Improvisational Theory - Playing The Blues

Published April 11th, 2006. © Chris Juergensen/chrisjuergensen.com. All Rights Reserved.

This lesson has been revised and published in THE INFINITE GUITAR. Info >>>

Why the Blues is so Important - When it comes right down to it, all the popular music today is here because of the blues. I don't want to get into a long history lesson here or anything but if you are interested, you can check out my article: "The Spirit of the Guitar." I just want to add here that most likely no matter music you are into, especially if it is guitar-influenced music, it got its start somewhere in the Mississippi basin, maybe New Orleans or Mississippi. Muddy Waters and before him Robert Johnson got the ball rolling. If you are serious about the guitar you will need to get into the blues at least a little (if not a lot) and let it take a hold of you. It will teach you how to phrase, and how to bend and how to talk on your instrument. The Blues is the foundation on which all other 20th century music was built. Trying to play music without learning how to play the blues would be like a cook trying to be a cook without knowing how to boil water (Muddy Water). The blues would branch out into Jazz, R&B, Funk and Rock and take over the world. You may think that it has nothing to do with those genres anymore, but you would be wrong. If you listen closely you can still hear it.

The Blues Form - Anyway, lets get into it. First we will talk about form. The Blues is like a Japanese Haiku poem in the sense that the form is pretty much determined already. Almost all blues is based on a twelve bar progression and on only three chords. Even when the key changes, it will still be based on the Tonic, Sub-Dominant and Dominant chords of the key (the I, IV and V chords). Unlike most diatonic progressions, the chords are usually dominant chords. 7th, 9th and 13th chords are all common. Take a look at the example of an A blues progression below. I've written it using 9th chords, which seem to work nicely for a slow blues. The second chord is sometimes left out. When you include it, it is called the "quick change." The example below is in the key of A, a favorite amongst guitarists:
This song from my "Big Bad Sun" CD is a typical twelve bar Blues in the key of A: "Tell Me a Story."

The Eight Bar Blues - Although the twelve bar blues is the most common form, there is also an eight bar blues that pops up from time to time. It looks like this:

Turnarounds - The last two bars are very important. The player often plays what is called a "turnaround" here. As the name suggests, it is a phrase that takes the listener back to the top. You as a player can leave your signature here so to speak. There are different ways to play through the turnaround, you can play right though it or play a standard type turnaround or a combination of the two. It may help to learn a few of the standards before trying to come up with your own. You can play a somewhat convincing Blues by playing a minor pentatonic scale through the first ten bars before playing a traditional style turnaround at the end.
Turnaround 1 - You can use a pick or your fingers for this one. You'll have to jump a few strings but it is not such an undertaking. The last two chords are an F9 and E9 chord but could be a phrase too:

Turnaround 2 - This turnaround is based on the top two strings. The A note on the first string stays the same while the E note on the second string descends chromatically:

Turnaround 3 - Similar to our previous example except the chromatic line on the second string is reversed:

Turnaround 4 - A combination of examples 1 and 2. You will most likely need to use you r fingers with this one:

Turnaround 5 - The same as the last example but the A note on the first string has been moved to the third string:

Turnaround 6 - This example is really just a combination of examples 1 and 3. This is a great one because you have some interesting voice leading going on. The note on the first string stays the same while the note on the second string ascends chromatically. The note on the fourth string descends chromatically. Every voice is doing something different:
Try and see if you can tell which turnaround I play in this song: "Big Bad Sun." The key is G, but the turnarounds are basically standard ones.

The Minor Blues - There are also a few other different blues progressions that are quite common. This is an example of a minor blues. Minor Blues usually does not usually have a "turnaround" bringing it back to the top. There are a few different variations also but this is the most common one you will find:

The Jazz Blues - And finally the Jazz Blues. Still based on the same twelve bars and the same three chords. The Jazz musician prefers to add some complexity to the progression by adding more chords, mostly secondary dominants. There are also a few variations here too, but this one is a fairly common example:

Bending the Rules - After all is said and done and you've learned the rules of the Blues, you can bend them a bit from time to time. In the following example I added a few different chords (the Fadd9 in the eighth bar) and changed the form to ten bars but the feel and attitude comes straight from traditional blues:
Check out the recorded version: "Sweet Melissa."
And, me recording the a Blues solo in G:
A lot of musicians will try to tell you that the Blues is easy to play. The truth is that there are not a lot of players who do it convincingly. Let them become a part of your practice routine and make sure that you pick up some of the classics from the likes of Muddy Waters, Albert King and Albert Collins and listen like crazy.
Check out this "Blues Rules" thing that a friend sent me, it is a real crack up!

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