12 Ways to Play Better Blues Guitar — Lesson 12: Improvising on the 12-bar Form
BY DAVID HAMBURGER
Welcome to 12 Ways to Play Better Blues Guitar, a lesson series designed to give you a solid foundation in this essential style. Last time, we looked at how you can improve your soloing through motivic development. In the final lesson in this series, I’ll show you how to use the form of the 12-bar blues as a roadmap for your improvising.
The way that we’ve been talking about soloing in these last several lessons has had a lot to do with something that I think of as the lyric form—how the words to a blues tune unfold. I’ve been demonstrating these concepts in the key of E, but in this lesson we’ll move to A.
The idea of the lyric form is that when you listen to a classic blues tune, it often falls into the sort of structure where you have a short phrase and then a long phrase for the first two lines (bars 1–4 and 5–6) and then you have a different kind of phrase for the last line (bars 9–12). That’s what gives it its A–A–B structure, in which the first line is repeated, and then you have the B line, which is an answer or punchline to the A line.
Take a classic blue tune like “Sweet Home Chicago,” where the words go, “Come on, baby, don’t you want to go?” That’s the A line, comprised of a short phrase, followed by a long phrase. It’s repeated, and then you get to the third line, which is a response to the setup: “Back to that same old place, sweet home Chicago.”
That’s a prototypical form, and you can use it to create solos so that you’re not just kind of guessing and trying to fill up space. We’ve already talked a lot about the idea of phrasing and of call-and-response, and you can go back and look at some of the earlier lessons, particularly the one on playing into the downbeat, for more on that.
In any case, in the key of A, the I chord is A7 and the IV is D7, which you’ll play with the third (F#) in the bass. Over the first line, try playing a short phrase answered by a long phrase, as shown in Example 1. As before, these licks are based on the minor pentatonic scale, which with a root note of A is spelled A C D E G.
Example 2 demonstrates an approach that adds a chord answer, what I previously referred to as an echo resolution, at the end. I’m just taking a bit of an A7 chord, containing the flatted seventh (G) and the third (C#) and approaching it from a half step below to provide a response to the initial combination of short and long phrases, and also just to provide some commentary in that space.
Just as with the “Sweet Home Chicago” lyric example, you don’t have to do anything new for the second line of the 12-bar form—you can play a repetition of or slight variation of what you did for the first four bars, as demonstrated in Example 3. But when you get to the third line (bars 9–12), typically where the words change, you want to play something different. Example 4 introduces a new idea for the V chord (E7), before reusing the previous lick on the IV (D7/F#) and resolving on the I (A7).
So that’s how to look at the way that a blues is typically structured in terms of its chord progression and the way the vocals fit over the progression. It gives you an idea of how to organize your improvising that really has a sense of logic and development to it. And then you can start adding other elements, like some of those Western swing chords we have explored in previous lessons. In Example 5, the I chord is expressed as A6 and A9 voicings—remember, sliding one of these sixth shapes down two frets gets you the ninth chord.
Each time you come up with a new phrase, you can take it through this routine, using an A–A–B structure to carry it through the whole 12-bar form for cohesion and logic, instead of just playing random licks. That phrase can be short, or longer, like in Example 6. And you can use these structural concepts in conjunction with all the other things that I talked about in previous lessons, different kinds of chord voicings, phrases, and even motivic development.
I hope that you have enjoyed this series exploring blues guitar from all angles. If you’d like more ideas about improvising, building your repertoire and how to practice the different elements that go into making your improvisation more musical and more organized, visit my website, fretboardconfidential.com.
David Hamburger is a composer, guitarist, and instructor based in Austin, Texas.
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