Home : Basics : Basic 12 Bar Blues
Basic Twelve Bar Blues Patterns and Concepts:
The concepts, patterns, techniques, and harmonies found in blues music are a great way to
learn about the fundamental building blocks in other types of music. Blues music is made
up of a relatively limited set of rhythm and lead techniques/patterns. Learning these
patterns, along with the concepts that allow you to combine them in various ways, will
help you understand and learn many other types of music.
Many of the common blues patterns are recognizable by most people, including beginning
musicians. Most of the patterns are technically simple to perform, and are enjoyable to
play. Many of the patterns in this section are known by guitarists in every style of music,
and serve as common ground when musicians get together for ad hoc performances.
Blues Rhythm Patterns:
Rhythm guitar is usually thought of as the background, or "accompaniment" made to
support other prominant musical parts (vocal melodies, instrumental lead solos, etc.).
Rhythm guitar parts are typically simple, full sounding background patterns that outline
chord progressions and provide a beat for other musicians to play along with. Rhythm
parts are usually made up of strummed chords, bass line licks, and/or repetative melodic
parts. When you play rhythm guitar in a band, it usually means you are providing a solid
background while the audience listens to the singer or another instrument's lead solo.
Rhythm parts in blues songs and jams are usually made up of chords and patterns labeled
I, IV, and V (one, four, and five). Each of the parts you learn in these lessons will have a
I, IV, or V label above the music. I, IV, and V chords are usually put together in a specific
order called a "Twelve Bar Blues" progression. The twelve bar blues format is the most
common pattern in blues, and learning to play it in a variety of ways is the basis of
learning to play blues rhythm guitar. The twelve bar blues pattern is made up of the
following chords:
Many blues songs have a background chord pattern that follows the above chord
progression, or some variation. The patterns in this lesson all represent different ways of
playing I, IV, and V chords in the order above. I, IV, and V chords from each of the
examples in this lesson can be mixed and matched in virtually endless combinations to
create varied twelve bar blues progressions. Try the example below, and then experiment
with combinations of your own.
Introductions and Endings:
There are a number of common introductions and endings that most players learn and use.
These patterns are used to start off songs and jams and to cue smooth endings. All of the licks in this section can be used to start and end the 12 bar blues rhythm patterns given
earlier. Here is a typical intro attached to a rhythm pattern provided above:
That same intro pattern can be played as the last two measures of any twelve bar blues, to
form a "turnaround". Here is an example of the last four measures of a twelve bar blues,
using the above intro pattern:
Below are a number of examples of intro/ending patterns which can be used the same
More Twelve Bar Variations:
Below are a number of more complex twelve bar blues patterns, as well as some other
patterns used in blues playing. Examples include jazz blues, minor blues, eight bar blues,
and more.
Box Pattern Lead Licks:
Lead guitar is usually thought of as solo, melodic music made to fit over rhythm
backgrounds. Lead guitar parts are usually more complex, melodic, and technically
demanding than rhythm parts. They are typically made up of single lines which come
from common scale patterns. Lead parts are usually played more prominantly than the
rhythm patterns which accompany them. When you take a lead solo in a band, it typically
means that the audience is listening to you perform while the band creates a solid,
unobtrusive background of sound.
Each of the following licks comes from a simple scale diagram called a "pentatonic
scale". Pentatonic scale diagrams are often called "boxes" or "box patterns". Every lead
player knows and uses the pentatonic box patterns to create solos. The scale diagram and
tab below make up "box pattern #1". Learn this pattern - you will use it virtually every
time you play a lead guitar solo:
To create lead guitar licks from the pattern above, notes are typically applied techniques
and melodic patterns, instead of being played straight up and down as a scale. Here are
some licks created by just playing notes of the scale out in a different order:(TAB)
Most licks contain techniques that make the notes sound more interesting. The most
important technique in the blues is the "bend". A bend is executed by pushing up on a
string, with a finger on the note indicated, so that the string stretches, and the note raises
in pitch. A number "1", or the word "full" above a curved line means to bend (push on)
the tab note until it sounds like the note TWO FRETS HIGHER. To play the example
below, you should pluck the note at the 7th fret, and then bend it until it sounds the same
as the note at the 9th fret:
A number "1/2" means to bend the note so that it sounds like the note one fret higher. The
tab below tells you to pluck the 5th fret and bend it up until it sounds like the 6th fret:
The "prebend" is a technique in which you bend a note up before plucking the string.
