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Deep Blues: 8-Bar Blues

This is a popular blues form that is never really talked about.

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Chops: Beginner
Advanced Beginner
Lesson Overview:

• Create an 8-bar blues progression based on elements of a 12-bar blues
• Learn to incorporate diminished 7th chords and non-diatonic dominant chords into a progression
• Borrow elements from jazz harmony to create more interesting progressions

In this month’s column we’re going to look at the 8-bar blues progression. This is a popular blues form that is never really talked about. The reason, I think, is that there are so many versions of it, from “Key to the Highway” to “Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness.” These are two great 8-bar blues standards and the only thing they have in common other than the form is that Freddie King recorded them.

The very basic form is to take the first and last four measures of a 12-bar blues and combine them. In order to make sure everyone is on the same page, take a look at the 12-bar form in Fig. 1. If we take the first and last phrases, we come up with a basic 8-bar form that is shown in Fig. 2.

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This method works on many different variations of the 12-bar form as well. Try taking your favorite twelve bar progression through the same process. Use just the first four measures and then add the last four. You will have created your very own 8-bar blues. The best part of learning and creating is there really is no one right way to do it, there are many. Fig. 3 is in the style of “Key to the Highway.” This goes right to the V chord in the second measure then down to the IV chord for two measures. Make sure to check out the version on Derek and the Dominos’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs for a great way to embellish this progression.

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Fig. 4 is an example in the style of “Trouble in Mind.” This progression also goes to the V chord in the second measure, but then adds some cool jazz-influenced harmonic devices. In the sixth and eighth measures, we insert a IIm chord before the V chord. This creates a typical IIm-V progression that is common in many jazz tunes. In the fourth measure we use a diminished 7th chord as a passing chord to lead back to the root chord in measure five. Next time your looking for a way to play a diminished 7th chord and you’re your stuck for ideas take a dominant chord and raise one of the notes up a half step and this will give you a diminished 7th chord. The use of straight major chords that move to dominant chords is a harmonic device found in gospel music.

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Fig. 5 is in the style of one of my favorite blues songs, “Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness.” This tune uses a #IV°7 chord as well. Another cool thing about a diminished chord is that they are created using a series of minor thirds. That means all the notes are equal distance from each other like the spokes on a wheel. As you rotate a wheel the spokes stay the same distance apart. Well, this is the same for the diminished chord. As you move the chord up three frets the notes rotate. This means you can move it up or down three frets and the chord is the same just in a different inversion. This tune takes advantage of another jazzy harmonic device, the I–Vim–IIm–V turnaround. In blues, we traditionally change the VIm and IIm chords into dominant chords. The chord in the second measure of this progression is also a surprise since it’s a III7chord. This has to be one of the coolest blues progressions ever.

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I hope you’ve enjoyed learning some 8-bar blues with me this month. Take your time with these progressions, and make sure to create a few of your own. You can even take some of these new harmonic devises we learned and add them to your 12-bar progressions. The 8-bar progression always helps to change things up on a blues gig or jam.

Dennis McCumber has been a guitar instructor and performer for more than 20 years. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in music education from The College of Saint Rose.
 Dennis performs regularly in the New York City area with various rock, blues, and funk bands, and occasionally as a classical soloist. In addition to performing, Dennis has been a middle school music teacher in the Bronx for the past 12 years. While teaching in the Bronx, he was given a guitar lab by VH1 Save the Music and a keyboard lab from the radio station Hot97 Hip Hop Symphony. Dennis has been an instructor at the National Guitar Workshop since 1996, where he teaches Blues, Funk, and Rock. Find out more at