Why Do They Call It 12 Bar Blues?

Blues music has its origins in West African people brought over as slaves. From their work songs and spirituals came blues music with its rhythmic style combined with lyrics about nostalgia and freedom.

Over time, this chord progression became the cornerstone of R&B and later rock and roll music. Additionally, jazz artists use it frequently; therefore it serves as an invaluable resource when learning guitar.

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The 12 bar blues is the signature chord progression used in blues music. You’ll often find this chord progression used across songs from simple shuffles to complex arrangements and often with lyrics that tell stories or convey emotions; these could range from straightforward stories to poetic evocations with complex phrasing that adds much of its own flavour to each tune. The 12 bar blues is often an integral component of many Blues songs, and can help add atmosphere when played properly.

One of the most intriguing aspects of 12 bar blues is its history as it evolved from African music. A central theme in African music is freedom; thus carrying over to America as one form of protest against slavery and in search of liberation; then eventually transformed into different genres such as jazz, R&B and rock ‘n’ roll music genres.

There are various theories regarding the roots of 12 bar blues music, but no definitive answer can be provided. One widely held belief is that blues was developed from field hollers sung by African-American slaves (and later sharecroppers and other laborers) while working fields. These work songs typically had slow, deliberate tempos with an almost hypnotic quality to them that hypnotized listeners as they toiled away under hot sun conditions.

One feature of blues music adapted for American consumption was stop time meter, popularized by Muddy Waters and used by numerous blues artists such as B.B. King, Willie Dixon and others in their songs. This metric adds emphasis to rhythm of blues music and makes its signature feel all the more apparent.

Blues music incorporates more than the simple stop time meter; it also uses elements known as ii-V progressions to extend chord changes and give its unique sound. Due to their popularity, the 12-bar blues format and ii-V progressions were later used as the foundation for various styles such as jazz, rhythm & blues and later rock and roll music genres.


Those familiar with music will likely recognize the fundamental 12-bar blues chord progression as the cornerstone for various styles such as R&B, jazz and rock and roll.

The basic structure of 12 bar blues consists of simple major triads played in sequence. For added variety, chords may be altered in various ways such as replacing root chord with minor one or adding secondary dominant (iv) chord as opposed to traditional V chord.

Altering the turnaround in the final two bars of a 12-bar blues chord progression can also add variation, providing it with its signature climactic feel and being an essential part of any song using this chord progression. You can augment it in various ways such as adding chromatic chords or augmenting it using Eb7 and Bbmaj7 chords.

Bird Blues or Bebop blues is an increasingly popular variation on the traditional 12-bar blues that made its debut with Charlie Parker, an influential saxophonist who made bebop famous. This form combines elements of 12 bar blues with repeated chord sequences consisting of II-IV-V and VI, creating an extended harmonic progression and giving an impression of unfinishedness to create its unique sound.

Integrating variations into the 12 bar blues is easy and essential for any aspiring musician, helping you to find your own distinct musical voice and set yourself apart from other musicians. Many iconic artists such as Bill Haley, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Cash and Stevie Ray Vaughn have utilized 12 bar blues songs within their songs over time – to name only a few!

The 12 bar blues is an extremely versatile genre of music and its use can be found across a range of genres today. While other songs can feature complex rhythmic structures with multiple progressions and rhythmic patterns, starting out playing blues guitar should always be your go-to tune!


An 11 bar blues song usually employs a 4/4 rhythm, in which four quarter notes (or eighth notes) per beat are played. Though other rhythms exist that could be used, this particular rhythm has proven quite popular due to being easy for beginners to learn as well as very distinctive and enjoyable to play.

Blues music is an improvised art form, so its 12-bar blues arrangement may differ from song to song. But its basic progression remains consistent. It consists of tonic chord, subdominant chord and dominant chord of each key (known musically as I, IV and V respectively) along with a turnaround in the last two bars – key features of blues songs.

Altering the 12-bar blues by adding a minor seventh chord in bar 4 changes the chord from A7 to A7-adds more of a dominant sound and is a hallmark of blues music. Furthermore, some musicians will forgoing the turnaround altogether and skip directly to playing IV chord in final two bars is another variation on this genre of music.

Because blues has such an immense influence on other musical genres, its influence can often be heard in songs from rock and roll to jazz genres – for instance in Chuck Berry’s Johnny B Goode or Robert Johnson’s Crossroads for instance.

Practice playing the standard 12 bar blues chord progression on guitar by ear until it becomes second nature, then switch keys or alter styles until you understand how it functions in different environments.

A 12-bar blues can help develop your ability to closely listen and recognize chords by ear. Once this skill has been learned, picking out chords in popular songs should become much simpler, while it could even serve as an introduction to other genres such as jazz or rock and roll based around similar chord progressions.


Every aspiring guitar player should give learning blues a try; it’s a fun form to explore and can help hone your chord progression skills while teaching improvisation techniques and creating personal styles of playing.

No matter if your goal is to recreate the sound of one of your favorite blues artists or simply wish to experiment with a unique sound, 12 bar blues is an excellent place to begin. It has been around since decades ago and influenced countless genres of music. Furthermore, musicians often turn to it when writing new material.

The chord progression used in 12 bar blues is straightforward and easily understood, consisting of just three chords that repeat throughout a 12-bar musical measure cycle – starting with 1 chord for four measures before switching over to 4 for two, 5 for one, and finally back again until song ends.

While most songs containing 12 bar blues structures feature vocals, this chord progression can also be found in other genres of music such as rock and roll, country, R&B, folk or any other. It is estimated that thousands or possibly even millions of songs have been written using it!

The blues is an influential genre that has impacted numerous artists over its long history and remains relevant today. It continues to develop and influence modern music production; serving as an excellent example of how music has the ability to bring people together and transform lives around us.

Rhino Records has announced the reissue of Stone Temple Pilots and Velvet Revolver frontman Scott Weiland’s debut solo album with an exclusive bonus track: an early demo version of his hit single, “12 Bar Blues.” It showcases its stripped down approach before its eventual acoustic lean – making this release of his album in celebration of its 25th anniversary unique in terms of bonus tracks available to listeners.