Then, once it is bent, pluck the string and release (let down) the note. In this example,
bend the note at the 7th fret, pluck it, then release it:
The "slide" is a technique in which you pluck a note lower on the fretboard then the note
indicated in the tab, and then slide your finger up the neck until you land on the indicated
note. In the example below, you should pluck any note on the second string which is
lower than the 8th fret (5th fret, for example), and then slide your finger up to the 8th fret.
The note you start the slide on DOES NOT matter - you can create a slide sound by
starting at any note:
Slides up the neck, as above, are indicated by upward dashes. Slides down the neck are
indicated by downward dashes. The example below means to pluck a note higher than the
7th fret (9th fret, for example), and then slide down to the seventh fret:
Here are a number of the most common blues guitar licks which come from the
pentatonic box pattern shown earlier. They use notes out of order, along with the
techniques described above:
When you have learned all of the notes in the above examples, experiment with creating
some of your own from the pentatonic box pattern.
The Major Pentatonic Scale:The box pattern you learned in lesson above can be moved down 3 frets to create what is
called the "major pentatonic" scale, or the "major position". Learn the scale diagram and
tab below to make sure you know the notes of the major position:
Most of the licks presented in the first lesson can just be moved down three frets to create
a whole other batch of licks called "major blues licks". Major blues licks have what is
generally described as a "sweeter", or more "country" type of sound. Learn the following
examples to understand how to play major pentatonic licks:
Here are a number of licks which use notes from box pattern #1 AND the major position:
Adding Notes to the Pentatonic Box Pattern:
To create more interesting sounds, most players add extra notes to the pentatonic box
pattern. Play through the scale below to understand how this is done. This pattern is
called a "blues" scale:
The scale below contains other commonly added notes in the box pattern. It is usually
called a "composite" pentatonic scale:
Here are a number of licks which come from blues and composite pentatonic scales.
Some licks have been moved down three frets into the major position:
The Octave Position:
Any lick you learn can be moved up or down the fretboard 12 FRETS. Licks moved up or
down 12 frets will work over the same rhythm part, and will sound basically the same -
just in a higher or lower register. Licks which are moved up or down 12 frets are said to
be in the "octave position". The octave position lets you immediately play TWICE AS
MANY licks as you already know. Here are a number of licks from lead lessons 1-3
which have been moved up 12 frets to the octave position:
Licks All Over The Guitar Neck:In addition to the blues box diagram covered above, there are four other box patterns
which allow you to play licks all over the guitar fretboard. Those diagrams are as follows:
As with the first box pattern, you can add notes and shift each pattern down three frets to
create a major position. Here are diagrams of the blues and composite (added note)
scales, along with the major (three fret lower) verions that are commonly used:
Here is a collection of licks which come from the above diagrams. Many blues guitarists
learn these examples, and then spend the rest of their musical lives experimenting with
the scale patterns and copying others to learn how to create music with these shapes. It
can't be stressed enough that most musicians spend their ENTIRE LIVES building a
repertoire of these types of licks:
All of the music in these lessons is written in the key of A. If someone says to you, "Play
a blues in the key of A", you can play the patterns just as they are written. If you want to
play in another key, you will have to move the licks to ANOTHER FRET ON THE
Changing keys, or "transposing" music is very simple on the guitar, but it can get
confusing in the beginning. To transpose a rhythm or lead part to another key, all you
need to do is play the part several frets higher or lower on the neck. The lick below, for
example, was given in the key of A:
Here is that same lick moved down two frets. It is now in the key of G:
Here is that same lick moved up seven frets to the key of E:
To move a rhythm or lead part from the key of A (the way they are written in these
lessons) to any other key, use the chart below. It lists the number of frets you will need to
move a lick up or down to put it in the desired key. Some keys have two names. For
example, in the list below, you will see that A# is the same as Bb (A#="A sharp", Bb="B
(A) A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G# (A)
Bb Db Eb Gb AbUp: (0) 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 (12)
Down: (0) 5 4 3 2 1
To make sure the chart above is clear, try this example: to move a lick to the key of F# (or
Gb - same thing) move it up 9 frets or down 3 frets (the numbers under the F#/Gb key).
Licks which contain open strings ("0"s in tab) can be moved up just like any other lick.
The following licks contain open strings and have been moved from the key of A to the
key of E (up 7 frets):
Practice playing all of the licks you know in the keys of A, E, G, and C. These keys are
most commonly used by blues guitarists. Eventually, to be a completely competant blues
player, you should be comfortable playing all rhythm and lead parts in every key (ie., at
every possible fret). Blues in one key inevitably begins to sound boring and dull to you
and your listeners. Playing in different keys with varied rhythm and lead parts can make
songs and jams sound fresh and different.
