Blues basics

Since I’m teaching the twelve-bar blues to some guitar students, I figured I’d put the lessons in the form of a blog post. Blues is a big topic and this isn’t going to be anything like a definitive guide. Think of it more as a tasting menu.

Blues is a confusing term. You probably have some idea of what blues is, but it’s surprisingly hard to define it specifically. There are many songs with the word “blues” in the title that aren’t technically blues at all, like “Lovesick Blues” by Hank Williams. John Lee Hooker was the living embodiment of blues, but a lot of his best-known songs aren’t technically blues either.

Meanwhile, there are quite a few songs using the blues form that you might not think to identify as blues. Two examples: “Shuckin’ The Corn” by Flatt and Scruggs, and the theme from the sixties Batman TV show.

So what exactly is blues?

Blues is a mood

The term descends from the “blue devils,” slang for depression. Blues music is a soulful, wailing expression of pain, heartbreak and yearning. But not all blues is depressing, and not all depressing music is blues. There’s a whole category of bragging, sexually dominant blues by artists like Muddy Waters and Bessie Smith, the precursors to swaggering hip-hop MCs. Meanwhile, punk-influenced bands like Nirvana and Radiohead make music that’s full of anguish, but you wouldn’t call their material blues. To me, blues is more about persevering through the pain than the pain itself. It’s an expression of adult regrets and sorrows, as opposed to rock’s more adolescent angst.

It’s possible to invest just about any style of music with blues feeling. In rock, jazz, country or pop, you can get blues feel by playing slower, swinging more, using more expression and idiosyncrasy, playing repetitive and riff-based ideas, and being as emotionally direct as possible. You can also slip in the blues scale; more on that below. I’ve noticed that most of the singers I like infuse everything they do with blues feeling, from Aretha Franklin to Gregg Allman to Michael Jackson.

Aside from the general emotion, the word blues refers to three specific technical music concepts: a scale, a set of pitches, and a song form.

The blues scale

To make the blues scale, start with a minor pentatonic scale and add the sharp fourth/flat fifth.

Blues scale

The blues scale descends from west African music brought to America by slaves. It sounds equally good over major and minor chords, and it flouts European conventions of consonance and dissonance. You can think of it as forming the basis for its own harmonic universe, which I call blues tonality. See a full blog post about the blues scale.

Blue notes

A lot of people incorrectly describe the flat third and seventh of the blues scale as “blue notes.” Blue notes are microtonal pitches that lie between the piano keys. See a full blog post about blue notes.

The blues song form

When musicians say “This song is a blues in C,” they mean that the song has a twelve-bar form using a particular combination of C7, F7 and G7 chords. All those 7th chords have unresolved tritones in them, a crucial ingredient in the blues feel. Here’s the simplest version of twelve-bar blues in C.

| C7 | C7 | C7 | C7 |
| F7 | F7 | C7 | C7 |
| G7 | F7 | C7 | C7 |

Here’s a more common version, with a little more complexity.

| C7 | F7 | C7 | C7 |
| F7 | F7 | C7 | C7 |
| G7 | F7 | C7 | G7 |

There are uncountable thousands of songs written in the twelve-bar blues form. One of my favorites is Muddy Waters’ “Standing Around Crying” — the devastating harmonica is by Little Walter Jacobs.

There are endless refinements and embellishments you can tack onto this basic structure. Jazz musicians will usually play something more like this:

| Cmaj7 | F7     | Cmaj7 | G-7 C7 |
| F7    | F#dim7 | C7    | A7     |
| D-7   | G7     | C7 A7 | D-7 G7 |

Again, to pick one example out of uncountably many, here’s “Parker’s Mood” by Charlie Parker.

“Parker’s Mood” and “Standing Around Crying” hint at the staggering breadth of expression you can get out of the twelve-bar-blues form. Some musicians return to the form again and again and never exhaust the possibilities. Duke Ellington alone probably wrote hundreds of twelve-bar blues tunes.

The blues form is basic knowledge for American musicians, which makes it a reliable standby, especially for informal or ad hoc groups. I did a show at St Nick’s Pub a few years ago with a jazz and R&B singer named Nicole Bishop. Most of her band members were meeting for the first time on stage that night. (In the jazz world this isn’t as unusual a situation as you might think.) The weather was bad, and Nicole was very late to the gig. To stall for time, the band played blues in various keys at various tempos, including “Twisted” by Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, and “Blue Monk” by Thelonious Monk. We were able to keep the audience from getting impatient and leaving until Nicole arrived.

