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12-Bar Blues: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle

Familiarize yourself with the 12-bar blues and it''ll show up in all different styles

The 12-bar blues form is very familiar to musicians. That familiarity makes it a very friendly place to practice chords and melodies. The more chord forms you have ready with your fingers, the more interesting and creative you can get with your comping. Pare down some of those great big five- or six-string forms and you’re left with a great starting place for adding tensions. The first chorus of our blues example below uses three-string chords exclusively. From there, you can start thinking about and listening for melodic lines and opportunities. The remaining choruses use chords with added tensions; the highest note of each chord is shown as a melody. Try playing that as a separate line to hear how effective that can be even on its own, especially once it builds in the later choruses.

As for the chords themselves, you’ll notice that some of them have been reused in different places in the form. The trick here is to keep chords with natural tensions natural (best if not resolving to their I chord), and keep chords with altered tensions altered (best if resolving to their I chord). So in our example, G7(13) can also be played as G9, while G7(b13) can also be played as G7(b9). It is this sort of choice making that can point the way to melody awareness. That is the fertile ground from which chord solos begin to sprout.

You will have successfully recycled this material when it starts turning up in your playing naturally, whether it’s in a blues or a standard 32-bar form, a ballad, or a burning Latin rocker.

Jane Miller
Jane Miller is a guitarist, composer, and arranger with roots in both jazz and folk. In addition to leading her own jazz instrumental quartet, she is in a working chamber jazz trio with saxophonist Cercie Miller and bassist David Clark. The Jane Miller Group has released three CDs on Jane’s label, Pink Bubble Records. Jane joined the Guitar Department faculty at Berklee College of Music in 1994.