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Blues Guitar and Chord Structures

A backstory of the blues

Exercise: Write descriptions of the rhythmic variations you hear from song to song, both in execution and in musical “feel.” Questions for you to consider: Do you hear a steady, “flat” beat or erratic “explosions”? Do the drums seem just to keep time or do they interact with what else is happening in the song? Does the pattern and intensity of the drumming communicate any type of emotion (anger, happiness, fear, etc.) in each song?

Robert Johnson
“The Panama Limited” by Bukka White
“Mannish Boy” by Muddy Waters
“Da Thrill Is Gone From Here” by Chris Thomas King

The rhythmic elements you just recognized in the songs above have their roots in Africa.

The slave trade that began in the 1600s included many West Africans who brought their musical traditions with them. Because many slaves spoke different languages, they began to communicate through music.Slave owners throughout the Americas tried to ban drumming among their slaves, fearing that slaves were talking to each other, communicating with their spirits, and fomenting rebellion through the drums. Slaves did indeed use drums for communication. In planning the Stono River Rebellion of 1739, slaves used drums to signal to surrounding plantations when the revolt would begin. In the planning stages of the 1791 Haitian Revolution, enslaved Africans used drums to communicate with one another across many plantations.

When drums were banned from plantations, slaves developed ways to imitate the polyrhythms of drumming, using European instruments, household items (spoons, jugs, washboards), and their own bodies—a style that became known as “slapping juba” or “patting juba.”

Juba was the replacement of drumming

Modern History of the Blues (link and other link)

On a lonely night in 1903, W.C. Handy, the African American leader of a dance orchestra, got stuck waiting for a train in the hamlet of Tutwiler, Mississippi. With hours to kill and nowhere else to go, Handy fell asleep on a hard wooden bench at the empty depot. When he awoke, a ragged black man was sitting next to him, singing about “goin’ where the Southern cross the Dog” and sliding a knife against the strings of a guitar. The musician repeated the line three times and answered with his instrument. Intrigued, Handy asked what the line meant. It turned out that the tracks of the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad, which locals called the Yellow Dog, crossed the tracks of the Southern Railroad in the town of Moorehead, where the musician was headed, and he’d put it into a song. It was, Handy later said, “the weirdest music I had ever heard.”
external image _69799148_blues05640x360.jpg
Blues has evolved from an unaccompanied vocal music of poor black laborers into a wide variety of styles and subgenres, with regional variations across the United States and, later, Europe and Africa. The musical forms and styles that are now considered the "blues" as well as modern "country music" arose in the same regions during the nineteenth century in the southern United States. Recorded blues and country can be found from as far back as the 1920s, when the popular record industry developed and created marketing categories called "race music" and "hillbilly music" to sell music by and for blacks and whites, respectively.

At the time, there was no clear musical division between "blues" and "country," except for the race of the performer, and even that sometimes was documented incorrectly by record companies. While blues emerged from the culture of African-Americans, blues musicians have since emerged world-wide. Studies have situated the origin of "black" spiritual music inside slaves' exposure to their masters' Hebridean-originated gospels. African-American economist and historian Thomas Sowell also notes that the southern, black, ex-slave population was acculturated to a considerable degree by and among their Scots-Irish "redneck" neighbours who sung irish folk blues music like this. However, the findings of Kubik and others also clearly attest to the essential Africanness of many essential aspects of blues expression.

The social and economic reasons for the appearance of the blues are not fully known. The first appearance of the blues is not well defined and is often dated between 1870 and 1900, a period that coincides with the emancipation of the slaves and the transition from slavery to sharecropping and small-scale agricultural production in the southern United States.

Several scholars characterize the early 1900s development of blues music as a move from group performances to a more individualized style. They argue that the development of the blues is associated with the newly acquired freedom of the slaves. According to Lawrence Levine, "there was a direct relationship between the national ideological emphasis upon the individual, the popularity of Booker T. Washington's teachings, and the rise of the blues." Levine states that "psychologically, socially, and economically, Negroes were being acculturated in a way that would have been impossible during slavery, and it is hardly surprising that their secular music reflected this as much as their religious music did."

Blues compared with standard European Music

Listen to Yankee Doodle and clap on each first beat of each measure. Now do it again clapping only on beats 2 and 4. Now listen one more time with clapping on all 4 beats but emphasizing beats 2 and 4.
Now do the same thing with Crossroad Blues by Robert Johnson. Now try the same thing by tapping your feet on the ground and using your hands for the backbeat while listening to Call Me the Breeze covered by John Mayer

Early Origins & Outcomes
BluesLand - History of the Blues
Eric Clapton / Scorsese History of the Blues
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Keys and Chord Progressions

In order to understand the notations and structures we will be using in describing blues music, it's important to know about key signatures and what are the chord progressions worth with which keys.

