bassline on twelve-bar blues progression in C, chord roots in red. About this sound Play 

The twelve-bar blues or blues changes is one of the most prominent chord progressions in popular music. The blues progression has a distinctive form in lyrics, phrase, chord structure, and duration. In its basic form, it is predominantly based on the I, IV, and V chords of a key.

The blues can be played in any key. Mastery of the blues and rhythm changes are "critical elements for building a jazz repertoire".[1]



The most common or standard twelve-bar blues progressions variations, in C. (Benward & Saker, 2003, p. 186)   Play A ,   B ,   C ,   D , and   E  as boogie woogie basslines. For example, Robert Johnson's "Sweet Home Chicago" (1936) uses A.

In the key of C, one basic blues progression (E from above) is as follows.[2] (For the most commonly used patterns see the section "Variations", below.)

Different notations
Chord Function Numerical Roman
Tonic T 1 I
Subdominant S 4 IV
Dominant D 5 V

Chords may be also represented by a few different notation systems such as sheet music and electronic music. A basic example of the progression would look like this, using T to indicate the tonic, S for the subdominant, and D for the dominant, and representing one chord. In Roman numeral analysis the tonic is called the I, the sub-dominant the IV, and the dominant the V. (These three chords are the basis of thousands of pop songs, which thus often have a blues sound even without using the classical twelve-bar form.)

Using said notations, the chord progression outlined above can be represented as follows.[3]

The first line takes four bars, as do the remaining two lines, for a total of twelve bars. However, the vocal or lead phrases, though they often come in threes, do not coincide with the above three lines or sections. This overlap between the grouping of the accompaniment and the vocal is part of what creates interest in the twelve bar blues.


"W.C. Handy, 'the Father of the Blues', codified this blues form to help musicians communicate chord changes."[4] Many variations are possible. The length of sections may be varied to create eight-bar blues or sixteen-bar blues.

In the original form, the dominant chord continued through the tenth bar; later on the V–IV–I–I "shuffle blues" pattern became standard in the third set of four bars:[5]


The common quick to four or quick-change (quick four[6]) variation uses the subdominant chord in the second bar:

These variations are not mutually exclusive; the rules for generating them may be combined with one another (or with others not listed) to generate more complex variations.

Seventh chords are often used just before a change, and more changes can be added. A more complicated example might look like this, where "7" indicates a seventh chord:

Using a seventh chord

When the last bar contains the dominant, that bar may be called a turnaround; otherwise the last four measures is the blues turnaround.

Basic jazz blues progression
I7 IV7 IVo I7 v7 I7
ii7 V7 III7 VI7 II7 V7

In jazz, twelve-bar blues progressions are expanded with moving substitutions and chordal variations. The cadence (or last four measures) uniquely leads to the root by perfect intervals of fourths.

Bop V/ii arpeggio, in second measure, upwards from third (C) to ninth (B): A79(Spitzer 2001, 62) the dominant of D minor (ii in C major)   Play .

The Bebop blues:[7]

Bebop blues
I7 IV7 I7 v7 I7
IV7 IVo7 I7 V/ii9
ii7 V7 I7 V/ii9 ii7 V7

This progression is similar to Charlie Parker's "Now's the Time", "Billie's Bounce", Sonny Rollins's "Tenor Madness", and many other bop tunes.[7] "It is a bop soloist's cliche to arpeggiate this chord [A79 (V/ii = VI79)] from the 3 up to the 9."[7]

Minor blues (Spitzer 2001, p. 63)
i7 i7 i7 i7
iv7 iv7 i7 i7
VI7 V7 i7 i7

There are also minor twelve-bar blues, such as John Coltrane's "Equinox" and "Mr. P.C.",[8] and "Why Don't You Do Right?", made famous by Lil Green with Big Bill Broonzy and then Peggy Lee with the Benny Goodman Orchestra.[citation needed] The chord on the fifth scale degree may be major (V7) or minor (v7), in which case it fits a dorian scale along with the minor i7 and iv7 chords, creating a modal feeling.[8] Major and minor can also be mixed together, a signature characteristic of the music of Charles Brown.[9]

While the blues is most often considered to be in sectional strophic form with a verse-chorus pattern, it may also be considered as an extension of the variational chaconne procedure. Van der Merwe (1989) considers it developed in part specifically from the American Gregory Walker, though the conventional account would consider hymns to have provided the repeating chord progression or harmonic formulae of the blues.[10]

Lyrical patternsEdit

The lyrics of most blues songs consist of verses of three lines, of which the first two are the same or vary slightly in wording, often with an interjection in the second line:

I hate to see the evening sun go down,

Yes, I hate to see that evening sun go down
'Cause it makes me think I'm on my last go 'round

However, many songs using the blues chord progression have lyrics that are not in the three-line form. For instance, "I'm Moving On" has a verse in the first four bars and a chorus in the final eight bars:

That big eight-wheeler rollin' down the track

Means your true lovin' daddy ain't comin' back.

I'm movin' on, I'll soon be gone
You were flyin' too high for my little old sky
So I'm movin' on.

Here is an example showing the twelve-bar blues pattern and how it fits with the lyrics of a given verse. One chord symbol is used per beat, with "-" representing the continuation of the previous chord:

I        -     -      -      IV     -   -    -             I - - - I7 - - -
Woke up this morning with an awful aching head

IV        -     -      -     IV7    -   -    -             I - - - I7 - - -
Woke up this morning with an awful aching head

V     -        -     V7      IV    -    -     IV7          I - - - I - V V7
My new man had left me,      just a room and an empty bed.
— Bessie Smith, "Empty Bed Blues"[citation needed]

Another example, "Johnny B. Goode" (written and first recorded by Chuck Berry), applies a "shuffle" or "light 'swing'" rhythm to one of the more common twelve-bar progressions:[citation needed]

Line Pickup Measure 1 Measure 2 Measure 3 Measure 4
1 Deep B (I) down in Lou'siana, close to B (I) New Orleans, way B (I) back up in the woods among the B (I) evergreens,
2 There E (IV) stood a log cabin, made from E (IV) earth and wood, where B (I) lived a country boy named B (I) Johnny B. Goode.
3 He F (V) never really learned to read or F7 (V7) write too well, but he could B (I) play a guitar just like a- B (I) -ringin' a bell.



  1. ^ Thomas 2002, p. 85.
  2. ^ Benward & Saker 2003, p. 186.
  3. ^ Kernfeld 2007
  4. ^ Fruteland (2002), p. 18
  5. ^ Tanner and Gerow 1984, p. 37, cited in Baker 2004: "This alteration [V–IV–I rather than V–V–I] is now considered standard."
  6. ^ National Guitar Workshop (2003), p. 34
  7. ^ a b c Spitzer (2001,) p. 62
  8. ^ a b Spitzer (2001), p. 63.
  9. ^ Perna, Alan di (April, 1991). "Jazzin' the Blues with Charles Brown", Musician: Issues 147-152, p.180; no. 150, p.80. "Brown alternates between an Fmin7 and a B7. Minor to major, just like the man says." Amordian Press.
  10. ^ Middleton 1990, pp. 117–118.


Further readingEdit

External linksEdit