Roll Over Beethoven....

And Start Picking the Blues

This lesson is on the twelve bar blues chord structure, as I’m sure most of you know the twelve bar structure is the most widely used chord structure in all of Blues music.

Twelve bar Blues is surprisingly complex and versatile, it has many differing variations both melodically and rhythmically.

The beauty of the twelve bar is that you can almost always move the same shapes and turnarounds anywhere on your fret board.

The first one we will look at is the twelve bar in the key of E, in what is probably its simplest form. Start with your index finger on fret two of the A string. Pluck the top two strings E and A with your index finger and thumb (P + I) of your plucking/strumming hand, for the best dynamic result I would suggest almost pinching the two strings together and pulling your hand straight out from the guitar. Do this twice on fret two and then use your third finger on your fretting hand to hold down fret four on the A string, then repeat the same action with your plucking hand.

In written form it should look something like this. Repeat this sequence three times and then change so your little finger of your fretting hand is holding down fret five on the A string, pluck the top two string again twice and then go back to your third finger of fret four two more times. We have now completed one four bar loop. All then that is required is to more this shape around the fret board until we get to chord three where is is moved to a power chord shape with the index finger starting at fret two on the A string.

The whole piece looks like this;


This is an example of the simplest form of twelve bar structure and turnaround. It is a great practice tool to work on your plucking hand finger technique and it can be a good basic scaffolding to use when attempting new licks and passing phrases between chord changes.

I would suggest practicing this piece at 100 beats per minute and in crochets as it is written and then when you are feeling more comfortable with that then you can move up and work on your shuffle rhythm as below.

Really get to grips with this simple structure as even if you are a more advanced player it will still give you a better knowledge and basis for future improvisation or solo work. Knowing this structure like the back of your hand is integral to being able to master the acoustic style of twelve bar blues, stripped back to its core you will find a large amount of the Robert Johnson and Muddy Walters back catalogue (along with many others) can be reduced to elaborate versions of this simple piece of music.

E. E7 . A . A7 B7 ,B(half dim)

These chords with their variations are a good backbone to start playing around with the twelve bar sequence in the key of E. If you start by learning the simple twelve bar shown in exercise one and then try to add in some of the interim chord variations from exercise two then you will quickly find that your twelve bar starts to take on style and flair.

Practice suggestions;

Choose either exercise one, two or a combination of both and play it along with your metronome at 100 beats per minute. Slowly increase the tempo when you feel more comfortable by increments of around 10 - 20 beats per minute at a time. When you get to around 160 beats per minute at crochet speed (1/4 note speed) then try to add in your shuffle feel.

Focus points - Plucking hand technique & rhythm.

Notes on controlled practice:

Try as best you can to practice this both with and without your plectrum, the finger picking skills have always been an important tool in acoustic blues music. It is good practice to make sure you keep the muscle memory needed in your plucking hand so you are able to exact these techniques should you wish too. I have always suggested that you never loose the ability to use a plectrum but the opposite can be said for your finger picking therefore this needs to be the main focus of our practice, my suggestion is if you are able to then aim to train at least 60% of the time using only your finger picking style.

Make sure you are reading the music, try not to just focus on the tablature as this is not a complete and viable replacement for written score. tablature might be easier to get to grips with initially but it lacks completely in rhythm and gives us little information on key and time signature.