What Does It Mean When A Song Uses The 12 Bar Blues?

by Maurice Richard
Senior Instructor at Halifax Guitar Lessons

Whether you play guitar or not most people have heard the term 12 Bar Blues by the time they are adults.

If you do not listen to blues much you may not really understand what it means.

I certainly did not know what it was for a very long time and I had been playing guitar for a long time when I finally learned what it was.

So, you are not alone if you do not understand this.

The cool thing is that it’s easy to understand and once it is explained to you it will stick with you forever.

12 Bar Blues Basics

A 12 Bar Blues progression is made up of 12 bars or measures of music which repeats. Progression just means a series of chords that follow each other.

Each bar typically has 4 beats each and those can be divided in any way you want. The main point is there are 12 bars in total.

The other basic piece of this type of progression are the chords used. The most basic version uses only 3 chords which are used in a specific order.

If you understand a bit of music theory the three chords used are very specific. They use what is called a I – IV – V progression.

If you do not understand what that means do not fret. All you have to know are the chord names.

See the chart below for some examples of the chords used in a 12 bar blues progression.

12 bar blues chords

The 12 Bar Blues Basic Progression Structure

The basic 12 Bar Blues progression is 12 total bars of music. Period. No more, no less.

It is a repeating progression of a set of 3 chords which are shown in the diagram above and that occur in a predictable order and at specific times.

Using the Roman Numerals named already the progression will look follow this typical path.

12 bar blues progression

Notice where each numeral appears in the progression. There are variations but overall it looks similar to this all the time.

The 12 Bar Blues Slow Change

12 Bar Blues progressions vary in many ways but they will always have 12 bars total and repeat.

One variation that you will hear people talk about is called the “slow change” version.

This is the typical and basic form of a 12 bar blues progression where the first chord that is played is repeated for the first 4 bars.

The first chord change happens at bar 5 and then the rest follows the standard pattern.

The following is an example of the slow change.

12 bar blues slow change

The 12 Bar Blues Quick Change

The quick change progression is very similar to the slow change version.

There are still 12 total bars of music and it still repeats. So that does not change.

The only difference is the first bar. Instead of having the first chord change at bar 5 it happens immediately, at bar 2.

But then it shifts back to the first chord immediately after playing a single bar so we are back to the first chord at bar 3.

It’s not much of a change but it gives it a different feel and allow you to add a little bit of variation to the standard 12 bar progression.

The following is an example of the slow change.

12 bar blues quick change

The Blues Turnaround

What do people mean when they talk about the Blues turnaround?

The last 4 bars of the 12 bar progression is the turnaround in all of the examples already shown above. It works to setup the next 12 bars.

It changes each bar and starts with the V chord, then moves to the IV chord, then to I and V again which gets you ready to repeat the entire 12 bars again.

There are many variations of the turnaround but it still works the same way and has the same purpose.

I’ve extracted it from the 12 bar progressions above and shown below on its own. Notice that all 3 chords are there and also note the order they appear.

12 bar blues turnaround

Stop, Listen And Play

If you love the Blues then you will instantly recognize this pattern and will now know how it works and help you learn how to play it.

There are some popular songs that use the 12 bar blues pattern that are not necessarily Blues either so you may start to hear this in those styles.

Start to listen and pay attention to songs and see if you can recognize this pattern. It’s a good way to train your ear and also learn how to play those songs.

In the end the best thing to do is to start playing the 12 bar blues progressions shown in this article and have some fun!