Chord Progressions (source)

In western music typical chord progressions for major scales

Let's refresh what we've learned so far about scales and chords. A scale is a series of notes that go in an ascending and descending manner. For every scale (major or minor) there are 7 notes, for example in the key of C the notes are C - D - E - F - G - A - B. The 8th note (in this example will be C) goes back to the root note but an octave higher.

Each note of a scale has a corresponding number from 1 to 7. So for the key of C it will be as follows:
C = 1
D = 2
E = 3
F = 4
G = 5
A = 6
B = 7

In order to make a major triad you will play the 1st + 3rd + 5th notes of a major scale. In our example it is C - E - G, that's the C major chord.

Let's have another example this time using the C minor scale:
C = 1
D = 2
Eb (or D#) = 3
F = 4
G = 5
Ab (or G#) = 6
Bb (or A#) = 7

In order to make a minor triad you will play the 1st + 3rd + 5th notes of a minor scale. In our example it is C - Eb - G, that's the C minor chord.

Roman Numerals

Sometimes instead of numbers Roman Numerals are used. We go back to our example and use a Roman Numeral for each note in the key of C:
C = I
D = ii
E = iii
F = IV
G = V
A = vi
B = vii (diminished)

Roman numeral I refers to the chord built on the first note of the C major scale. Roman numeral II refers to the chord built on the second note of the C major scale, and so on. If you notice, some of the Roman numerals are capitalized while others are not. Uppercase Roman numerals pertain to a major chord, while lowercase Roman numerals pertain to a minor chord. Uppercase Roman numerals with a (+) symbol refer to an augmented chord. Lowercase Roman numerals with a (o) symbol refer to a diminished chord.

The I, IV and V Chord Pattern

For each key there are 3 chords that are played more than others known as "primary chords." The I - IV - V chords are built from the 1st, 4th and 5th note of a scale.

Let's take the key of C again as an example, looking at the illustration above, you will notice that note I on the key of C is C, note IV is F and note V is G.

Therefor the I - IV - V chord pattern for the key of C is:
C (note I) = C - E- G (1st + 3rd + 5th note of the C scale)
F (note IV) = F - A - C (1st + 3rd + 5th note of the F scale)
G (note V) = G - B - D (1st + 3rd + 5th note of the G scale)

Also played are:
Dm (note ii) = D - F - A (1st + minor 3rd + 5th note for D scale)
Em (note iii) = E - G - B (1st + minor 3rd + 5th note for E scale)
Am (note vi) = A - C - E (1st + minor 3rd + 5th note for A scale)
and rarely Bm(dim.) which is note vii = B - D - F (1st + minor 3rd + diminished 5th on B scale)

There are many songs that have been written using the I - IV - V chord pattern, "Home on the Range" is one example. Practice playing the I - IV - V chord pattern for every major key and listen to how it sounds as this might inspire you to come up with a great melody for your song. Remember, the ii, iii and vi are also commonly added to the mix to complete the song.

Fig. 15.
Scale degrees
Scale degree names
Leading tone
E X A M P L E :
Scale degree chords
using C scale keys:
(= C)
(= Dm)
(= Em)
(= F)
(= G)
(= Am)
(= B°)
source: http://sites.estvideo.net/lk/prog.php
source: http://sites.estvideo.net/lk/prog.php


E Blues Scale

external image E-Blues.png

The Blues Chord Progression (12 bars of bliss)

A basic example of the progression would look like this, using T to indicate the tonic, S for the subdominant, and D for the dominant, and representing one chord per measure:

The tonic is also called the 1-chord, the sub-dominant, the 4-chord, and the dominant, the 5-chord. These three chords are the basis of thousands more pop songs which thus often have a blue sound even without using the classical 12-bar form.

Hence it can be written as:

1 1 1 1
4 4 1 1
5 4 1 1

The first line takes 16 quarter note beats (4 measures X 4 beats), as do the remaining two lines (for a total of 48 beats and 12 measures). However, the vocal or lead phrases, though they often come in threes, do not coincide with the above three lines or sections. This overlap between the grouping of the accompaniment and the vocal is part of what creates interest in the twelve bar blues.
Many variations are possible. For instance, the tenth bar can stay in dominant, yielding this:

T T T T (1  1  1  1)
S S T T (4  4  1  1)
D D T T (5  5  1  1)

Seventh chords are often used just before a change, and more changes can be added. A more complicated example might look like this, where "7" indicates a seventh chord:

T S T T7  (1  4  1  5(7th))
S S7 T T7 (4  4(7th)  1  1(7th))
D S T D7  (5  4  1  5(7th))

When the last bar contains the dominant, that bar can be called a turnaround.

