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BASIC BLUES CHORD PROGRESSIONS

John Lull

By John Lull

Long a part of the Oakland California Bay Area rhythm & blues scene, John Lull has played in numerous blues and R&B bands, including Drivin’ Wheel, Good Life Band, Third Street Blues Band, and Souled Out, with appearances at local clubs, including Eli’s Mile High Club, JJ’s Blues Club, Old Princeton Landing, Biscuits and Blues, Lou’s, Half Moon Bay Brewing Co, the Boom Boom Room, and the Blue Lamp. He now plays with the South City Blues Band* and is a guest artist in several other local bands. John currently lives on the coast south of San Francisco, California.

Thousands of blues tunes have been written on the standard twelve-bar I-IV-V progression.  However, several variations on the basic progression are commonly used, even in the standard blues genre.  It’s important to be familiar with some of the more common blues progressions, which will be listed below.  Keep in mind that many other variations are possible.  This is not an exhaustive list, but it covers most of the progressions that are commonly used.

Note on chord symbols: The Roman numeral refers to the chord root in the key.  So the “I” chord in the key of C would be a C chord, the IV chord would be an F chord, the V chord would be a G chord, the VI chord would be an A chord, etc.  The chord quality will follow the Roman numeral:  I7, IV7, V7, etc. denote dominant 7th chords, and IIm7, IVm7, VIm7, etc. denote minor seventh chords.  The minor chord is denoted with the “m” symbol, rather than using lower case numerals, to avoid any confusion.

Major Blues

“Major blues” simply means a blues where the I chord is a dominant seventh chord, a major triad, or a major sixth chord.  In all cases, the major third is present in the chord (although the minor third can be played in a melodic passage or a riff).

Here is the most basic progression, still in common use.

/ I7 / I7 / I7 / I7 /

/ IV7 / IV7 / I7 / I7 /

/ V7 / IV7 / I7 / I7 /

Here is an example of the basic blues progression shuffle in G.

You can use a major triad or major 6th chord for the I chord instead of the dominant chord, except on bar 4, where the I chord is almost always dominant, leading into the IV7 chord:

/ I / I / I / I7 /

/ IV7 / IV7 / I / I /

/ V7 / IV7 / I / I /

Variations (chords that deviate from the original progression are shown in bold):

/ I7 / I7 / I7 / I7 /

/ IV7 / IV7 / I7 / I7 /

/ V7 / IV7 / I7 / V7 /

 

/ I7 / IV7 / I7 / I7 /

/ IV7 / IV7 / I7 / I7 /

/ V7 / IV7 / I7 / V7 /

 

/ I7 / IV7 / I7 / I7 /

/ IV7 / IV7 / I7 / I7 /

/ V7 / V7 / I7 / V7 /

 

/ I7 / IV7 / I7 / I7 /

/ IV7 / IV7 / I7 / I7 /

/ IIm7 / V7 / I7 / V7 /

/ I7 / IV7 / I7 / I7 /

/ IV7 / IV7 / I7 / VI7 /

/ IIm7 / V7 / I7 / V7 /

 

/ I7 / IV7 / I7 / I7 /

/ IV7 / IV7 / I7 IIm7/ IIIm7 bIIIm7 /

/ IIm7 / V7 / I7 / V7 /

 

/ I7 / IV7 / I7 / I7 /

/ IV7 / IV7 / I7 / IIIm7b5 VI7 /

/ IIm7 / V7 / IIIm7 VI7 / IIm7 V7 /

Notes:  The changes to the original chord progression serve to decorate, enhance, and create more movement; but the original sound and feel of the 12-bar progression is maintained.

The IV7 chord in bar two is very commonly used and is known as a “quick four.” The V7 chord in bar 12 is known as a “turnaround,” and tends to move the progression back to the I7 chord at the beginning of the chorus. The last three variations above are more common in jazz, but the II-V change in bars 9 and 10 is common in swing and jump blues.

Minor Blues

In a minor blues the I chord is always minor.  It contains a minor 3rd and you definitely don’t want to play the major 3rd on the Im chord.  The IV chord is also usually minor, but in some cases it can be dominant.  The V chord can be minor or dominant.

