Born out of African-American work songs and spirituals, the blues hold a huge place in the history of music, and in the hearts of music lovers. The blues also sowed the seeds of jazz, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, soul, funk, and so much more. Traditionally, a typical 12-bar blues follows a “call and response” pattern where a four bar ‘statement’ is repeated a second time for a middle four bar section, and this is followed by the final four bars which are the “response”.
Listen to “St. Louis Blues” recorded by Bessie Smith for an early 20th Century example. There are countless other examples. Chubby Checker’s rock’n’roll hit “The Twist”, Elvis Presley’s “Houndog” and James Brown’s “I Feel Good” all follow a 12-bar blues form with a call-and-response pattern, to name but a few. In its simplest form, the blues is a 12 bar progression that uses three basic chords: the dominant versions of the I chord (C7 in the key of C), the IV chord (F7) and the V chord (G7). In the video below, I play through a basic blues in C. You will find the chart for it further down this post.
On this blog, I aim to avoid chord voicings with open strings. That way, you can transpose a song just by moving chord shapes up and down the fretboard. In the first video for this lesson, I played the chords as written, which means all the voicings had the root, the 3rd, 5th and flat 7th. These voicings work great for styles like the delta blues, rock ‘n roll and country blues.
For now, start by playing the roots as you sing a blues of your choice. Once that root motion is anchored into your brain, you can start practicing with the chord voicings I’ve included in the chart above. In a future post, we’ll explore some ukulele voicings with more colours that sound great for a jazz blues, which builds slightly more complex chord changes into the basic blues. But for now, you will get a lot out of playing this 3-chord version of the blues. In the video below, I sing the first chorus of the song “Route 66” by Nat King Cole and Bobby Troupe. But of course you can play any 12-bar blues you wish over the same chords.