Other types of standard blues:

Eight bar blues progressions have more variations than the more rigidly defined twelve bar format. The move to the IV chord usually happens at bar 3 (as opposed to 5 in twelve bar.)

Worried Life Blues (probably the most common eight bar blues progression):

|I |I |IV |IV |
|I |V |I IV |I V |

Key to the Highway (variation with the V at bar 2):

|I |V |IV |IV |
|I |V |I |V |

Walking By Myself (somewhat unorthodox example of the form):

|I |I |I |I |
|V |IV |I |V |

50’s sequence

The 50s progression is a chord progression (ie sequence of chords) used in Western popular music. As the name would imply, it was common in the 1950s and early 1960s and is particularly associated with doo-wop.
The progression is:

I vi IV V

for example, C Am F G (in key of C).

As with any other chord progression, there are innumerable possible variations, for example turning the V into a V7, or extended repeats of I vi followed by a single IV V.

Songs Using the Progression

Some examples of well-known songs which use it are:

'Oh Carol' - most associated with Neil Sedaka
'Please Mister Postman' - The Marvelettes / The Beatles
'Stand By Me' - Ben E. King

3 Chord Songs are the outcome of the blues

A three-chord song is a song whose music is built around three chords that are played in a certain sequence. Perhaps the most prevalent type of three-chord song is the simple twelve bar blues used in blues and rock and roll.
Typically, the three chords used are the chords on the tonic, subdominant, and dominant (scale degrees I, IV and V): in the key of C, these would be the C, F and G chords. Sometimes the V7 chord is used instead of V, for greater tension.

Three-chord songs are easy for the listener to remember, which can make them effective in pop music. Some of the most famous songs to use three-chord patterns are "Louie Louie" by The Kingsmen and "Wild Thing" by The Troggs. Three-chord songs like these are also easier to learn than other, more complicated songs. Among others, country singer Hank Williams and folk singer Bob Dylan have written large numbers of such songs. Punk music very often features three-chord songs - e.g. Ramones Blitzkrieg Bop

Common progressions used in contemporary popular music

• Twelve-bar blues
• I - vi - IV - V : the 50s progression
• I - V - vi - IV : for example 'Dammit' (Blink-182), 'With or Without You' (U2), 'Let It Be' (The Beatles). This progression uses the same chords as the 50s progression, in a different order. AND THIS
• I - I - IV - V : for example the verse of 'Time of Your Life' by Green Day.

A Three-Chord Progression

This is an extremely popular progression used extensively in modern music. It is based on the first, fourth, and fifth scale degrees (the tonic, subdominant, and dominant). The I - IV - V (1 - 4 - 5) progression can be used in a 4 bar phrase in a variety of ways:

Minor Keys

Natural minor chord progression - source:fretjam.com
Natural minor chord progression - source:fretjam.com

Dm scale example
Dm scale example

Standard 3-note chord progressions: summarize

When referring to a standard Major Chord Progression try to remember:
Major - Minor - Minor - Major - Major - Minor - Diminished

When referring to a standard Minor Chord Progression try to remember:
Minor - Diminished - Major - Minor - Minor - Major - Major

Note: in any major key, the vi (6th chord/triad) is known as the relative minor. So for G that would be Em, for D it would be Bm, for A it would be F#m

Key Signatures and Determining Sharps/Flats

Key Signatures and determining number of sharps and flats major keys have

Try these:
  1. Key of A major (highlight the text here -> 3 sharps F, C and G <- for the answer)
  2. Key of A flat major (highlight the text here -> 4 flats B, E, A and D <- for the answer)
  3. Key of F# major (highlight the text here -> 6 sharps F, C, G, D, A, and E <- for the answer)

What about applying that to the triads (in guitar - chords) in the keys we've talked about?

In determining the chords, we do the same thing as we've done in the past, where major keys have the structure:
I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi

And minor chords have the structure:
i, ii, III, iv, v, VI, VII
All we do now is insert the appropriate # of sharps or flats for the key.

For example, in the key of D, there are 2 sharps, F# and C#.

