Bob Brozman: The Evolution Of The 12 Bar Blues Progression
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The Evolution of the
12 Bar Blues Progression
Tips for Guitarists Main Page

The blues is often thought of as being a simple kind of music, and in some ways it is. Of course, anyone who has ever been moved by a blues performance knows that there must be more to it than the simple chords. Though the chords may by simple when compared to jazz or classical music, blues has great range and complexity in the variety of the tone, touch, groove, and mood. The greatest of the blues players were great because of these subtle and complex instincts, which touch the listener directly.

Harmonically, blues was a hand-built compromise between the modal music of Africa and the diatonic (chord changes) music of Europe. The earlier the blues, the closer it is to African. The oldest blues of 1890-1920 tends to have little or no change of chord harmony, simply melody over the grooving tonic chord. Gradually, from 1920-1940 blues musicians added more sophisticated Western harmonies.

Blues is a very flexible music, and great for improvising and re-inventing. The blues progressions below will demonstrate the two main branches of developing blues chord changes. I have used the key of G, but naturally these would apply in all keys. It is hoped that presenting these examples of blues progressions in an evolutionary way will help you to increase your general understanding of blues, and also encourage you to create your own progressions.

FIRST STAGE: BEST PLAYED IN OPEN TUNING! NO NEED TO CHANGE CHORDS, MELODY IS KING. MELODIES FOR THIS PROGRESSION ALSO WORK OVER MORE MODERN CHANGES. Examples: Charley Patton's "When Your Way Gets Dark", "Hammer Blues." Try playing vocal-sounding blues melodies, in open G or open D tuning, on the first few strings while accompanying yourself with a good groove on the bass strings.


SECOND STAGE: THE BEGINNINGS OF A "V" CHORD SOUND. As in Patton's "Banty Rooster Blues", and as in Skip James' "Cypress Grove Blues." ALSO BEST PLAYED IN OPEN TUNINGS. However, Patton's "Pony Blues" family of songs in the key of E, standard tuning, also uses a similar progression which does not yet have a IV chord (C).

Dm7* X G G
“X” CAN BE Dm7, partial C7, or G, at the whim of the player...

ANOTHER SECOND STAGE: With more of that lonesome minor V feeling.

G Dm G G
G Dm G G
Dm Dm G G

THIRD STAGE: BEGINNING THE STANDARD 3-CHORD CHANGES-Thousands of songs use this progression, it is the one most people know. Early examples include Patton's "High Water Everywhere" "Moon Goin' Down", Son House/Robert Johnson's "Walking Blues." The 10th bar is usually C7 in post 1930s blues, but it is more interesting to use the 1920s choices of continuing the D7, or only suggesting the C7 with a riff using E and Bb, or going straight to G. Same with the choice of the chord in bar 12. Most people use the post-Robert Johnson D7 after the turnaround, but earlier forms stay on the G or G7, which in fact creates more tension…the D7 is sometimes just a little too…happy.

G G G G7
C7 C7 G G
D7 or Dm7 C7 G turn G or D7

Further Mississippi development: (see below for Piedmont to Swing branch)

FOURTH STAGE: TYPICAL 30s MISSISSIPPI TO CHICAGO STYLE - often called the "quick IV" in reference to the IV chord in the second bar. Everyone from Tampa Red to Peetie Wheatstraw used this. This, of course lends itself to both open and standard tunings, and of course in any key.

G C7* G G7
C7 C7 G G(7)
D7 C7 G D7
* this C7 CAN ALSO BE G dim

ANOTHER MISSISSIPPI TO CHICAGO FOURTH-FIFTH STAGE: as in Robert Johnson's "Kindhearted Woman Blues"

G G dim G /Gdim G Gdim G 7
C7 C7 G /Gdim G/G7
D7 C7 G G7 C Cm G/D7

FIFTH STAGE - "MATURED" CHICAGO STYLE: this is but one example, there are many variations on this progression, including versions of all the earlier ones. Of course, Chicago Blues covers a wide range of sound from electrified delta to more jazz influenced music.

G7 C9 G9/G#9 G9/G7
C9 C9 G/Am7 Bm7/Bbdim
Am7 Cm6 G6 G7 C9 Cm6 GM7/Bbdim D9

Piedmont to Swing Development: Branching at the third stage.

In the Southeastern US, there was more musical cross-fertilization between blues and ragtime music. The music pioneered by artists such as Blind Blake, Rev. Gary Davis, Blind Boy Fuller, etc. had chords a little "sweeter" than the delta style. These musicians were in an environment in which diatonic chords and popular songs were heard more often. Thus, blues players of the region adapted more of the diatonic European-based harmonies, and these types of blues progressions often blended more easily into jazz and swing grooves. The first progression below is full of potential for change. Simply try the progression, and mix and match the "plug-in" measures, to yield dozens of possibilities. Given the creative nature of musicians, that is exactly what happened.


G D7* G** G7
C C*** G/D7 G
D7 C7**** G G7 C Cm G
* Measure 2 CAN BE C or C7
** Measure 3 CAN BE G G7 C Cm, one beat each chord
*** Measure 6 CAN BE Cm or C#dim, for 4 beats, or C/Cm, or C/C#dim, 2 beats each
**** Measure 10 CAN BE A7/D7, or Am/D7, or simply D7

THIRD-FOURTH STAGE: GETTING INTO THE JAZZ ZONE -- This one comes from a young William Basie (later the Count) written in 1929 for Walter Page's Blue Devils - other recommended "territory jazz" artists: Benny Moten Orch., Tiny Parham & His Musicians, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton.

G D7 G G7 C Cm G/G7
C Cm G/D7 G/Gdim
Am7/D7 A7/D7 G G7 C Cm G/D7

FOURTH STAGE: TYPICAL SWING BLUES, with "cycle of 5ths" chord changes, which derive from ragtime, and before that, Europe. Lots of different interpretations are possible, by adding and substituting chords. A 7th chord can be played whenever you see a chord with a number higher than 7. The higher numbers are there usually to indicate that a 7th is already in the chord, i.e. it is a dominant chord.

G/G7 C/C#dim G6 G7 or 9
C6 C#dim* G 6** E9
A9 D13*** GG7CC#dim G/D7+5
*or Cm6 in bar 6
** or try G6/Bm7b5 (like a Dm with a B in the bass) in bar 7
*** or D9, or Db9,13, or D9b13 !

The FIFTH STAGE takes you to bebop and chord substitutions, including the tritone substitution, a subject for another day.

The Evolution of the 12 Bar Blues Progression
© Bob Brozman 2002