Analysis And Form Of 12 Bar Blues

Video Lesson ReviewIn the previous lesson we studied a video lecture concerning the musical theory associated with a 12 bar blues progression. If you haven’t done so already, watch this video with guitar in hand or take another few moments to review this material.

Twelve Bar Blues Song Form

The most influential chord progression of all time is definitely the 12 bar blues. For us, in this course in music theory, the term Blues refers to an order and frequency of chords and not any aesthetic considerations such as melancholy, sadness or actually feeling blue. The 12 bar blues is the most copied, used, and played chord progression in virtually all styles of guitar playing.

Below, are a few musicians and bands that are known for their heavy use of blues chord progressions. This list does seem like a Who’s Who of guitar playing or the architects of classic rock. So what does that tell you about the importance of learning and studying the 12 bar blues chord progressions you’ll be presented with here in this lesson? It tells you that they’re absolutely essential to your growth as a musician and your understanding of modern music theory.


Led Zeppelin
The Beatles
The Rolling Stones
Jimi Hendrix
Eric Clapton
ZZ Top
Stevie Ray Vaughn
B.B. King
Muddy Waters
Canned Heat
Buddy Guy
Booker T & The M.G.’s
Kenny Wayne Sheppard
Johnny Lang

The following example uses a 12 bar blues in one of its most basic and pure forms. Try to play along with the track, using a simple of rhythm of whole notes to studt the sound of the chord to chord movement.

theory47Twelve Bar Blues Analysis

At right you see a harmonic analysis of the most commonly played and used 12 bar blues chord progression, along with common variations. This is the exact same song form used in countless of famous and iconic songs. The same chord progression played by all of our guitar heroes as part of their learning process.

theory45It would be impossible to overstate the power and influential nature that blues music has exerted over all forms of modern American music including jazz and rock ‘n roll. The order in frequency of the typical 12 bar blues chord progression is arguably the most known chord progression of all time

To the left, is a great way to play a I – IV – V progression in the key of C Major. guitar wise, the key of C major lives at fret eight, that’s the address. Use these chord forms to play along with the pre-recorded track above. Start out with simple strums, maybe just whole notes, and to you internalize the sound and feeling of each of the three primary chords. You want to gain a thorough, almost visceral understanding of the musical effects created by the three primary chords.


Just below you see a table comparing the two keys of C Major and G Major. Although the scales of each respective key containins different members the chord quality, each chord’s function and the Roman numeral analysis is exactly the same for each and every key. So the one I – IV – Vchords in the key of C were arranged in a standard 12 bar blues form in the previous example, the I – IV – V chords in the key of G will be arranged in a standard blues song form, when you change the key of something it’s called transposing.


Chord Quality:

I Major
II minor
III minor
IV Major
V Major
VI minor
VII diminished
Chord Function:
Sub Dominant
Key Of C:
C Ma
D mi
E mi
F Ma
G Ma
A mi
B dim
C Ma
Key Of G:
G Ma
A mi
B mi
C Ma
D Ma
E mi
F# dim
G Ma


A More Sophisticated Blues: Jazz Style

To make a standard blues progression into a jazz style blues, there are but a few simple steps:

  1. Change the basic dominant chords to extended harmonies, instead of plain old C7 substitute C 9 or C 13 and you instantly change the mood and vibe of the basic chord progression from down and dirty to uptown amd smooth.
  2. In bars 9 & 10 substitute a II – V progression for the cliche and predictable IV and V chords.
  3. Use a swinging beat and play everything with a strong sense of rhythm, of ‘locking in’ with the drums and bass. Play through the jazz blues progressions illustrated below coupling the suggested jazz substitutions coupled with a very simple rhythm, if you have a metronome, set it to a comfortable speed.


Here you will find backing tracks for the chord progressions illustrated above. Play along with these videos using, once again, a simple solid groove. If you already an improvisor, use these as play along material for developing solos.

Acrobat PrinterChord Charts

Printable versions of all the jazz blues in C and jazz blues in G as played in the preceding videos are available here.


“My first experience with the guitar was taking lessons from Karl Aranjo as a high school student. His lessons were more than just a collection of tips and riffs: they were a method. As I look through, I get to take a trip back through those lessons and am reminded about I loved about them. His strong focus on the fundamentals quickly draws a connection between general music theory and the particulars of how that theory can be applied to the guitar, even allowing us as guitarists to use our instrument as an abacus-like tool to enhance our musical insight. In high school, Karl’s lessons got me up to speed to jam with my friends and in the school band almost immediately. In the almost 20 years since I left high school and had my last lesson with Karl, the things he taught me have continued to serve me well; I’ve played almost continuously in a variety of styles (jazz, rock, funk, folk), both as a hobby and as a part-time professional (currently playing with San Francisco’s Smash-Up Derby). If I hadn’t grown up in the same town as where Karl taught, I might have missed out on a lifetime of fun playing the guitar. With, wherever you are, you can benefit from the same quality instruction that I had!

-Grahm Ruby

“Mr. Karl Aranjo is one great teacher to work with. When working with him, he is very flexible, and will teach you all the basics and fundamentals you will need while learning how to play the guitar. From learning basic chords to crazy licks and solo’s. You will become an expert in no time and looking like a professional guitar player. In my experience, I learned to master chord progressions much easier and understand it in a better perspective. In my music career/hobby, it has given me nothing but success to play in a band as a front man/rhythm guitarist, compose my own type of music, and as well as songs that I really wanted to learn how to play on the guitar. Learning through Karl Aranjo was a great experience and has helped me understand the guitar a lot easier, I would not have wanted this learning experience any other way.”

-Julius Isaac

“I had the pleasure of being a guitar student of Karl’s for several years. Karl advanced my playing ability a great deal very quickly by giving me a perfect combination of guitar technique, theory and assigning songs that motivated me to continue learning. I highly recommend Karl for all level of guitar players no matter if you are a beginner or advanced.”

-Tom Hunt

”Karl Aranjo is a great and experienced teacher with an extensive knowledge of guitar playing and theory. His thorough online course, covers the whole spectrum from the first time beginner to advanced.”

Blake Aaron- Internationally Known Recording Artist

”Karl helped me dive into the blues when I was first starting out, and learning how to improvise opened up many doors for me on guitar. He has a vast knowledge ranging many musical styles, and i would recommend him to anyone trying to learn the instrument!”

Eric Cannata Young The Giant