12 Bar Blues

The 12 bar blues is easily one of the most popular chord progressions in music. If someone asks you to play a “blues in G”, they are most likely referring to a 12 bar blues. There are other variations, such as the 8 bar and 16 bar, but 12 is the most prominent. This progression is usually broken up into three groups of four measures. Typically, the singer will sing for the first two measures followed by two measures of guitar (or some other instrument). This is called call and response. The singer calls, the guitar responds. The last two measures of the progression are the turnaround, which signals to everyone that you will be returning to the beginning of the chord progression. Normally, you will keep repeating the progression until the song is over. Even though the progression repeats, there are solos, stop time sections, and many other devices used to keep it interesting.

The standard blues progression is based on three chords, the 1, 4, & 5. Usually they will be written as roman numerals – I, IV, V. How do you figure out what these three chords are? First, the one chord is the key of the tune, so if you are playing a blues in C, the I is C. To find the IV chord, you count up the scale, C=1 D=2 E=3 and F=4. You would continue on to find the V chord, G. So if you are in C, the I is C, the IV is F, and the V is G.

Below are a few popular keys:

A, D, E

E, A, B

F, Bb, C

Bb, Eb, F

Obviously there are more keys, but these five (including C) are enough to get you started.

If you are not that comfortable with theory, I have a diagram to help you. I IV V EThese show the relationships between the root of the 3 chords. If the I is on the second fret of the 6th (low e) string, then IV is next to it as the second fret of the 5th (A) string. The V is then two frets above the IV, or the fourth fret of the 5th (A) string. This works the same way as scales and bar chords, if you change the key of the I chord by moving it up three or four frets, both IV and V move up with it.

This works the exact same way if the I is on the 5th (A) string. However, instead of IV being next to it, it is two frets lower on the 6th (low e) string. V is next to the I chord on the 6th (low e) string. You will probably not use this as often as playing the I on the sixth string, but it is good to know.

I IV V AOne thing that is important to remember is you will not always be playing chords if you are the accompanist. Sometimes you will be playing the shuffle pattern or a riff like what is used in Rock Me Baby. If chords are called for, is a safe bet that you should use seventh chords.

Below are two 7 chord shapes, one with the root on the 6th and another with the root on the 5th that will fit nicely into the I, IV, V pattern we just discussed. You will only play 3 notes at a time, and if there is no finger on the string, don’t play it! With these two chords, you can play in any key. The 1 means use your index finger, 2 is middle, and 3 is ring.

7 chords

Now that all of the background stuff is taken care of, you can play the progression.

The 12 bar blues.

12 bar 1

Here’s a YouTube clip demonstrating this in Bb, with the root on the 6th fret of the 6th string. Each chord is played at the beginning of each measure, to reinforce which measures contain which harmony.

The following progression has a few examples of variations. If you want to do a quick IV, you will play IV in the second measure, going back to I in the first measure. There is also a V chord in the 12th bar. Both of these are popular, and you will need to listen to the tune you’re playing to decide if you should add them or not. Usually, if a tune is going to use the quick IV, it will do it every single time. You don’t just add it or take it out in the middle of a song.

12 bar 2

Here’s a YouTube clip demonstrating this in E, with the root on the 7th fret of the 5th string.

Have fun!


The Minor Blues Scale

The minor blues scale is one of the most important tools available to a blues musician. Material derived from this scale appears all over the place, and you can find it used by every major blues guitarist.

This scale is based on the minor pentatonic scale, with an additional note, the “blue” note.  The blue note can refer to a few different notes depending on the context, but it’s most common use is the note between the 4th and 5th scale degree.

First, start with the E minor pentatonic scale, which contains the notes E, G, A, B & D.


e minor pentatonic

Once you are comfortable with that, add the blue note (A# or Bb).


E Blues Scale

You should become so comfortable with this scale that you can play it without thinking about it.

notes on e stringOnce you can play it in E, practice moving it around. You play the scale in different keys by shifting the entire pattern up or down the fretboard. On the right side of this page is a diagram with all of the natural notes (up to the 15th fret) on the low E string.The scale is identified by paying attention to what note the root is on. In this case, the root is the lowest note of this scale. You will move this around the exact same way you move a bar chord.

