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The basic blues is a 12-bar song form. It goes: four bars of the I chord, two bars of the IV chord, two more bars of the I chord, one bar of the V chord, one bar of the IV chord, one bar of the I chord and a bar of the V chord. Now there are herds of variations on this, as well as an eight-bar blues form, but for now let’s stick with the 12-bar form.
Example 1: Another very standard thing is called the quick four. It’s just like the basic form except that at bar two you play the IV chord.
Example 2: “Stormy Monday” is a blues classic and has a different variation. In minor blues there are two basic variations: I-IV-V7 and I-IV-V. The default is to play the dominant 5 chord, rather than a minor 5, but the minor 5 does happen from time to time.
The most common scale used in blues is the pentatonic.
Example 3: G Major Penatonic
Example 4: G Minor Pentatonic
When you start out, keep it simple. Take a small chunk of the scale and make music with it. By that I mean try bending notes, long notes, short notes, loud and soft notes, play on and off the beat. Blues (and music in general) is better when you stir it up. Don’t just try to shred all the time. The minor pentatonic will work on minor blues or dominant chord stuff. The major works over (surprise) the major chord stuff. “Stormy Monday” is a great tune to practice this with. Use the minor pentatonic till you get to the plain G chord then switch to the major pentatonic. When you get to the D9, transition back to the minor.
As always, listen to the music. For example, most blues folks tend to think of the Allman Brothers version of “Stormy Monday,” but check out T-Bone Walker’s version (he wrote it). And note, I used the key of G for the examples but you can move this all over, so please do. There are lots of ways to do this stuff so explore. See ya’ in the clubs!
Pat Smith founded the Penguin Jazz Quartet and played Brazilian music with Nossa Bossa. He studied guitar construction with Richard Schneider, Tom Ribbecke and Bob Benedetto, and pickin’ with Lenny Breau, Ted Greene, Guy Van Duser and others. Pat currently lives in Iowa and plays in a duo with bassist Rich Wagor.