Learning the 12-bar Blues

The 12-bar blues is a common form used in not only the blues, but also jazz, R&B, rock’n’roll, soul, and other types of vernacular music. Learning the form and the changes (i.e. chord progression) is the first step in learning to play the blues. In performing and listening to African American music, the 12-bar blues is de rigeur!


1) review our lesson on hearing basic harmony (I, IV, and V).

Lets get familiar with this basic “change” I–IV–I–V–I:

Basic blues chords in F

This is what they sound like:


Basic blues chords in F

2) review our lesson on beat and meter, and counting measures.


3) practice counting measures:

1 2 3 4 | 2 2 3 4 | 3 2 3 4 | 4 2 3 4 |

| 5 2 3 4 | 6 2 3 4 | 7 2 3 4 | 8 2 3 4 |

| 9 2 3 4 | 10 2 2 2 | 11 2 3 4 | 12 2 3 4 |


Now, let’s try putting together what you have  absorbed and learned about hearing basic harmony, melody, and rhythm with what you have learned to do (counting measures, hearing chord changes), and learn 12-bar blues form.


1) Absorb: The 12-bar blues, if a song, has 2 components, the music and the lyrics. Both are typically in A A B form. With respect to text, the singer says something, repeats it, then rounds out the couplet.

A Oh, baby don’t you want to go

A Oh, baby don’t you want to go

B Back to the land of California, Sweet Home Chicag

The musical form follows a similar plan. First we hear the I chord, and sit there for 4 measures (there are variants, which we will talk about later)

A Oh, baby don’t you want to go

(sometimes the musician can elaborate on the harmony, but this is all about I)

In the second line, s/he changes chords to rest of IV for two measures, then back to I

A Oh, baby don’t you want to go

IV                                             I

In the third and final line of the form, the singers supplies the couplet and then plays V and returns to I. If the song has additional verse, s/he plays a “turnaround” to “kick” us back to one and keep the forward momentum going.

B Back to the land of California, Sweet Home Chicago

V                                              IV                   I

(in this example, Robert Johnson slides through IV before returning to I; this is a common blues technique. Rather than thinking of the 12 bars pattern as an absolute, think of it as a musical blueprint that singers and instrumentalists have in mind when they are playing and improvising).