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twelve

Twelve-bar blues

The 12-bar blues is one of the most popular chord progressions in popular music, including the blues. The blues progression has a distinctive form in lyrics and phrase and chord structure and duration. It is, at its most basic, based on the I-IV-V chords of a key.

The blues can be played in any key, but guitar and bass players prefer open chords, that is, chords with several open strings: E-A-B7 or A-D-E7. Keyboardists may prefer chords with fewer accidentals such as C-F-G7 or G-C-D7.

Structure

The blues progression, in C, is as follows:

Popular music symbols
C C C C          C7 C7 C7 C7
F F C C    or    F7 F7 C7 C7
G F C C G7 F7 C7 C7

Different notations
Chord Function Numerical Roman
Numeral
Tonic T 1 I
Sub-dominant S 4 IV
Dominant D 5 V

Chords may be represented with a few notation systems. A basic example of the progression would look like this, using T to indicate the tonic, S for the subdominant, and D for the dominant, and representing one chord. The tonic is also called the 1-chord ("I" in Roman numerals), the sub-dominant, the 4-chord ("IV" in Roman numerals), and the dominant, the 5-chord ("V" in Roman numerals).

These three chords are the basis of thousands more pop songs which thus often have a blue sound even without using the classical 12-bar form. Using the above notations, the basic chord progression can be represented as follows.

Function
T T T T
S S T T
D S T T
Numeric
1 1 1 1
4 4 1 1
5 4 1 1
Roman numeral
I I I I
IV IV I I
V IV I I

The first line takes 16 quarter notes (4 bars × 4 beats), as do the remaining two lines (for a total of 48 beats and 12 bars). However, the vocal or lead phrases, though they often come in threes, do not coincide with the above three lines or sections. This overlap between the grouping of the accompaniment and the vocal is part of what creates interest in the twelve bar blues.

Variations

Many variations are possible. The common "Quick to Four" variation uses the subdominant chord in the second bar, yielding:

Function
I IV I I
IV IV I I
V IV I I

In another variation, the tenth bar can stay in dominant, yielding this:

10th bar stays in dominant
I IV I I
IV IV I I
V V I I

Further variations can be built up by combining these, and other, variations.

Seventh chords are often used just before a change, and more changes can be added. A more complicated example might look like this, where "7" indicates a seventh chord:

Using a seventh chord
I IV I I7
IV IV7 I I7
V IV I V7

When the last bar contains the dominant, that bar can be called a turnaround.

Basic jazz blues progression
I7 IV7 IVdim I7 Vm7 I7
IV7 IVdim I7 III7 VI7
IIm7 V7 III7 VI7 II7 V7

In jazz, 12 bar blues progressions are expanded with moving substitutions and chordal variations. The cadence (or last four measures) uniquely leads to the root by perfect intervals of fourths.

There are also minor 12-bar blues, such as "Why Don't You Do Right?", made famous by Lil Green with Big Bill Broonzy and then Peggy Lee with the Benny Goodman Orchestra. Major and minor can also be mixed together, a signature characteristic of the music of Charles Brown.

While the blues is most often considered to be in sectional strophic form with a verse-chorus pattern, it may also be considered as an extension of the variational chaconne procedure. Van der Merwe (1989) considers it developed in part specifically from the American Gregory Walker though the conventional account would consider hymns as the provider of the blues repeating chord progression or harmonic formulae (Middleton 1990, p.117-8).

Lyrical Patterns

Most commonly, lyrics are in three lines, with the first two lines almost the same with slight differences in phrasing and interjections.

I hate to see the evening sun go down,
Yes, I hate to see that evening sun go down
'Cause it makes me think I'm on my last go 'round
W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues"

However, many songs exist that are written in the blues chord progression do not use the three-line form of lyrics. For instance, "I'm Movin' On" has a verse in the first four bars and a chorus in the final eight bars:

That big eight-wheeler rollin' down the track
Means your true lovin' daddy ain't comin' back.

I'm movin' on, I'll soon be gone
You were flyin' too high for my little old sky
So I'm movin' on.
Hank Snow's "I'm Movin' On"

Here is an example showing the 12 bar blues pattern and how it fits with the lyrics of a given verse. One chord symbol is used per beat, with "-" representing the continuation of the previous chord:

I        -     -      -      IV     -   -    -   I - - - I7 - - -
Woke up this morning with an awful aching head
IV        -     -      -     IV7    -   -    -   I - - - I7 - - -
Woke up this morning with an awful aching head
V     -        -     V7  IV    -    -     IV7    I - - - I - V V7
My new man had left me,  just a room and an empty bed.

