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Style Guide: Essential Blues Progressions


Not all blues tunes fit neatly into a 12- or 8-bar form. In fact, we’ll close by looking at a common treatment of “Sittin’ On Top of the World” that’s nine measures long. The first variation is based on Howlin’ Wolf’s classic version.

This 9-bar variation appears in Fig. 19. When performing this tune, guitarists commonly include a specific melodic phrase—which follows the vocal line—in measure seven. This example includes the chords that will work against this melodic line.

Check out Robert Cray playing the tune in the following video. Notice how Fig. 20 incorporates many of the chord substitution we’ve discussed so far.

Hopefully you can see that with a few basic progressions—and a handful of tweaks—you can arrive at many blues variations that range from simple to more complex. Not all of the substitutions are appropriate at all times. Take your cues from the tune itself, along with the stylistic feel you’re going for. A key element to all of this is to get it in your ear—you need to be able to intuitively hear all of these variations. This skill will allow you to learn songs from recordings and also quickly hear and adapt to anything thrown your way in a real-time playing situation.

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