Rhythm Rules: 8 Ways to Navigate a 12-Bar Blues

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Intermediate
Lesson Overview:
• Understand how to add extensions to dominant chord shapes.
• Learn riffs in the style of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Brian Setzer.
• Develop a better sense of swing by playing Freddie Green-style rhythm guitar.

Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson’s notation.

A 12-bar blues is one of the most universally understood chord progressions amongst musicians, no matter the instrument or a player’s ability and preferred genre. I’d be willing to bet if you sat down with a musician you’ve never played with before, you’d soon start jamming on a blues. I dare say as guitarists we all have go-to blues licks at our disposal and are comfortable taking a solo when the time comes. However, our options for playing a supportive, rhythmic role may be more limited. Let’s do something about that, shall we? In this lesson, we’ll look at eight different 12-bar rhythm styles that you can expand on or alter to fit nearly any situation.

Ex. 1 is a take on the classic Stevie Ray Vaughan “Pride and Joy” riff. You might have played this in the key of E, which allows access to the open 1st and 2nd strings to keep the riff chugging along. However, this example is in the key of G, so I’ve inserted a rhythmic “chuck” between the single notes to get that infectious shuffle feel. Also, if you mute the string adjacent to each single note, you can strum both the fretted note and muted string. The resulting “thwack” adds fire to the riff.

Ex. 2 is similar to a riff I heard on the ’60s classic, “Shakin’ All Over.” The key to getting this riff grooving is the muted 16th-notes on the “and” of beat 1. I like to think of this pattern as almost mimicking the bounce of a drummer’s stick on a ride cymbal. Alternatively, you could remove the 16th-notes and just double the root note at the beginning of each measure. Whatever takes your fancy! As with a lot of these progressions and riffs, you can experiment by playing them straight or swung at various tempos.

There’s no way we can talk about comping through a blues without mentioning Freddie Green. His four-to-the-measure comping was a revelation, and if you haven’t checked out how swinging Count Basie’s band was with Green, take a minute to watch the video below.

Everything you need to hear—and feel—about Freddie Green’s swinging style is here in this clip. At about 1:16 you can see some close-ups of Freddie grooving away. How about that action?

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Ex. 3 is a stripped-down Freddie Green-style comping pattern. We’re primarily targeting the 3 and 7 of each chord, then adding momentum by moving voices up or down to push into the next chord. This is a useful comping style for big-band playing, as the root notes are handled by the bass player and the upper structures of the chords are supplied by a powerful horn section. It’s a great way to outline the harmony while staying out of the way of the other instruments.

As an alternative to the minimal big-band playing style of the previous offering, Ex. 4 would be useful in a duo setting with a vocalist or other instrumentalist. The fingering takes a bit of trial and error: You’ll want to make sure the fingers you’re using to fret the walking bass line keep your remaining fingers free to grip the chord shapes. But trust me, the results are very rewarding. A general rule for walking bass patterns is to start with a root note on beat 1, use beats 2 and 3 to create momentum or outline the harmony, and then on beat 4 hit a chromatic note above or below the subsequent root note.

The last example on the jazzier end of the spectrum, Ex. 5 is in more of a straight-ahead jazz-blues context with a Brian Setzer-style chordal run up to the IV chord in measure 4. We’re using different voicings to bring out a countermelody on the top of our chord grips. If you play it with enough conviction, you could even use this as part of a solo interspersed with single-note lines or double-stops. Once again, I encourage you to play around with your own variations here, especially the turnaround in measures 11 and 12.

There’s a wealth of different techniques you can pick up from Brian Setzer’s performance of “Beautiful Blues.” Check out how he moves from a rather simple boogie-woogie pattern into some Chet Atkins-style fingerpicking.

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Stepping away from jazz, Ex. 6 is a country-inspired riff in the key of A. As the only progression in this lesson that’s not in G, this key allows us to use those comfortable open power-chord shapes and frees us up to slide into the 3 and b7 of each chord. I opted to go for a V–I turnaround that starts in measure 9 and includes a nice octave walk-up in measure 12 to get us back to the I chord.

Ex. 7 is a little riff that isn’t too far from what Robben Ford or Matt Schofield might play. Over the I, IV, and V chords, we grab the root, 3, and 6 of each chord and slide that three-note unit down a whole-step to get the b7, 9, and 5. Use this horn-inspired move to add color and sophistication to your progressions.

Our final progression is definitely on the funky side. Ex. 8 uses a riff similar to Rose Royce’s “Car Wash” and works great over a funky 12-bar form. We’re playing the 3 and b7, yet approaching this tritone from a half-step below and sliding into it. Between each chord, we’re filling in with some muted notes for color. This is a personal preference, but I’d suggest avoiding any excessive “waka chaka” 16ths between the chord slides. I feel this groove works better with the space. Another personal tip: If you play in a Top 40-type band for a living, this progression is a great way to spice up “Mustang Sally.” Have fun and see you in another lesson! PG

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