Blues Chord Progressions

West Coast Swing Online Musicality

In an earlier post, we talked about chord progressions in pop music. The standard pop chord progression relies on I, IV, and V chords to create tension and resolve. In this post, we’re going to compare pop chord progressions to blues chord progressions.

The music we dance WCS to, whether blues or contemporary, is generally written in eight beat phrases, or sentences. These phrases are combined in a series of chord progressions that build musical paragraphs. In the standard pop progression, the entire sequence takes four sets of eight, or 32 beats of music. As we have seen, there is a natural accent on the new 1 that occurs every eight beats because of the tension and resolve in the chord progression; there is an even stronger accent on the first beat of every 32 beat paragraph because the whole progression sequence is resolving.

Blues music, like the pop music that grew out of it, is also generally written in eight beat phrases that are built out of I, IV, and V chords. However, the standard chord progressions in blues music take a total of six sets of eight, or 48 beats, to complete. (Musicians call it a 12-bar blues because bars or measures are 4 beats long; 12 bars of 4 beats each make up the 48 beat paragraph.) The audio clip below gives a sample 12-bar blues progression:

Link to the 12 bar blues progression (if the embedded file above does not work)

Because the 12-bar blues progression takes 48 beats to complete, lots of blues music will have an accent on the first beat of each eight beat sentence, and an even stronger accent on the first of 48 beats. What about the first 32 beats? Well, it turns out that in the eighth and ninth measures, when 32-beat musical phrases would be finishing the chord progression and then resolving to the new paragraph, the 12-bar blues progression is doing the opposite: it is going from a I chord to a IV or V chord, which means that the progression is creating tension rather than resolving it. There is no finish on the 33rd beat, so the paragraph keeps going. You can hear it for yourself; play the above clip and pause during the fifth set of 8. It doesn’t sound resolved.

There are a lot of variations on the standard blues progression, and the Wikipedia page on the 12-bar blues gives a number of samples of common variations. Go ahead and listen to them, paying attention to how the fourth set of eight feels relaxed and the fifth set of eight feels tense: exactly the opposite of 32-beat phrases.

The Drill: Listen to blues music with 48-beat phrases. To get started, check out Brother Yusef’s I Got the Blues, Etta James’s Baby What You Want Me To Do, Blue, Blue World by Roomful of Blues, Rack ‘Em Up by Johhny Lang, and Bad Case Of Love by B.B. King. Listen for the chord progressions. Sometimes they will be obvious because the chords are the melody (e.g., I Got the Blues); other times you will need to listen to the background harmony in order to hear the progression (e.g., Bad Case of Love).

Count sets of eight to hear how the musical sentences fit into paragraphs of six. Pay special attention to the fourth set of eight—it should feel like it’s not going into a resolution. That’s your cue that you have a 48-beat paragraph rather than a 32-beat paragraph.

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