The chord progression for D is (ignoring the diminished 7th):

D, Em, Fm, G, A, Bm

Since F and C are sharp, the progression is altered by putting the appropriate sharps in is:

D, Em, F#m, G, A, Bm

For example in the key of F there is 1 flat, Bb

the chord progression for F is (again, ignoring the diminished 7th)
F, Gm, Am, Bb, C, Dm
When it comes to minor keys, you simply take it's relative major, and solve accordingly. To get the corresponding major for, say, Em, you go back 6 notes (or easier forward 3 semitones) - which would be G (whose key has just F#), so for C#m 3 semitones up would be E - so 4 sharps, for Dm it would be F ( so 1 flat), for Am it would be C (no sharps or flats). so for the 'key' of Dm (which is actually the key of F, so Bb) the chord progressions would be

Dm, Em(dim), F, Gm, Am, Bb, C

Blues Culminating Task - "House of Blues"

external image BLues_BRothers_T_shirt_Design_by_rocker409.png


You are to compose a complete piece of blues music by yourself. The piece will be a standard 12-bar blues song in the key of your choice. It will include at minimum 1 verse and 1 chorus segment (the chorus can have the same chord arrangement as the verse, or you can "flip the chords around"). What chords, strum patterns and solo work you include is up to you. It will feature your playing of the song, as well as your soloing over top of it as well.

You will present to the class your composition without lyrics (lyrics get you a "bonus" whether spoken or sung by increasing the complexity of the piece). In the end you must have a written copy of the music on piano staff/tab, with lyrics underneath if you choose to include them, as well as an audio copy of the work recorded submitted to me in WAV or MP3 format. Finally you will present it to the class.


  • The composition will be recorded on your personal device (phone/tablet etc...). This means you will record your strumming of the song. Then you will record solo licks as well as your turn-arounds as a second track over-top of the first. The easiest way is to simply take your first chord recording and play the speaker on your phone and then record that along with your solo as a second audio file (using the phone's voice recorder). Alternatively you can "hire" a colleague to help you and single-track record the piece using your phone's built-in recorder. Instead you can use Audacity on your computer if you have any kind of microphone at home.
    • If you want to play around with multi track recording - on your Android device I recommend Audition Music Recorder On iOS I recommend GarageBand. Of course you can also record multi-track on Audacity for free on your home PC.
  • No lyrics are mandatory for this first composition - concentrate on the played music if you want
  • Solo's are to be included, and can be the turnaround, or completely separate. They can be complex or simple.
  • The minimum length is the length of time it takes to play 8/12 bars, then a chorus. Though typically songs consist of a 8/12-bar verse being repeated 2x, then a chorus, another verse, and a final chorus.
  • The piece will be performed in front of the class and/or myself.
  • The piece will be recorded using proper music notation along with tab below it using this template sheet
  • While solo work and basic theory were discussed, we didn't address turnarounds in class specifically in class. Should you want to include a turn-around in your piece, I recommend reading/watching this.
  • The chorus can be the same as the regular verse structure, or you can mix it up and use different chords in the key.


Blank piano staff/tab
Correct written notation
-using piano staff&tab
Notation demonstrated superior skills in layout and recording
Notation met expectation and accreditation
There were notation errors, but not sufficiently to make the piece difficult to follow
Notation errors made the piece difficult to follow
Prosody - Composition arrangement
-theory applied
Extremely creative use of blues theory- represented style very well
Good arrangement of blues piece with good use of theory components
The arrangement was nearing expectations, but had little style or creativity
Piece was unoriginal and had little to no creativity
Use of technology
-audio file (WAV/MP3)
The composition was extremely well recorded with no time lapses, or no noticeable flaws
The composition was well recorded and while it may have some flaws, they rarely detracted from the piece
The recording had several errors which lead to distracting arrangement
The piece was poorly reproduced and had sufficient flaws in recording to make it difficult to listen to
Live Performance
The piece was played professionally in front of an audience
The piece was well performed, with few if any errors
The piece was performed adequately, though riddled with errors
The piece was difficult to listen to through errors in reproduction
Use of Time
Used time well during each class period (as shown by observation by teacher, and documentation of progress in journal) with no reminders.
Used time well during most class periods (as shown by observation by teacher, and documentation of progress in journal) with no reminders.
Used time well (as shown by observation by teacher and documentation of progress in journal), but required reminders on one or more occasions to do so.
Used time poorly (as shown by observation by teacher and/or documentation of progress in journal) in spite of several reminders to do so.