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How to Play a 12 Bar Blues Progression

If you want to learn how to play blues, the first thing you need to know is what a 12 bar progression is. The most effective way to play great blues is to focus on the rhythm and learning the overall structure is step 1.

Even if you were only to play the Root note of each chord and keep the most basic beat, as long as you play in time with a solid groove, you will find that is sometimes all the tune requires. This is true regardless of if you are playing solo, jamming with one or two friends, or playing in a band.

12 Bar Blues Structure

If we take a basic 12 bar blues progression in the key of E we have the chords:

E | E | E | E |
A | A | E | E |
B | A | E | B |

From the above our 12 bars are:

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 |
5 | 6 | 7 | 8 |
9 | 10 | 11 | 12 |

Each bar consists of 4 beats. Tap your foot and count to 4 to make up 1 bar: '1, 2, 3, 4'.

So you don't loose your place you can increase the numbers from 1 to 12 as you move to the first beat of each bar.

Try it out loud, count the 12 bars above as follows:

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, 3, 4 | 11, 2, 3, 4 | 12, 2, 3, 4 |

That's one full progression. When you get to the end you just start counting over again. It's a good idea to practice counting with a metronome with a tempo of around 80 beats per minute (bpm). If you don't have a metronome, then you can practice this with the seconds of a clock which is 60 bpm (i.e. 60 seconds in a minute = 60 bpm).

If you are trying to remember what chord comes next you could count as follows:

E, 2, 3, 4 | E, 2, 3, 4 | E, 2, 3, 4 | E, 2, 3, 4 |
A, 2, 3, 4 | A, 2, 3, 4 | E, 2, 3, 4 | E, 2, 3, 4 |
B, 2, 3, 4 | A, 2, 3, 4 | E, 2, 3, 4 | B, 2, 3, 4 |

If you play those chords on a guitar, or just the Root note of each chord on guitar or bass, you will probably recognize the progression. This is a 12 bar blues.

Let's Play!

Pick up your guitar or bass (or piano if you are strong enough) and play just the Root notes on all 4 beats of each bar.

You can follow the guitar tab below on either guitar or bass.

To play the note E use the low E string which is the 6th string on your guitar, or the 4th string on your bass. This is the string closest to your eyebrows. (I could have just said face but eyebrows seemed like a good choice too!).

Here is the E:

E|------
B|------
G|------
D|------
A|------
E|--0--

To play the note A use the A string which is the 5th string on your guitar, or the 3th string on your bass:

E|------
B|------
G|------
D|------
A|--0--
E|-----

To play the note B fret the 2nd fret of the A string:

E|------
B|------
G|------
D|------
A|--2--
E|-----

By using just the 3 notes above and playing them on each beat of each bar shown in the progression, you will be playing a 12 bar blues.

You will also find that your life has dramatically improved as of this moment!

Find The Groove

As you are playing make sure that you focus on the rhythm and ensure you are in time with a drum machine, a metronome or the second hand of your grandpa's clock, your cell phone, iPod etc.

Even though we are only talking about playing 3 notes, you need to find a groove. Let yourself get into the music you are playing. Count out loud but don't just 'say' the numbers, you want to really feel the music you are playing. Use feeling when you speak, say it with song in your voice and move your body in time with the beat. Find the sound out that makes you tap your foot or even want to dance.

It may seem a bit silly to read, and even when you first start to do it, but you have to remember; not only are we talking about music that needs feeling in general, but we are talking about the blues, which is emotive and comes from your heart and soul.

Work on the above structure for the next few weeks or so and get the notes, sound and feel in your head. You can walk down the street practicing this as you walk. When you begin to get this down you will be ready to move onto the next step which is to go deeper into the rhythm and to add chords if you are a guitar player or to start building lines if you are playing bass.

Whatever you do, don't forget to feel it. The last thing you want is for someone to say 'Excuse me, but I think you dropped your groove!' That would be a disaster. Until next time, keep practicing and have fun!

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