Twelve-bar blues

The twelve-bar blues (or blues changes) is one of the most prominent chord progressions in popular music. The blues progression has a distinctive form in lyrics, phrase, chord structure, and duration. In its basic form, it is predominantly based on the I, IV, and V chords of a key.

The blues can be played in any key. Mastery of the blues and rhythm changes are "critical elements for building a jazz repertoire".[1]

Standard progressions

In the key of C, one basic blues progression (E from above) is as follows.[2] (For the most commonly used patterns see the section "Variations", below.)

Different notations
Chord functionNumberRoman
Tonic T1I
Subdominant S4IV
Dominant D5V

Chords may be also represented by a few different notation systems such as sheet music and electronic music. A basic example of the progression would look like this, using T to indicate the tonic, S for the subdominant, and D for the dominant, and representing one chord. In Roman numeral analysis the tonic is called the I, the sub-dominant the IV, and the dominant the V. (These three chords are the basis of thousands of pop songs, which thus often have a blues sound even without using the classical twelve-bar form.)

Using said notations, the chord progression outlined above can be represented as follows.[3]

The first line takes four bars, as do the remaining two lines, for a total of twelve bars. However, the vocal or lead phrases, though they often come in threes, do not coincide with the above three lines or sections. This overlap between the grouping of the accompaniment and the vocal is part of what creates interest in the twelve bar blues.


"W.C. Handy, 'the Father of the Blues', codified this blues form to help musicians communicate chord changes."[4] Many variations are possible. The length of sections may be varied to create eight-bar blues or sixteen-bar blues.

Shuffle blues

In the original form, the dominant chord continued through the tenth bar; later on the V–IV–I–I "shuffle blues" pattern became standard in the third set of four bars:[5]


Quick to four

The common quick to four or quick-change (or quick four[6]) variation uses the subdominant chord in the second bar:

These variations are not mutually exclusive; the rules for generating them may be combined with one another (or with others not listed) to generate more complex variations.

Seventh chords

Seventh chords are often used just before a change, and more changes can be added. A more complicated example might look like this, where "7" indicates a seventh chord:


With turnarounds

When the last bar contains the dominant, that bar may be called a turnaround:

Basic jazz blues progression
I7 IV7 IVo7 I7 v7 I7
IV7IVo7I7iii7 VI7
ii7V7iii7 VI7II7 V7

In jazz, twelve-bar blues progressions are expanded with moving substitutions and chordal variations. The cadence (or last four measures) uniquely leads to the root by perfect intervals of fourths.

Otherwise the last four measures is the blues turnaround, this (with or without seventh chords) is probably the most common form in modern blues-rock.

Basic blues turnaround

Bebop blues

The Bebop blues is:[7]

I7 IV7 I7 v7 I7
ii7V7I7 V/ii9ii7 V7

This progression is similar to Charlie Parker's "Now's the Time", "Billie's Bounce", Sonny Rollins's "Tenor Madness", and many other bop tunes.[7] "It is a bop soloist's cliche to arpeggiate this chord [A79 (V/ii = VI79)] from the 3 up to the 9."[7]

Minor blues

There are also minor twelve-bar blues, such as John Coltrane's "Equinox" and "Mr. P.C.",[8] and "Why Don't You Do Right?", made famous by Lil Green with Big Bill Broonzy and then Peggy Lee with the Benny Goodman Orchestra. The chord on the fifth scale degree may be major (V7) or minor (v7), in which case it fits a dorian scale along with the minor i7 and iv7 chords, creating a modal feeling.[8] Major and minor can also be mixed together, a signature characteristic of the music of Charles Brown.[9]

Minor blues (Spitzer 2001, p. 63)

i7 i7 i7 i7

While the blues is most often considered to be in sectional strophic form with a verse-chorus pattern, it may also be considered as an extension of the variational chaconne procedure. Van der Merwe (1989) considers it developed in part specifically from the American Gregory Walker, though the conventional account would consider hymns to have provided the repeating chord progression or harmonic formulae of the blues.[10]

See also


  1. Thomas 2002, p. 85.
  2. Benward & Saker 2003, p. 186.
  3. Kernfeld 2007
  4. Fruteland (2002), p. 18
  5. Tanner and Gerow 1984, p. 37, cited in Baker 2004: "This alteration [V–IV–I rather than V–V–I] is now considered standard."
  6. National Guitar Workshop (2003), p. 34
  7. Spitzer (2001,) p. 62
  8. Spitzer (2001), p. 63.
  9. Perna, Alan di (April, 1991). "Jazzin' the Blues with Charles Brown", Musician: Issues 147-152, p.180; no. 150, p.80. "Brown alternates between an Fmin7 and a B7. Minor to major, just like the man says." Amordian Press.
  10. Middleton 1990, pp. 117–118.


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  • Covach, John. "Form in Rock Music: A Primer", in Stein, Deborah (2005). Engaging Music: Essays in Music Analysis. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-517010-5.
  • Doll, Christopher (2009). "Transformation in Rock Harmony: An Explanatory Strategy". Gamut (2): 1–44.
  • Jackson, Fruteland (2002). Beginning Delta Blues Guitar. Alfred Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7390-3006-6.
  • Gerow, Maurice and Tanner, Paul (1984). A Study of Jazz, Dubuque, Iowa: William C. Brown Publishers, p. 37, cited in Baker, Robert M. (2005).
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  • Middleton, Richard (1990/2002). Studying Popular Music. Philadelphia: Open University Press. ISBN 0-335-15275-9.
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  • Spitzer, Peter (2001). Jazz Theory Handbook. Mel Bay. ISBN 978-0-7866-5328-7.
  • Thomas, John (2002). Voice Leading for Guitar: Moving Through the Changes. Berklee Press. ISBN 0-634-01655-5.
  • van der Merwe, Peter (1989). Origins of the Popular Style. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-316121-4. Cited in Middleton (1990).
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