What is 12 bar blues?

The 12 bar blues is one of the most popular types of chord progression in contemporary music. As the name suggests, it features in blues guitar a great deal, It is also used very commonly in jazz, rock, pop, country and even heavy metal. A 12 bar blues can be played in any key, and there are many variations that can be applied. Playing a 12 bar blues provides scope both for Rhythm Guitar and Lead guitar.

Because it is open to so much variation, it can be made extremely simple to play for new guitarists, and then gradually opened up to explore new musical concepts, ideas, types of chords, scales and modes.

This, along with the fact that it’s a staple song form for just about every musical genre to feature the electric guitar, makes it a great way to approach learning the electric guitar.

The 12 bar blues is also useful simply because so many other musicians already know it. Being one of the first things that most guitarists learn, it’s more or less expected that you’ll be able to play through the basic changes of a 12 bar blues, even if you know nothing else.

This means that you will have an extra something to fall back on during impromptu jam sessions and so on.

When you’re there holding a guitar with someone and you just look at each other saying “well, what should we play?” it’s an easy and satisfying answer just to say “let’s do a blues in A”.

When you’re jamming with other instrumentalists, it leaves a lot of scope for trading solos, as well as giving singers something comfortable to work with.


12 bar blues

The basic form of the 12 bar blues contains only 3 chords. It is divided into 3 sections, each four bars long. There are many variations on the 12 bar blues, some more complex than others, but the form of it looks like this:

If these roman numerals don’t make any sense to you just yet, don’t stress. These roman numerals are used to write out chord progressions in a way that is generalised from any particular key. Each numeral indicates the scale degree that forms the root note for each chord. If this also doesn’t make sense to you, again don’t worry.

Here is how to play the basic form of the twelve bar blues in A:


12 bar blues in A

Each box represents one bar of music. You can count through at an even tempo to four for each bar. The chords are just a plain old A major, D major and E major. If you don’t know how to play these chords yet, see this video on how to play your first chords.

Have fun practicing through these chord changes. Take it slow if you have to, and try to get the change between each chord really smooth – it’s better to just go slow and gradual the whole way through than have to slow down or pause so that you can get your fingers in the right spot to get to the next chord. Once you’ve got a grip of this progression then you’ve learnt to play your first 12 bar blues!

Improvising on a 12 bar blues in A

As a guitar teacher I find that the vast majority of students that come to me looking for help with their playing have learned the basics of the blues (the chords and minor blues scale), but have hit a wall with where to go next in their playing. Since this is such a common problem, don’t feel frustrated if you find yourself in this same situation, many other guitarists have walked in your shoes countless times before.

With myriad options on where to go next with your blues soloing, it’s hard to know which approach will work best and be the right choice to build your guitar technique. One of the most interesting, and easy to learn, concepts that can really lift your blues playing to the next level is the addition of arpeggios to your improvisational vocabulary. In particular with the blues, the 13th arpeggio is a great place to start when expanding beyond the realm of blues scales and into unchartered musical territory.

So, let’s dig in on some 13th arpeggios over an A blues, starting with basic fingerings, then mixing it with the blues scale and finally putting it into practice with a few practice exercises and familiar riffs.

The 13th Arpeggio

Here is how the 13th arpeggio looks on the top four strings for each chord in the A blues, A7, D7 and E7.

Example 1

Example 1

With the arpeggio under our fingers for each chord, let’s look at how this new fingering relates to the traditional minor blues scale, again on the top four strings. Notice that two of the notes overlap between the two fingerings, the root (A) and the fifth (E), which can act as pivot notes between these two different sounds when soloing over an A blues.

Scale-Arpeggio Mixture

Example 2

Example 2

To help get this new sound into our ears and under our fingers, here is a little exercise we can add to our practice routine. It’s fairly simple, play the arpeggio up and then play down the blues scale. By doing so back to back you can really hear how the major sound of the arpeggio and the minor sound of the scale contrast in a playing situation.

Example 3

Example 3

Here is the same exercise but reversed, so you play the scale descending followed by the arpeggio ascending.

Example 4

Example 4

Traditional Licks and Riffs Using 13th Arpeggios

Now that you have the scale and arpeggio under your fingers, and in your ears, you can start to improvise with this new sound over an A blues. To help you get started, here are two famous licks from the blues tradition that use the 13th arpeggio. Example 5 is a single-line lick while Example 6 uses double stops, which will add a bit of sonic variety to your vocabulary.

*Note: For space we’ve explored these exercises over an A7 chord, but don’t forget to practice it over both D7 and E7 as well.

Example 5

Example 5

Example 6

Example 6

With this new sound under your fingers try and find as many places and moments to insert it into your blues soloing. As with any concept, you don’t want to overdo it, which might make this fresh approach sound stale and out of place. Instead, try playing 8 bars of blues scales licks, then use the 13 arpeggio in the last four bars, or a similar ratio of familiar vs. new sounds.

So, how does this arpeggio sound and feel to you? Let us know in the comments below.

1 thought on “What is 12 bar blues?”

  1. Hello, great post but I think there’s an error in the 12 bar blues in a diagram. Last two chords in 2nd row should be I chord, A not D, right?


Leave a Comment