Analyzing Blues Chord Progressions
Musicians young and old have long used the blues chord progressions as staples within their songs and jams. In fact, even in a modern day jam session, musicians will likely be using blues chords in some fashion. So as music teachers, it will be essential that your music students understand and are able to play within blues chord progressions. Below, we will take a close look at blues chord progressions and some of the songs that rely primarily on these blues chords.
Origins of the Blues
Before analyzing blues chord progressions, it’s worth making a note on the mysterious origins of blues music. Neither musicians or music scholars have a true understanding of when or where blues music first came, but they do agree that the blues is a mixture of African American work songs and early folk music that was passed down through word of mouth. Blues recordings were not even around until 1920 when Mamie Smith released “Crazy Blues.” Soon after, blues entered mainstream and was the eventual inspiration for rock music.
12-Bar blues is considered by many to be the primarily and most-common blues chord progression. In fact, many other blues chord progressions build off this initial 12-Bar Blues structure which works mostly within the root chord (represented with Roman Numeral I), the fourth (Roman Numeral IV) and the fifth (Roman Numeral V). As far as the chord progression itself, within 4/4 time, a 12-Bar Blues chord progression goes as follows:
• begins with 4 measures (16 beats) of the I (root) chord
• 2 measures (8 beats) of the IV chord
• 2 measures of the I chord
• 1 measures of the V chord
• 1 measure of the IV chord
• 1 measure of the I chord
• A final measure of the V chord
So, if playing in the key of C, a 12-Bar Blues song would start within the root chord of E for 4 measures, then move to F for 2 measures, back to C for another two measures, G for one measure, C for one measure, F for another measure and then end with a measure of G.
It should be noted that 12-Bar Blues, and blues music in general, is extremely flexible. There are countless variations or choices that a musician could make simply by substituting a chord or changing elements of it. A great example of this was Jimi Hendrix who took Blues chords and not only sped up the tempo, but also added heavy distortion and effects. Even with these sonic changes, the music and chords themselves still at their roots were the Blues.
Being one of the most popular blues chord progressions, there are a vast number of songs that utilize the 12-bar blues. Some of the most popular include:
• “Hound Dog” – Elvis Presley
• Tutti Fruiti” – Little Richard
• “Kiss” – Prince
• “What’d I Say” – Ray Charles
• “Evil” – Houlin’ Wolf
Note: With 12-Bar Blues being the primary blues chord progression, the following blues styles and chord progressions tend to embellish the 12-Bar Blues. Thus, the following analysis will look into how each form of blues is unique and different.
Mississippi Delta Blues
The Mississippi Delta blues is one of the earliest forms of blues which originated in the Mississippi Delta region which goes from Memphis, Tennessee down to Vicksburg, Mississippi. The Mississippi Delta Blues utilizes the 12-Bar Blues chord progression in their minor form, but Mississippi Delta Blues almost always features an intense emphasis on the harmonica and the bottleneck slide guitar. Being one of the earliest forms of blues, the Mississippi Delta Blues eventually expanded out of the Delta region and went on to inspire both Chicago Blues and Country Blues.
• “Boom Boom Boom” by John Lee Hooker
• “Dust My Broom” by Elmore James
• “Midnight Special” by Lead Belly
With the Second World War, a large number of southern workers moved up North to cities like Chicago hoping to find more opportunities for work. With these workers, a number of musicians traveled along as well, and with them they brought the Mississippi Delta Blues. As Chicago musicians learned the Mississippi Delta style of blues, they put their own form on it replacing the harmonica/acoustic guitar setup with a full bad featuring an electric guitar, bass, drums and at times even a horn section.
Chicago Bulls are also different in their notation and chord progression. The Mississippi Delta Blues tends to use the basic 12-Bar Blues minor key structure, whereas the Chicago Blues is more explorative beyond the 6-note minor blues keys and at times incorporates major keys and chord progressions. A major chord progression is very similar to the 12-Bar Blues chord progression, yet instead of moving from the root chord to the fourth chord, the major blues chord progression transitions from the I chord to the third chord.
So, if performing a C major blues chord progression, a musician would play C for 4 measures, E for 2 measures, C for 2 measures, G for one measure, E for one measure, C for one measure and then end with a measure of G.
• “Rollin’ Stone” by Muddy Waters
• “Back Door Man” by Howlin’ Wolf
• “Feels Like Rain” by Buddy Guy
• “Spoonful” by Willie Dixon
The blues have played an integral role in the early development of Western music and continues to do so today. Young instrumentalists often start the developmental process by learning three blues chords, and countless songwriters have started out covering and composing blues tunes. Thus, even music teachers that are interested in more modern music should still be sure to teach students the blues so they understand structure and how a blues chord progression can be incorporated into a pop radio hit.
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