There are some other widely-used blues forms other than the standard twelve-bar. Eight bar blues is the first two thirds of twelve-bar blues, as in “Bemsha Swing” by Monk. There’s also sixteen bar blues, which usually repeats bars nine and ten of the twelve-bar variety, as in “Watermelon Man” by Herbie Hancock.

Minor blues

It’s possible to play twelve-bar blues in minor keys too. Here’s a typical form.

| C-7 | C-7 | C-7 | C-7 |
| F-7 | F-7 | C-7 | C-7 |
| Ab7 | G7  | C-7 | C-7 |

The Thrill Is Gone” by BB King is probably the best-known minor blues tune. John Coltrane loved the minor blues, and used it for some of his best compositions. My favorite is “Equinox,” which features what might well be the man’s most beautiful solo.

Lewis Porter has a full transcription of “Equinox” in his book John Coltrane: His Life And Music, an absolute must-read for jazz nerds.

Simpler blues forms

The simplest form of blues doesn’t have a formal name. I call it the “one chord blues,” an open-ended groove on a single chord, ambiguously major and/or minor. John Lee Hooker got a lot of mileage out of this form.

Coltrane played a lot of one-chord blues too, though with a very different stylistic vocabulary. Coltrane’s one-chord blues is about as intense as music gets.

Blues modules for guitar

Blues is exceptionally well suited to the guitar, since a lot of the tastiest riffs fall easily under the fingers. Here’s a standard boogie-woogie groove for blues in A. It’s a good exercise for a beginner who’s mastered the standard fifteen chords and wants to take the next step. Use your index on the second fret, your ring on the fourth fret and your pinkie on the fifth fret.

The racial politics of blues

The history of American music is largely the story of white people appropriating traditionally black forms. That’s never more true than the story of the blues. White musicians enriched rock and roll immeasurably by injecting it with big doses of blues, and some of them enriched themselves financially that way too. Some white blues appropriators have made a good-faith effort to show proper love and appreciation. Others, not so much. The Onion says it best: “Affluent White Man Enjoys, Causes The Blues.”

Blues and originality

If you’ve read this blog before, you know that I take issue with the concept of originality in music. I don’t think that originality is desirable, or even possible. Long before I got involved in sample culture, I confronted the issue of originality and ownership in the context of blues. Take the guitar riff I wrote out above. Who owns that? Who originated it? If I use it in a song, am I being original?

Blues is defined by a set of distinctive cliches, interchangeable modules. Different people will combine those modules together in different ways, but everyone from Charlie Patton to Charlie Parker is drawing from the same box of legos. What’s the difference between creating an “original” blues tune and just stringing standard riffs together? If you want your blues to be recognizable as such, you have to stick close to tradition. For traditional players in the days before recordings and widespread copyrighting, there was hardly any distinction between quotation and composition. See an eloquent expression of this idea by Peter Friedman.

The key to blues playing is to not to even try to be original. Inhabit the cliches, play them in your distinctive voice, and enjoy the connection to all the other musicians who have used those same cliches. Feel the pleasure of your ego dissolving in the face of a huge and beautiful tradition, belonging to everyone and no one.

6 thoughts on “Blues basics

  1. I question listing Cmaj7 as the first chord in a jazz blues. the vast majority of major blues in jazz start with a dominant 7 just like a blues blues. Things get more complicated later in the form. The notable exceptions are “Bird” Blues like “Blues for Alice.

  2. One tiny correction to a great post: the harmonica on Standing Around Crying is Junior Wells, not Little Walter Jacobs. Wells replaced Jacobs after Jacobs scored a big hit with “Juke” and went solo.

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  5. This is great.  My daughter just started writing her own blues songs…has been playing for about 5 years now.  Started with straight jazz…learned all the theory behind it, and then she hears B.B. King.  Eric Clapton sealed the deal.  Now I can’t get her to do anything but listen to the blues.  Buddy Guy, Freddy King, Muddy Waters…the list goes on and on.  Her goal is to play on Crossroads with Clapton.  She is 14 and is having a blast.  Her is one of her originals…

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