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Basic Blues
by Olav Torvund

[Editor's note - Olav is sending us this lesson for Norway.  Some of
the musical terms he is using are spelled slightly differently from the
way they are spelled in the U.S. (they are probably closer to the Latin
than English allows)  Wherever these spelling differences occur,  I
have added the U.S. English equivalent initially,  but have left them
in their original spelling throughout the lesson.]
I will start with a look at the basic 12-bar blues form, familiar to
almost any guitarist.  Every guitarist interested in blues, folk,
country or rock should know the 12-bar blues by heart;  Just switch on
the "auto-pilot" and play.
In it's simplest form, it consist of three lines in AAB form. The first
4-measure line (motiv) [motif, motive - ed] is repeated with a slight
variation, and then a new motiv is introduced in the third and
concluding line. If we put chord numbers in the three lines, it will
1              2            3            4 
| I  /  /  / | I  /  /  / | I  /  /  / | I  /  /  / |
5              6            7            8 
| IV /  /  / | IV /  /  / | I  /  /  / | I  /  /  / |
9              10           11           12 
| V7 /  /  / | V7 /  /  / | I  /  /  / | /  /  /  / |
I = tonika [tonic - ed], or the basic chord/note of the key you are playing.  
IV = subdominant 
V7 = dominant 7th
If we apply the chord group to some key signatures, you will have the
following chords:
E-major:  I = E, IV = A, V7 = B7 (B7=H7 as the notation 
                                  some European countries)
A-major:  I = A, IV = D, V7 = E7
D-major:  I = D, IV = G, V7 = A7
G-major:  I = G, IV = C, V7 = D7
C-major:  I = C, IV = F, V7 = G7.
Those of you who have a basic knowledge of music theory, will notice
that I started in the key of E-major, and moved leftwards in the circle
of fifths.  All of you should notice that the subdominant (IV) chord
in one key is the tonika in the key below, and that the dominant is the
tonika in the key above.
Listen carefully to the dominant7 - tonika relationship. Listen how the
dominant7 leads back to tonika.  Those of you who are interested in
music theory should notice that to some extent the dissonant minor
fifth interval between the 7th note and the 4th note in a scale will be
resolved by going to the tonika (1st note). (The 7th and 4th notes of
the scale are the 5th and the 7th notes in the dominant 7th chord).
Let us again put it to the five keys (the dominant 7 in parenthesis):
Key          7th note  4th note   Tonika
E-major (B7): D#         A          E 
A-major (E7): G#         D          A 
D-major (A7): C#         G          D
G-major (D7): F#         C          G 
C-major (G7):  B         F          C.
Play the two related chords (V7 - I), and play the interval up (notes
7-4-1), down (notes 1-4-7) and as a block, each time resolving to the
Try also to substitute the IV of the scale with the II in the interval,
and listen to the effect (E: A-> F#, A: D -> E, D: G -> E, G: C-> A, C:
F->D). The II note is also part of the dominant7 chord, but you will
then have a minor third interval instead of a minor fifth, and it does
not call that much for an immediate resolution.
The dominant - tonika relationship is very important to any kind of
western music, not only to blues. So listen carefully, and train your
ear to identify it when you listen to music.
Now, let us go back to the 12-bar blues, and take a second look at the
last line, bar 9 - 12. As it was written, the dominant7 is resolved to
tonika from bar 10 to 11. If we substitute the tonika in the last bar
with the dominant7, we will get a chord that leads back to the
beginning. The dominant7 will be resolved when you start the next verse
on the tonika chord. Then the last line will be like this:
9            10           11           12 
| V7 /  /  / | V7 /  /  / | I  /  /  / | V7 /  /  / |
The V7 chord functions as a TURNAROUND chord. It will sound even better
if you hold the tonika chord for the first beat in bar 12, and change
to V7 on the second beat.
You cannot end a song on that chord, so you have to play another verse.
Be sure to end on the tonika when you do not want to play any more
The last line is often played with a subdominant instead of a dominant7
in the 10th bar:
9            10           11           12 
| V7 /  /  / | IV /  /  / | I  /  /  / | I  V7  /  / |
In my ears the last line sounds better if you are using a turnaround V7
chord. There will be a bit too much of V7 if you play it both in the
10th and 12th bar, but that is a matter of taste. If you do not use a
turnaround, both variations may sound well.
If we then go back to the first line, you can substitute the I chord on
the last three beats in bar 4 with a I7 chord (i.e. from E to E7 in the
key of E, etc). Then the line will be like this:
1            2            3            4 
| I  /  /  / | I  /  /  / | I  /  /  / | I  I7  /  / |
Listen to the effect: You put some tension to the last three beats of
the line, and that tension is not resolved before you change to the IV
chord in the second line. And if you go back an look at the
relationship between the keys, you will realize that the 7-chord on the
tonika is the dominant-7 to the IV chord. So what you do is to
introduce some kind of a V7 - I relationship when you go to the second
line. I do not know enough about music theory to decide if that is just
a change of chords, or if you are actually changing key from I to IV,
and then back to the I key (for instance from E-major to A-major, and
then back to E-major in bar 7). But I do not think that it matters.
The IV chord in a blues is often substituted with the IV7 chord: In the
key of E-major you will often play A7 instead of A. If you put all
this in the 12-bar blues with a turnaround, it will be like this:
1            2            3            4 
| I  /  /  / | I  /  /  / | I  /  /  / | I  I7  /  / |
5             6             7            8 
| IV7 /  /  / | IV7 /  /  / | I  /  /  / | I  /  /  / |
9            10            11           12 
| V7 /  /  / | IV7 /  /  / | I  /  /  / | /  V7  /  / |
In E-major, that will be:
1            2            3            4 
| E  /  /  / | E  /  /  / | E  /  /  / | E7  /  /  / |
5            6            7            8 
| A7 /  /  / | A7 /  /  / | E  /  /  / | E  /  /  / |
9            10           11           12 
| B7 /  /  / | A7 /  /  / | E  /  /  / | /  B7  /  / |
Often you will hear a IV7 chord in the second bar instead of a I chord.
The first line will then be like this:
1            2             3            4 
| E  /  /  / | A7  /  /  / | E  /  /  / | E7  /  /  / |
Listen to the effect of the chords. Listen to other people playing, and
try to identify if they are using I or IV7 chord in bar 2, if they go
to the I7 or not in bar 4, if they play IV7 or V7 in bar 10 and if they
use a turnaround chord.
You will soon realize that a lot of blues-like songs do not fit into a
form like the one described.  You should remember that the 12-bar blues
form is not a rule for blues-players, it is just a label that has been
attached to a common blues-form. But then you have a point of departure
for ear-training: If you hear that the music played almost,  but not
exactly,  fits into the form you know, then you know what to listen for
and try out: What are the variations? What chord is being played? etc.
You can also find some 8 and 16 bar forms, but they will be covered in
an upcoming lesson.
Class assignment:
I will suggest a follow-up thread: Listen to songs with variations of
the blues-form, identify the variations and post what it is to Give us the name of the artist/composer, the name of
the song and tell about the variation(s). In that way you can train
your ear, and you will help your friends on the net with listening and
ear-training material.
One last reminder:
Remember that you should be a musician, not only a guitar player. You
have to train your ears, not only your eyes and your fingers.
Olav Torvund
University of Oslo

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