12 Bar Blues Explained

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12 Bar Blues explained properly will help any guitar player to become not just a better guitarist, but a better all-around musician. Understanding these chord progressions will enable you to jam well with other players plus boost your overall confidence as a guitarist.

New guitar players will benefit most with this Beginner’s video explaining how to play 12-Bar Blues. For a more in-depth explanation, continue reading below or watch the same lesson in video form.

12 Bar Blues Explained


Chances are you’ve heard the term 12-Bar Blues. But what exactly does it mean? To understand, it is necessary to first know exactly what a BAR is.

In music notation, songs are divided into measures. The orange rectangle below indicates the first measure:

Followed by three more measures:

Each measure is separated by a Bar:

Measures & Bars are often used to mean the same thing. Though technically speaking, measures are separated by bars.

12-Bar Blues simply describes the number of bars (measures) that a chord progression is mapped out over.

For example, in Folsom Prison Blues an E chord is played for 4 bars with each having 4 beats/strum strokes.

This is followed by an A chord played for two bars and then an E played again for two more bars.

Next is a B chord played for one bar, an A for one bar and E for the last two bars for a total of 12 bars:

Each subsequent verse in the song is played using the same 12-bar chord progression.

Can’t Buy Me Love

The Beatles song Can’t Buy Me Love is also based on 12 bars.

While similar to Folsom Prison Blues, the difference is an A chord is played in the 11th bar instead of an E.

A 12-bar chord progression can begin with any chord (key) and generally consists of 3 chords. They may be Major, Minor or Seventh chords. There are all sorts of variations, but all based on this 3-chord, 12-bar structure. 16, 10 and 8-bar progressions are also popular, though less common.

Thousands of songs are based on this 12-bar form, plus variations of it. And not just blues. They may be rock, country or jazz etc. Here are some famous examples:

What’s great about knowing how to play 12-bar progressions is that you can jam with any musicians also familiar with the structure.

If you can’t agree on a song to play, you can always improvise by playing 12-bar chord progressions.

Once you agree on a key to play in, meaning which chord to start with, everyone will know which chords to play and when.

12-bar songs are often referred to as One-Four-Five (I-IV-V). The reason is based on the major scale (do re mi…).

For example, if starting in the key of E, it is the first chord in the scale (DO), A is fourth (FA) and B is fifth (SO).

If starting in the key of A, the other two chords will be D and E, and so on…