The twelve bar blues is one of the most well-known progressions in modern music. Guitarists use the twelve bar blues as a primary stomping ground for improvising and jamming with friends. The great thing about the twelve bar blues is that it isn’t only for guitarists; it is for bassists as well.
In this article, we are going to go over the basic twelve bar blues, the prime progression for beginner blues bass players.
Before we can get into the specifics of this great progression, we need to discuss what the twelve bar blues actually are. As the name implies, the twelve bar blues is a progression that is twelve bars long. This progression primarily covers the first scale degree (the tonic), the fourth scale degree (the subdominant), and the fifth scale degree (the dominant).
The first, fourth, and fifth scale degrees are spread through five bars. In most cases, the ascent to the fifth scale degree is slow and easy. In fact, the twelve bar blues don’t always follow a steady ascent.
In some cases, the twelve bar blues alternate between the first and fourth scale degrees before peaking at the fifth and tapering back down. There is no right way to play the twelve bar blues, so long as they follow the basic rules of twelve bars and cover the first, fourth, and fifth scales degrees.
For an example, let’s take the scale C Major. If we were to take the tonic, subdominant, and dominant from C Major, we would wind up with the notes C, F, and G. This means that if we were to use triads, our first scale degree, the tonic triad, would consist of the notes C, E, and G. Our fourth scale degree, the subdominant triad, would consist of the note F, A, and C. Our fifth scale degree, the dominant triad, would consist of the notes G, B, and D.
If we write our chords out, they would look like this:
C, E, G – F, A, C – G, B, D
I IV V
If we want to create a twelve bar progression from these, we need to take a few things into consideration. A progression, in most cases, progresses gradually. While this doesn’t always have to be the case, if you want to jam with friends, it is best that you don’t jump around the chords like a madman.
Taking this into consideration, let’s make a simple twelve bar progression that leads gradually up to the dominant triad and then tapers back down.
C, C, C, C, F, F, C, G, G, C, C, C
I I I I IV IV I V V I I I
Notice how the progression tapers back down at the end. This is a common strategy many musicians use when playing a twelve bar progression. It allows you to return to a neutral place after building up the chords
The best way to get a feel for the twelve bar blues is to experiment. Remember, there is no right or wrong way to write the progression. Let your ear be the judge.
You might want to check out a popular bass walking lines that you can use in your playing in this video…
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