What do the songs Let's Stick Together by Roxy Music, I Want to Break Free by Queen, and Rock and Roll by Led Zeppelin have in common? They are all 12 Bar Blues. Okay, I Want to Break Free diverges from the pattern at times, but it's based quite strongly on a 12 Bar Blues. Scores of other hits have used this pattern. You probably think that the 12 bar blues is a standard pattern that old critters have been playing for decades. Well, that's partially true.
The twelve bar blues is a standard pattern that every musician should be comfortable playing. It's shown up in jazz, pop and rock. Piano players, guitar players and bass players should all learn how to play this pattern. It can a slow Mississippi grind or something fast paced like the classic Johnny B Goode or Poison's cover of 'Your Mama Don't Dance'.
Why is it called the 12 bar blues? Because it's a blues pattern that cycles every 12 bars. One good way to visualise this pattern is to break it into smaller components – at least when learning it. After a time the whole pattern will be a complete whole and you should be able to play it smoothly and in any key. Take a look at the diagram.
You can quite easily see the twelve bars of the pattern, obviously numbered 1 to 12. When you get to the last bar you repeat the pattern. Roman numerals are used to identify which chords are played for each bar. I is the first chord of a key, IV is the fourth chord of a key, and V is the fifth chord of a key. I, IV and V stand for 1st, 4th and 5th, respectively. The easiest version on a piano is to play in the key of C where chord I is 'C', chord IV is 'F' and chord 'G' is IV. These are all major chords.
Guitarists and bass players often play in the keys of A or E, but many other keys as well. In the key of A the chords will be A, D & E and in the key of E they are E, A and B. Try playing through these three keys on your instrument to get a good feel for the pattern.
The key of G can also be a popular key as its not to difficult for piano or guitar players to improvise great sounding solos. Most often bass players use walking patterns, but that's a topic for a different lesson. If you want to learn more about working out which chords to use in a key watch our video lesson on creating music patterns in the key of G. After you watch this video you should be able to work out the chords you need to use in the key of G.
There is an alternate version of the 12 bar blues. Can you spot the difference between the example below and the first example? 'The Sky is Crying' by Stevie Ray Vaughan uses this second pattern. The second pattern can be a little off-putting for beginner players so it's best to get solid on the first one, then progress.
The difference is the second bar. There's a shift to the fourth chord. Finally, there is also an 8 bar blues. Its a less common pattern, but still fun to play and can be a good way to venture into new musical territory. It's a fairly straight forward pattern. Notice bar six, the V and IV chords get half a bar each.
To create your patterns use any of the chords we've suggested here- key of C, key of A, key of E and key of G. Those are all major keys. You can also try substituting any or all of the chords in your pattern with 7th chords. For example, in the key of A you could use A, D and E7. Or, in the key of D (giving you another key) you could play entirely with 7th chords, D7, G7 and A7.
Lastly, you can also play all of the patterns in minor keys. For example, the key of e minor would use the chords em, am and bm. It's not as common as the Major and 7th chord styles, but you can do it.
Ok, friends, that's it for this guide to standard blues patterns. Have you got a favourite blues song or artist? Why not let us know in the comments. Happy jamming!