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Peaks and Valleys

12-bar blues in a jazzy context

One of the first musical forms nearly all musicians learn is the standard 12-bar blues. You can go nearly anywhere in the world, call off a blues in the key of G and be able to have a (hopefully) musical conversation. To make the musical conversation more interesting to both the listener and the player, you need to understand the idea of developing tension and how to resolve it.

I view this as a series of musical peaks and valleys, with the peaks being the tensest sounds and the valleys acting as the “ahh” moment that resolves the tension. In technical terms, this usually means a V-I cadence where the V chord creates the tension (or the peak) and the I chord (the valley) resolves the tension. There are several key areas of this form, and we’re going to examine them and look for ways to make them more interesting.

Them Changes
When it comes to the chord changes in the 12-bar blues form, there seem to be two approaches. The first is the more common blues/rock approach—think Stevie Ray Vaughan or Eric Clapton—where the changes follow the traditional format and only use the I, IV, and V chords of the key. On the other side of the spectrum are the more jazz-influenced forms, which began to develop at the same time as bebop. In these alternative structures, musicians became more adventurous with how they played over the harmony. They also began embellishing chords with extensions and inserting additional ii-V progressions into the 12-bar blues.

The changes shown in Fig. 1 lean more toward the “jazzier” end of the spectrum. Let’s take a moment to highlight some of the harmonic landmarks you want to keep an eye out for. Download Example Audio...

During the first four-measure phrase, we have what is known as a “quick change” in bar 2. This is where we go to the IV chord (in this case F7) to break up the monotony of having the whole first phrase hover around the tonic chord. Now, if we look strictly at root movement, this creates a V–I sound going from the C7 in the first measure to the F7 in the second. Don’t be afraid to get some tension going right off the bat and then resolving it over the F7.

In the second phrase (measures 5 through 8), we have an interesting chord pop up in the eighth measure, an A7#9. This chord has two functions: The first is to create another place where you can cause more musical havoc—I mean tension—and the second is to set up the turnaround in the next phrase. Altered chords can be a great and useful tool, but are also easy to overuse. I like to think that altered chords are really expensive, and need to have their own space. Again this sets up a cool V–I movement leading into the first chord of the turnaround, Dm7.

The Homestretch
There are nearly as many ways to play a turnaround in a blues progression as there are notes in an Yngwie solo. For our example, we are going with two tried-and-true techniques, the ii–V–I and I–VI–ii–V–I progressions. The first half of the third phrase is a standard ii–V–I in the key of C, going from Dm7 to G7 and then back to C7 on beat one of measure 11. It’s worth noting that usually the I chord is some form of a major chord— as opposed to the dominant 7 we’re playing here—but as long as the root movement is correct (D–G–C), we can take some liberties with the harmony. During the second half of the phrase, we use a classic jazz turnaround and cycle through I–VI–ii–V–I. Not only does this give us tons of opportunity for some interesting peaks and valleys, but the increased harmonic rhythm tells the listener, “Okay, once more, from the top!”

Once you get these chords under your fingers and the sound in your ear, take some time to listen to such players as Kenny Burrell, Scott Henderson, Grant Green, and Robben Ford. These guys are masters at twisting blues forms and pushing the envelope when it comes to blues.

Next month, we’ll dig into a cool new way to use the same old pentatonic shapes we know and love.

Jason Shadrick
PG Associate Editor Jason Shadrick has been mixing blues, jazz, and rock since he first picked up a guitar. Mostly because nobody told him not to. He has degrees in Music Business and Jazz Pedagogy, and previously worked with Lower Dyad Records and the National Guitar Workshop.
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