Putting Rhythm and Lead Parts Together:
All of the rhythm and lead parts that you have learned will sound interesting on their own,
but in most styles of blues, music is made by combining rhythm and lead parts (by
playing them together at the same time). In band situations, rhythm and lead parts are
played on all instrument and voice combinations: guitars, bass, drums, keyboards,
harmonica, vocals, etc. Each instrument has its own ways of providing background and
solo parts. If you play blues with one other musician, you should expect to alternate
playing rhythm and lead parts. If you play blues by yourself, then you can mix up rhythm
and lead parts in any way that makes sense and sounds good.
Here is a written example of combined rhythm and lead parts. Try playing them with a
friend, or record one part on tape, and play along with the tape.
When you play blues with other musicians, you will switch back and forth between
playing rhythm and lead at appropriate times. Songs and jams are two formats that you
will use to play the blues. Songs are precomposed melodies and forms. When you play a
song, you typically play the same rhythm and lead parts at the same points in the song,
every time you play the song. Jams are forms which are put together on the spot, or
"improvised". Jams typically follow a well known pattern such as the twelve bar blues
pattern. If you know how to play backup patterns for twelve bar blues, and if you know
how to play lead licks that fit with those patterns (the whole bulk of these lessons), then
you can jam blues with other people.
Usually in a song, the verse and chorus guitar parts (where the singer typically sings) are made up of backup material, with sparse lead parts, or "fills" put in where they sound
good, and where they don't conflict with the melody or another instument's parts. If you
are copying a song from a record, you should be able to pick out the backup parts once
you are familiar with the patterns in these lessons. If you are making up a jam, use your
best judgement as to which patterns fit with the music the other musicians are playing.
In songs, solos are taken at predesignated times, and usually go for one or several
complete repetitions of the backup part(s) (ie., twice through the twelve bar pattern). If
you are playing a jam, just pay attention to when other musicians indicate that it's your
turn to solo. This will usually happen at the beginning of a twelve bar form. In both song
and jam situations, make sure you choose licks for solos in the SAME KEY, and with the
same tempo as the backup parts you play for a song/jam. This is the biggest problem that
beginning players have. Concentrate on playing licks that you know well and which you
can fit together well.
Continuing Your Learning:
Most guitarists learn to play by learning songs and solos by their favorite musicians. This
is one of the best ways to continue learning about music. Everything you have learned in
these lessons can be applied to other songs. You will find that virtually every blues
guitarist plays a number of licks given in these lessons. Learning songs by blues guitarists
should be very easy once you learn the moves in these lessons, because the things they do
will already be familiar. Most guitarists use a number of variations on the basic licks in
these lessons. Learn these variations, and you will understand how good music is made.
You will also become a more versatile player by learning how to fit licks that you know
into varied situations. The permutations of common patterns are infinite. You can spend
your entire life learning them and their applications through songs and solos by others.
Whenever you come to a lick that is unfamiliar, figure out what KEY it is in, and try to
relate it to a FINGERING PATTERN (scale diagram) that you know. This will help you
put it into context and use it in your own playing. You may learn the coolest licks in the
world, but if you don't know how to use them, they end up being useless. Some licks
work well over single chords or specific progressions. Many licks written over V chords
(see rhythm lesson 1), for example, don't sound good when played over IV chords.
Putting lead licks into their proper rhythm context (knowing what chords and rhythm
patterns they can be played over) is another very important part of making them usuable
in your owm playing.
There are books of transcriptions which can teach you the songs and solos of nearly every
famous musician. There are also inexpensive digital slow-mo machines that can help you
learn even the most complex guitar parts right from a tape recording. Use these resources
to pick out guitar parts that you would like to add to your playing. Transpose them, alter
them, and mix them up with other licks you know and you will start to develop a whole
style which is more complex and satisfying then each individual part.
Try to play with other musicians whenever you get a chance. Making music with friends
or a band can be one of the most enjoyable and inspiring ways to learn about music. If
you can't find anyone to jam with, consider buying some practice tapes. There are many tapes available at music stores and through magazines which simulate playing with a
blues band. They can be very helpful.
Whatever you do, CONTINUE listening to new music - that's most likely what attracted
you to the guitar in the first place. The more you listen to music, the more your love and
understanding of it will grow.

Copyright 2004-2013 Nick Antonaccio, all rights reserved.