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Learning the Blues


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I was hoping someone could give a little advice on structure of simple blues songs. i know 12 bar is AAB rhyme scheme for 10-15 verses generally but I also see AABA and ABAB and ABAC and such. Can anyone point me in the direction of learning about the different structures of blues music?

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Listen, listen, listen. Listening to the classics and even new comers. Tune your ear to it.

I dove into blues about 5 years ago. Grew up with it a bit too.

Listen, and utilize Youtube and watch people as well.

Typical blues structure key-wise, is going to constantly be, E A E / B A.

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Here's a tip from an old guitar player:

Not wanting to sound like the crazy old geezer right now, but this is something every guitar player that wants to play the blues needs to know:

The blues can't be learned. You can't go like "oh today I'm gonna learn the blues", it doesn't sound right. You have to first of all feel what you're playing, be connected to your guitar up to the point that what you play, the notes that are coming out of the guitar are basically what you're feeling. Obviously there are scales from wich you need to know where to put your fingers on, but all things considered, it all comes down to your basic knowledge of the guitar and you're mood when you're playing. If you're playing a live show you have to be focused to not make any mistakes, I played once SIBLY live and I loved it, it came out great because I wasn't doing the solo for the girl on the front row, I was doing it because I was feeling the moment and it's like there were strings inside my body connecting my brain to the guitar. As crazy as this sounds, that is the blues: heartfelt music that only pain can create. Once again I'd like to mention that the teachers are doin' it all wrong, they go straight for the scales instead of letting you know how to improvise and learn them by yourself. that's why I had one for a month and that was it for me. If you don't learn those things by yourself and most importantly FOR yourself, nothings gonna sound right and you might as well start playing drums. Why do you think that the blues came from the slaves? Muddy, Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf, all those guys, they knew what a hard life was and what it was to not have enough money to provide food for your family one week, so they created a way to pour all those emotions into music, it really makes you calm to play the guitar when you're feeling upset. I mean, just listen to the way that Howlin Wolf sings, im not even talking about the guitar playing wich is marvelous, just from his singing you could tell that his life wasn't easy at all so he had to do it that way, to channel his frustrations.

I've gone on and on about the blues, but don't get the wrong idea, everybody can get to the blues point, but you sure as hell can't learn it. You'll just be playing one day and going like "Whoa, where did that come from!?" and you just got to the point where you realize that you know what the blues is. Just go with it, have your fun playing guitar, and play everyday, take your guitar anywhere you go, like if you go on vacation take it, even if you don't play it everyday, it will be enough to make your fingers smooth and not stiffing out. And listen to a lot of Led Zepp.

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While I agree with the notion that "blues can't be taught, you have to feel it" there are certain aspects of the basic vocabulary that are useful to know about.

Firstly you should recognise the destination between "THE blues" and "A blues": the first relates to the emotional content of the music, the second to the structure. When you listen to Billie Holliday sing, you are hearing "the blues" regardless of the structure of the song she is singing, or even whether it is a "blues song"; but if musicians talk about a song being "a blues in E" they are nearly always talking about the structure of the song, and where the chord changes fall. (And just because a song fits the 12 bar form, doesn't make it "the blues" - it could be rock & roll, country, jazz or pop) The commonest such form is of course the 12 bar blues, but there are some other common ones like the 8 bar blues, and the 16 bar blues:

Here's a link to a couple of those basic forms:

8 bar


16 bar


16 bar (alternate)


Of course there are a couple of important things to remember. Firstly, any of these forms can be dressed up, and varied, by adding or substituting various extra chords. The more you explore that, the further you travel along the road from blues towards jazz...

Secondly, and this is quite important, is that the blues did not originate from a structured format - it only became 12 bars, or 8 bars, when it was written down to be played by a band (WC Handy is credited with being the first to formulate the blues as 12 bars IIRC). Before that musicians would change chords when it felt right, if at all. Listen to old recordings of the original blues performers (and it is first and foremost a performance based music) and you'll hear 11 bars, 13 bars, 10 and a half bars etc, often within the same song.

Final thought - as with everything in music, listening is the most important part of learning: want to learn about blues forms? Listen to lots of blues.


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