12-Bar Blues – Examples

Sometimes, I’ll assign my adult students actual reading! One book I like, especially for those students with a STEM inclination, is Daniel J. Levitin’s This Is Your Brain On Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (NY: Plume, 2007), which is a neurologist’s-eye-view of how we perceive collections of vibrations as something we call and enjoy as “music,” and the various parts of the brain it works on.

In one of the book’s appendices, Levitin points to the basic 12-bar blues chord structure as a way to explain harmony and how certain chords are typically linked together. He names a number of recordings as examples, and I’m providing links to some of these below..

A basic reminder: the standard blues progression is as follows:

I – I – I – I
IV – IV – I – I
V7 – V7 (or IV) – I – I (or a V7 turnaround chord).

So, in C, for example:

4 bars of C
Two of F, two of C
One each of G7, F, C, and G7.

As the above suggests, there’s lots of small and not-so-small variations that particular songs or performances might take within this basic structure: chord substitutions, adding a non-blues bridge or intro, adding passing chords, taking out some chords (for example, Selena Gomez’s “Bad Liar” is sort of a two-chord blues, just using the I and IV chords, and John Lee Hooker has plenty of good one-chord blues!).

Straight Blues

“Crossroads”

Robert Johnson (key somewhere between B-flat and B-natural)

I – I – I – I  |  IV – IV – I – I  |  I – I – I – I   Notice that Johnson never uses the turnaround V7 chord, and that the three phrases are really 5 measures rather than 4, with the extra bar thrown in to make some space between the sung lines.

Cream (key of A)

Super straight-ahead: I – I – I – I  |  IV – IV – I – I  |  V7 – IV – I – I  (with the last chord as the turnaround V7 sometimes in the guitar solos)

“Sweet Sixteen”

B.B. King (key of C#)

Again, pretty straightfoward, though King doubles down on the bluesiness by having the IV chord bring in the flatted seventh note:  I – IV7 – I – I7  |  IV7 – IV7 – I – I  |  V7 – IV7 – 1 – V7

“I Hear You Knocking”

Smiley Lewis (key of E)

Nice simple twist on the final four bars, going back up to the IV and then to the turnaround V7:  I – I – I – I  |  IV – IV – I – I  |  IV – IV – V7 – V7

Big Joe Turner (key of C)

I – I – I – I  |  IV – IV – I – I  |  V7 – IV – I – I

Dave Edmunds (key of E)

This used to link to a 1970s TV clip of Dave Edmunds performing this, but the new link brings you to a 2009 performance — the arrangement is identical — on a Jools Holland special. I love the guy in the RUN-DMC t-shirt (again, this is 2009!) doing the Jay-Z head-bob appreciation of what this old-timer is up to.

Follows the Smiley Lewis model:  I – I – I – I  |  IV – IV – I – I  |  IV – IV – V7 – V7
But in the instrumental parts, the last four bars do an interesting variation:  II7 – IV7 – V7 – V7.  Love it!

Levitin mentions a version of “I Hear Your Knocking” by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, but Hawkins offers a more interesting take on the blues in his big, strange hit, “I Put a Spell On You”: it does the blues in a minor key, it isn’t 12-bars, AND it’s a waltz! So…I Put a Spell On You

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (Key of F minor). Note: each chord below is two bars (it’s a 24-bar blues). As Stranger Than Paradise reminds us: Screamin’ Jay Hawkins is a wildman!

i – iv – i – i  | iv – iv – V7 – V7  | i – i – iv – iv  |  i – v7 – i – i

Blues in Rock/Pop

“Tutti Frutti”

Little Richard (key of F)

“Rock and Roll Music”

Chuck Berry (key of E-flat)

“Kansas City”

Wilbert Harrison (key of C#)

“Rock and Roll”

Led Zeppelin (key of A)

“Jet Airliner”

Steve Miller Band (key of C). This one is kind of stretch, like “Get Back.” In fact it’s closer to the chords of “Get Back”!)

“Get Back”

The Beatles (key of A)

Not all that close to a blues, but here’s a Beatles song that is:

“Birthday”

Ringo Starr, with Paul McCartney (key of A)

My Own Examples

Bad Liar

John Lee Hooker