This is the first in a short series of lessons devoted to playing bass on a 12 bar blues. I’ll be covering Blues Rock and Jazz Blues in upcoming lessons.

Please Note: On this video the backing track has a very full sound and the bass can sound a little overpowered on smaller speakers. If you have problems hearing it be sure to use either headphones or larger speakers (desktop etc.)

The Twelve-Bar Blues

Many styles of music, ranging from pop to jazz, use a common chord progression called the twelve-bar blues. It is really important to learn this sequence and develop a good feel for it. Once you have it firmly memorised, you’ll have the advantage of instantly knowing hundreds of thousands of songs as loads are based on this progression.

There are a few variations of the twelve-bar blues, but it generally looks like this:

Learning the sequence by number helps with moving to different keys. For now, we will only be using chords I, IV and V. It is important to know those particular chords in every key as they are so common and are used in 99% of tunes you hear. You might get other chords in there, but I, IV and V are the main chords of the key. They are sometimes called primary chords.

Putting The Twelve-Bar Blues Into A Key

We are going to work out what chords would be in the twelve-bar blues if we were in the key of C major. First, let’s look at the C major scale:


We know that we want chords I, IV and V so we will count up the major scale to see what those notes are.

C  D  E  F  G  A  B
1   2   3  4   5  6  7

Chord I – C
Chord IV – F
Chord V – G

The beauty of knowing chords by number is that we can move keys really easily. If we wanted to find chords I, IV and V in Ab for example, then we would simply count up the Ab major scale instead.

Ab Bb  C  Db  Eb  F  G
 1     2    3        6   7

Chord I – Ab
Chord IV – Db
Chord V – Eb

You can also work the chord out by intervals. Going up a perfect 4th from the root with take you to chord IV and a perfect 5th will take you to chord V.

Chord Extensions

In blues, I, IV and V are normally played as dominant chords, which contributes to the classic blues sound. To make each chord dominant, we simply take the triad and add a minor 7th.

Chord I – C E G Bb – C7
Chord IV
F A C Eb – F7
Chord I
 – G B D F – G7

Normally, the chords in the key of C major would be different:

Chord I – C E G B – C Maj 7
Chord IV
F A C E – F Maj 7
Chord I
 – G B D F – G7

This goes against standard diatonic harmony so don’t think about it too hard! The main reason we make every chord dominant is so we can pick up that bluesy sound and move it around. You can still play the twelve-bar blues using the diatonic chords of the key, but it won’t sound as bluesy (this is why it can be used in other genres so well).

Here is a simple bass line for the twelve-bar blues in the key of C:

Adding Interest

Although practical, playing root notes like that can become a little tedious. One of the main ways to add interest to your line is to use a repeating riff. First of all, let’s have a look at a basic chromatic approach from chord I to chord IV:

Here we are using a double approach to lead into the F. Try adding this lead into the chord progression between chords I (C) and IV (F).

We can also use chromatic approaches from two notes above or below the next chord, (this works for every single chord in there). Here is one example of approaching the F in this way:

Here is the approach from below:


Like we said earlier, learning progressions by number makes it easy to transpose a song into any key. Let’s transpose the twelve-bar blues into the key of F. First of all we need to count up the F major scale to find the root notes.

G  A  Bb  C  D   E
1   2   3   4    5   6   7

Chord I – F
Chord IV
– Bb
Chord I
– C

We know that every chord must be dominant as we are playing in a blues style so the notes of each chord would be as follows:

F7 – F A C Eb
Bb7 – Bb D F Ab
C7 – C E G Bb

Here is the whole progression in F:

Getting The Blues Feel

Now you have the notes you will be using, you need to arrange them in a way that fits the style of the music. In blues, the bass normally plays a steady, repeating riff made up of the tones of the chord being used. You’ll hear these riffs in loads of different songs so just keep an ear out for them and learn as many as you possibly can. They are a great way to get to grips with this style and are handy for blues jams. Let’s look at an example of one now:

This uses degrees 1, 3, 5 and 6 of the major scale. We can transpose this to the key of F to find the notes we need to play this riff over our F7 chord:

If we play this riff over chords I, IV and V, we can play through the whole progression:

To spice this up a little, we can add a sneaky little triplet… (B.B. King fans will recognise this from his song Paying The Cost).

Variations of The Twelve-Bar Blues

There are a whole lot of variations on this progression that can become quite far removed from the original. For now, we are going to concentrate on two simple variations.

The first has an additional chord IV in the second bar and again in the tenth bar, (after G7).

The second variation is the same as the first, but we return to chord V (G7) for the last bar.

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