It doesn’t matter what genre of music you choose to follow, everything, at some point ties back into the blues.
As a guitar teacher, I have shown this to many students over the years. It has always helped them trace the musical history and influence of their favorite performers. It doesn’t matter if you like modern pop or heavy rock, it all traces back to the blues.
I have also helped a lot of players figure out how to Understand Chord Progressions by showing them some simple blues songs to get them started. Read this article to find out more.
The great thing about blues is that as a chord progression idea, it’s super simple. You can take blues progressions from both the Major scales because the intervals you need are the 1, 4, and 5. These intervals are the same in both major scales and minor scales.
12 Bar Blues
The Blues typically follows a simple, repeating pattern known as the 12 bar blues. As the name suggests, it’s a 12 bar chordal loop that uses just the 3 chord types. This is one of the most common chord progression you’ll come across. See more on some common chord progressions in this article.
Imagine it’s in A Major and you want to build the progression from the A Major Scale. The 1, 4 and 5 intervals give you the A, D and E chords. You can simply put this into the following pattern:
The I is the A, the IV is the D and the V is the E. This is the same principle in any key, you just take the 1, 4, and 5 notes from that scale and that becomes your 12 bar.
The system always works in this same way. There are always 4 bars of the 1 chord to start. Bars 5 and 6 are always the 4 chord. Bars 7 and 8 are always the 1 chord again.
Bars 9 and 10 are always a pairing of the 5 and 4 chord before ending on two bars of the 1 chord.
There are sometimes some variations where you may insert an additional 5 chord into the 2nd or 12th bar, but for the most part, it follows this system.
If you now fit the chords in from the A major scale, you get the A over every I chord, the D over every IV chord, and the E over the V chord.
This is your standard 12 bar blues formula that you can use to create any blues song you want. This is a totally transposable idea so it can be moved around to different keys. If you want to play it in a minor key, simply change the A, D, and E chords for Am, Dm, and Em.
You can also swap them out for extensions such as dom7, maj7, and min7 chords to spice up the overall sound of the 12 bar progression.
1 4 5 Chord Progression Songs
Now that you know the formula, it’s time to discover what songs use this formula. It appears in more places than you’d probably anticipate.
1. Johnny B Goode
This Chuck Berry classic is a rocked-up 12 bar in the key of Bb. It follows the typical 1 4 5 formula that you’d expect to see in a 12 bar blues setup but it’s played at a bumped-up pace to make it have a driving feel.
2. Sweet Home Chicago
This is a blues classic that has had many versions recorded over the last 50 years. This is a 12 bar form, but this features a common exception to the structure, which is to briefly hit the IV chord in the second bar of the progression. This is a common way to break up the usual form.
3. Rock Me Baby
Rock Me Baby is most commonly played in the keys of C or A and often appears just following the standard 12 bar form.
4. The Thrill is Gone
An interesting take on the 12 bar rule is from the BB King track, The Thrill Is Gone. It sticks to the 12 bar form entirely, except for the 9th and 10th bars. Instead of the usual V to IV change you’d expect to see, you get a bVI to V change, which are both played as dominant 7 chords. This makes the progression fit into a slightly jazzier feel group.
The old Robert Johnson blues standard has seen many variations over the years, the most famous being Eric Clapton’s version with Cream in 1968. This is a rocked-up 12 bar that visits the IV chord on the 2nd bar of the 12 bar system again.