To change from the E minor blues to F minor blues, you shift everything up one fret so that the root is on the first fret of the low E string, or F, instead of the open string itself. If you wanted to play a G minor blues scale, you would start the scale on the third fret; C minor blues would start on the eighth fret, etc.  Attached is a PDF with the minor blues scales in the natural keys (A, B, C, etc.) Remember, while you start in a different place each time, the shape of the scale is always the same! You should develop the dexterity to use all four fingers on your fretting hand, however you will see many great guitarists ignore the pinky. Make sure you can use it, but remember that sometimes you will need to stretch your ring finger and forget about your pinky. Minor Blues Scale Reference PDF

Once you’re comfortable with the shape referenced above, I recommend moving the second note of the scale to the next string and then shifting up.

For example, here is how you played an A minor blues scale without shifting.

A Blues No ShiftHere is how you would play it with a shift.

A Blues with Shift

Why would you want to add the shift? Realistically, if you’re play licks on the 5th and 6th strings, you’re going to want to use your ring finger to play the root so that your index finger can play the next note, making it easier to bend, because bending with your pinky is difficult. This does not work if the root of the scale is lower than G (unless you are past the 12th fret).

What fingers should you use to do the shift? First, start with your ring finger, then play the next note with your index finger. The next few notes depend on context. You will either jump your index finger up to the 5th fret, and proceed to play 6 with your middle and 7 with your ring OR play 5 with ring and slide it up (6 and 7 with ring). See what is easiest for you, and remember, context is extremely important. We have also attached a reference sheet for the scale with a shift on the 5th string. Minor Blues Scale with shift on 5th String Reference PDF

Have fun!


The “shuffle” feel is the heart of the blues. If you can’t play this rhythm, you may be playing “bluesy” notes, but you’re not actually playing the blues. The term “shuffle” was applied to a musical rhythm in the early 20th century and includes dixieland, ragtime, and blues music. If you would like to read an in-depth history of shuffle, I highly recommend the introduction in Dave Rubin’s book, Art of the Shuffle.

When someone asks a guitarist to play a blues shuffle, they are usually referring to a particular accompaniment style. There are a few examples of a typical shuffle (audio coming soon) below. First, an explanation of the notation. The shuffle has a triplet feel. Basically, if you have a set of 3 triplets, you get the shuffle feel by leaving the middle triplet out. There are three basic ways that shuffle can be written out. The first is in 4/4 time with the word shuffle at the beginning of the tune. It looks like this…
shuffle 1

The second way to write a shuffle (and the way it will be written on this blog) is in 12/8. I prefer this way, because the rhythm is crystal clear.

shuffle 2

The third way involves actually writing in the triplets for every beat. It is an accurate representation of the rhythm, but extremely tedious to read and write out.

shuffle 3

All of the reading aside, blues is an aural tradition. It does not matter how it is written out, what matters is that it sounds correct. You have to listen to the music and play along with tunes to truly learn how to play it.

Time to start playing! Here’s your first example, a shuffle in E. You know this is in E because the open E string is the lowest note. Play this over and over until the feel and sound are correct. You should be able to play this correctly without thinking about where your fingers are or when to strum the strings.

shuffle 2

Next, you will do the exact same thing in A. This is in A because the open A string is the lowest note.

shuffle 4

And finally, the same thing in D.

shuffle 5

Once you’re comfortable with each one by itself, put it into a 12 bar blues in A (with the V chord at the end). The 12 bar blues in A uses all three of the examples above.


Give it a listen below.

Occasionally, you’re going to have to play these without an open string. Make sure you’re warmed up, because this will stretch your left hand! Here is an example of how to play this with G on the 6th string as your bass note.

shuffle G


A few tunes that have a shuffle feel:

Sweet Home Chicago by Robert Johnson

Baby What You Want Me To Do by Jimmy Reed

Dust My Broom by Elmore James

Junior Shuffle by Muddy Waters


Brendan performs and offers guitar lessons in Denver

Joe is the guitarist and vocalist of The Jakobins, based in Kansas City.