From Bessie Smith's "Empty Bed Blues".

"Twelve-bar" examples

The 12-bar blues chord progression is the basis of thousands of songs, not only formally identified blues songs such as "St. Louis Blues", "Shake, Rattle and Roll" and "Hound Dog", but also gospel songs, such as "I'm So Glad (Jesus Lifted Me)", jazz classics like "One O'Clock Jump" and "Night Train", pop and rock songs, including Glenn Miller's "In the Mood", The Beatles' "Why Don't We Do It In The Road?", and The Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go", Top 40 hits like Fabian's "Turn Me Loose", Mercy by Duffy, "At the Hop" by Danny and the Juniors, and the Theme from the Batman TV Series. The vast majority of boogie woogie compositions are 12-bar blues, as are many instrumentals, such as "Rumble" and "Honky Tonk".

Examples of blues twelve bar blues include Muddy Waters' "Train Fare Blues" (1948), Howlin' Wolf's "Evil" (1954), and Big Joe Turner's "Shake, Rattle, and Roll" (1954). (Covach 2005, p.67)

"Twelve-bar" oddities

  • "St. Louis Blues" is unusual in having a bridge, the famous habanera that gives it a Spanish tinge.
  • Eccentric boogie woogie pianist, Cripple Clarence Lofton frequently truncated the chord continuation, ending up with some verses at nine, ten, or eleven bars.
  • The blue yodels of Jimmie Rodgers, the singing brakeman, are usually of twelve bars, including the repeated first line, but the three lines of lyrics are delivered across the first eight bars, with Rodgers' trademark yodeling obbligato filling the last four.
  • Chuck Berry's "Oh Carol" is a 24-bar blues, with each line doubled in length by the addition of a guitar lick after the vocal part.
  • The melodies of The Beatles's "Day Tripper", Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Serenade", and "Boddisatva" by Steely Dan start with the first eight bars of the 12-bar progression.
  • Blues Traveler’s song “Warmer Days”, from their debut album, is a thirteen-bar blues. The tenth bar is repeated in each verse.
  • Led Zeppelin’s song “Rock and Roll”, from their fourth album, alternates the progression length within the song. Each instrumental verse (including the introduction and the guitar solo) is a twelve-bar blues, while each sung verse is a 24-bar blues, with each bar of the progression being held for two bars instead of one.
  • David Lindley’s version of “Mercury Blues”, from the El Rayo-X album, uses a variation on the progression. The ninth bar uses a minor chord on the submediant rather than the dominant, and the tenth bar uses a dominant rather than a subdominant. (In Roman-numeral notation, the third line would be written VIm-V-I-I.) The other bars are as in the basic progression. (As originally written by K.C. Douglas, the song uses a standard progression.)
  • Queen's song "I Want To Break Free" uses the twelve-bar pattern for its verses, with a different chord progression only for the middle eight. However, its arrangement (particularly the use of synthesizers) is different from a typical twelve-bar song.
  • Steely Dan’s song “Chain Lightning”, from the album Katy Lied, has a twelve-bar structure and rhythm, but only uses some of the basic progression. The fifth and sixth bars use the mediant, while the seventh and eighth bars use the subtonic. The ninth and tenth bars use the subdominant and the dominant, but in that order (rather than reversed, as in the standard progression). In Roman-numeral notation, the progression runs as follows:

I I I I
III III bVII bVII
IV V I I

  • The song “Mother”, written by Andy Summers and included on The Police’s Synchronicity album, uses a twelve-bar minor-chord blues structure in 7/8 as its musical accompaniment.

See also

Sources

  • Blues Chord Progressions and Variations: Common variations in the twelve bar form. Published 8-14-08. How to Play Blues Guitar.com
  • Covach, John. "Form in Rock Music: A Primer", in Stein, Deborah (2005). Engaging Music: Essays in Music Analysis. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-517010-5.
  • Middleton, Richard (1990/2002). Studying Popular Music. Philadelphia: Open University Press. ISBN 0-335-15275-9.
  • Van der Merwe, P. (1989). Origins of the Popular Style. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-316121-4. Cited in Middleton (1990).

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