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Home > Progressions > Blues

Blues Chord Progressions on Guitar

Blues has kept the same overall formula since its growth in popularity in the early 20th century. This lesson will introduce you to the blues chord progressions that define the genre, and some common variations.
Blues Learning System

There are three main forms in blues - 12 bar blues (which is what most people are familiar with), 8 bar blues and 16 bar blues (least common).

There are also variations such as minor key blues and the more elaborate jazz blues which we'll touch on later.

It's useful to know that blues is also the foundation of genres such as rock and roll and even metal has its own bluesy subgenres.

Ultimately, it's up to you how you use the blues chord progressions we're about to learn.

Major and minor key blues chord progressions

Major key blues

Most blues you'll hear is in a major key. That means the first chord in the progression is a major chord. If that chord was E major, then E major would be the key of the progression.

E major would be what is known as the tonic or 1 chord, often referred to using Roman numerals (so 1 would be I)

Another chord used in blues progressions is the 4 (IV) chord or subdominant chord. In our key of E major, that would be A major.

The final chord in typical blues progressions is the 5 (V) chord or dominant chord. In E major, that would be B major.

So, when you hear people refer to a 1 4 5 (I IV V) progression, in the key of E major that would be E, A, B.

1 4 5 is essentially the backbone of blues. Three simple chords!

You should learn to visualise this 1 4 5 relationship wherever you are on the fretboard. The easiest way to do this is to first identify the root/bass notes of each chord on the low E and A strings...

With tonic on the low E string
1 4 5 blues chord roots with tonic on E string

1 (I)  4 (IV)  5 (V)
With tonic on the A string
1 4 5 with tonic on A string
1 4 5 variation with tonic on A string

That root note formation is movable depending on the key in which you're playing. So if you wanted your progression to be in the key of A major, simply position the 1 chord root note on the note A (e.g. E string, 5th fret) and position the 4 and 5 chords based on the formations above.

The below table shows you the chords in the most common keys. Use it to test your knowledge of how the 4 and 5 chords relate to the tonic in different keys.

Key I IV V
E E(7) A(7) B(7)
A A(7) D(7) E(7)
C C(7) F(7) G(7)
D D(7) G(7) A(7)
B B(7) E(7) F#(7)
G G(7) C(7) D(7)

Typically, blues uses dominant 7th chords. For example, the 1 4 5 progression in E major would be E7, A7, B7.

Sometimes, the major 4 chord (IV) is substituted with a minor 4 chord (iv). A typical progression in the key of E major would be E, A, Am, E, B7, E. You could see this is mixing major and minor key blues. Experiment with using this variation in the different forms later in this lesson.

Many guitarists just use open chords or barre chords in their blues progressions. Remember also, for heavier blues styles, power chords are often used in place of full blown 7th chords.

You can learn the most common blues guitar chords in the separate lesson.

Minor key blues

Minor key blues uses exactly the same 1 4 5 relationship, but with minor chords instead of major. So, an E minor blues progression would typically be Em7, Am7, Bm7 (i iv v).

However, sometimes a major 5 chord is used to create more tension before the return "home" to the tonic. For example, Em, Am, B7 (i iv V).

Keep this in mind as we look at the blues forms below...

12 bar blues chord progressions

12 bar blues is the most commonly used blues form. First, if you're not familiar with the concept of "bars", let's break it down...

Bars can best be described as consisting of a count of 4. So 12 bars would be 12 x 4. Here's how the first 4 bars would be counted out...

Bar 1 2 3 4
Count 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4

Click to hear an example of how these 4 bars would typically be played out in a blues context.

Now, in 12 bar blues, there are several variations on when the chord changes occur during the 12 bars. However, the overall length remains at 12 bars.

Here are some of the most common variations.

Bar 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 Example in E
Var. 1 I I I IV IV I I V IV I V hear example
Var. 2 I I I I IV IV I I V IV I I hear example
Var. 3 I I I IV IV I I V V I I hear example
Var. 4 I IV I I IV IV I I V IV I V hear example
Var. 5 I I I IV IV I I IV V I V hear example

So as you can see, the variations are quite subtle, but there are consistencies such as the 1 chord on the 1st, 3rd and 4th bars, and the 4 chord on the 5th and 6th bars. The 5 chord only really comes in during the last 4 bars.

The turnaround

The last 2 bars typically contain what is often referred to as the "turnaround". This is the climax of the 12 bar blues sequence that prepares the listener for the return to the tonic and a new 12 bars.

There are a number of embellishments you can apply during these last 2 bars to enhance the turnaround function, but we'll cover those in a separate lesson on blues technique. If you listen to blues, you'll already be familiar with some turnaround variations.

Serious about mastering blues guitar? Guitar Tricks have developed the most comprehensive multimedia blues guitar course available, taking you from beginner right through to advanced playing. Take a look here

8 bar blues chord progressions

Less common than 12 bar blues, the 8 bar blues form condenses the 1 4 5 sequence into... 8 bars!

Here are some common variations. Note that, in this blues form, chord changes can occur within the same bar, as indicated in the some of the variations below. When this is the case, the chord change will occur on the 3rd count, in the middle of the 4 count bar. Listen to the examples to get your bearings...

Bar 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Example in E
Var. 1 I      V    IV   IV   I      V  IV I V    hear example
Var. 2 I I IV IV I V I  IV  I  V hear example
Var. 3 I I I   I   IV  IV V I   hear example
Var. 4 I IV IV I V I V
hear example
Var. 5 I     I     I I IV IV V V hear example
Var. 6 I I I I IV V I V hear example
Var. 7 I I IV IV I V I  IV I  V hear example
Var. 8 IV IV I I V IV I V  I hear example

Notice how that last variation starts on the IV chord. This is commonly used as a bridge or interlude in a standard blues progression. You don't always have to start on the tonic chord!

16 bar blues chord progressions

An even less commonly used form, but still good to know about! 16 bar blues can be seen as an extension of the standard 12 bar form (4 additional bars).

Some common variations. Try chopping and changing chords. There are no rules as such, just ideas.

Bar 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 Ex.
1 I    I I    I    I    I I    I    IV IV I I V IV I I hear
2 I I I I IV IV I I V V IV IV I I I I hear
3 I I I   I   IV IV I   I   IV IV I I V V I I hear
4 I I    I I IV IV I I V IV V IV V IV I I hear
5 I I    I I IV IV I I V IV V IV I I I I hear

Jazz blues chord progressions

Jazz often uses the staple blues chord progressions from above as the foundation and embellishes them by adding other chords from the diatonic scale, such as the 2 (ii/II) and 6 (vi/VI) chords. Plus, it often adds diminished chords, for example a half step up from the 4 chord position (e.g. Eb7 to Edim7).

You can learn all about these other chord degrees back in the main section.

Some typical jazz variations on the 12 bar blues, in the common key of Bb (B flat) would be...

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 Ex.
Bb7 Eb7 Bb7 Bb7 Eb7 Eb7 Bb7 G7 C7 F7 Bb7
Bb7 Eb7 Bb7 Bb7 Eb7 Edim7 Bb7 G7 Cm7 F7 Bb7
Bb7 Eb7
Bb7 Fm7
Eb7 Edim7 Bb7 G7 Cm7 F7 Bb7
BbM7 Am7b5
Gm7 Fm7
Eb7 Ab7 Bb7 Ab7
C7 F7 BbM7

Note that BbM7 with a capital M is an abbreviation for "Bbmaj7" or "B flat major 7th".

I'll cover jazz variation more in its own section, but the above examples should give you a solid grounding in jazz blues which you can build on in your own way. Try transposing these progressions to different keys.

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