Basic minor blues progression, using all minor chords:

/ Im7 / Im7 / Im7 / Im7 /

/ IVm7 / IVm7 / Im7 / Im7 /

/ Vm7 / IVm7 / Im7 / Im7 /

Note: These chords don’t have to be minor seventh chords.  They can be minor triads, leaving room for different types of minor harmony (harmonic minor, melodic minor, etc.).  But in the basic blues, the b7 is usually implied for these chords.

Variations:

/ Im7 / Im7 / Im7 / Im7 /

/ IVm7 / IVm7 / Im7 / Im7 /

/ V7 / IVm7 / Im7 / Im7 /

 

/ Im7 / Im7 / Im7 / Im7 /

/ IVm7 / IVm7 / Im7 / Im7 /

/ bVI7 / V7 / Im7 / V7 /

Note: It is common in a minor blues to play a bVI7 to V7 in bars 9 and 10 instead of the standard V7-IV7 change often used in a major blues.  “The Thrill is Gone,” by B.B. King is a well-know tune that uses the bVI7-V7 change.

Other Blues Forms

The blues is usually a 12-bar form, but not always.  Other forms include 8-bar, 16-bar, and 24-bar blues.

16-bar blues:

One common 16-bar structure adds an extra 4 bars on the I chord:

/ I7 / I7 / I7 / I7 /

/ I7 / I7 / I7 / I7 /

/ IV7 / IV7 / I7 / I7 /

/ V7 / IV7 / I7 / I7 /

In some cases, the 16-bar progression is partly standard blues, with an additional 4 bars using a different progression.  One example is the tune “Watermelon Man” (the section in bold type differs from a standard blues progression):

/ I7 / I7 / I7 / I7 /

/ IV7 / IV7 / I7 / I7 /

/ V7 / IV7 / V7 / IV7 /

/ V7 / IV7 / I7 / I7 /

Some 16-bar blues have a chord progression all their own, to fit the melody and lyric, such as the Willie Dixon classic, “My Babe” (it still sounds like the blues, but you have to learn the specific progression for tunes like this):

/ I7 / I7 / I7 / I7 /

/ I7 / I7 / V7 / V7 /

/ I7 / I7 / IV7 / IV7 /

/ I7 / I7 / I7 / I7 /

24-bar blues:

A 24-bar blues is usually a 12-bar blues with twice as many bars on each chord.  One example is the tune “Mustang Sally:”

/ I7 / I7 / I7 / I7 /

/ I7 / I7 / I7 / I7 /

/ IV7 / IV7 / IV7 / IV7 /

/ I7 / I7 / I7 / I7 /

/ V7 / V7 / IV7 / IV7 /

/ I7 / I7 / I7 / I7 /

8-bar blues:

Here is a typical 8 bar blues progression:

/ I / I7 / IV7 / #IVdim7 /

/ I / V7 / I7 / I7 or V7 /

Note the use of a major triad, rather than a dominant chord in the first bar.  This helps put some emphasis on the dominant nature of the I7 chord, which leads into the IV7 chord.  Also note the #IV dim chord in the fourth bar.

Playing the Changes

When practicing these progressions, you can play chord arpeggios, guide tone lines on the 3rd and 7th chord tones, and generally learn your way around the chord tones.  However, when improvising on the blues, it’s not enough to simply play chord tones.  Practice using chromatic approach notes and neighbor tones.  For example, you can precede the major third of a dominant seventh chord with a minor third as a leading tone.  You can use chromatic runs between chord tones.  Pentatonic scales and the blues scale can also be used liberally.  It is very effective to play one chorus on the chord changes and a second one using notes from the blues scale.

Listen to lots of blues recordings and try to see what progressions are being used.The more you know about the harmony, the better your note choices will be. But knowledge of the harmony is only one component. In the end, the goal is to play rhythmically, with feeling, good phrasing, some interesting melodic content, and to connect with the audience.Listen to the blues and jazz greats to get an idea how to put it all together and really play the blues.


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Created: October 23, 2006.
Update: July 15, 2007
© 2006-7, Harri Rautiainen and respective authors
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