How to Lock Down Basic 12 Bar Blues Progressions

In the context of the guitar, 12 bar blues often refers simply to bluesy-sounding progressions comprised of three chords. Formally, the three chords are the first, fourth and fifth in a given key, written in roman numerals. So in the key of E for example, a 12-bar blues progression would be the following:

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How We Misuse the Drop D Tuning and Diminish our Guitar Playing

How We Misuse the Drop D Tuning and Diminish our Guitar Playing

I don't believe that drop D is a "cheap" or shortcut guitar tuning.

When the music we play is generally simple, with fewer chord and key changes, drop D allows us to embrace that simplicity by making it easier for us to play power chords. One finger can barre the top three strings, accomplishing what takes three fingers in a standard tuning.

Personally, I don't view it as more respectable to make power chords more difficult by insisting on playing them in a standard tuning.

Thus I would argue that using drop D is efficient and smart.

But at the same time, drop D can be a crutch and can cause major ruts in our guitar playing. Though it doesn't mean we should limit the amount of time we spend playing in drop D or view it as a illegitimate way to play the guitar.

Instead, we should learn to recognize where we're misusing the tuning. We need to identify where it's promoting bad habits, causing dysfunction and then determine how to correct it.

Bad Habits

Misuse of drop D can form habits that detract from your playing style. They ultimately limit your abilities by putting stricter borders around what you're comfortable playing on the guitar. For example, you might find yourself having difficulty playing a traditional power chord form or playing without heavy distortion.

In short, it can make you a one-dimensional player.

Let's look at some of the details.

1. Overusing distortion.

Distortion pedals are certainly wonderful tools and a common effect to couple with the drop D tuning. But those who play in drop D most of the time could find themselves always using distortion, which is bad for two reasons.

First, it gets to the point where you're not sure how to play without a distorted signal. You'll being to have difficulty building speed with a clean sound, while other non-distorted effects will sound small and inadequate.

Second, it makes you boring to listen to. Distortion is interesting because it adds volume and aggression to your sound; but if you're always loud and aggressive, then it gets boring to the listeners and becomes the new normal for you.

2. Overusing power chords.

What I've seen with a number of students and younger players who like to use drop D is that they're almost always using it to run through power chords that may or may not be cohesive and musical.

They become preoccupied with power chord speed rather than coming up with a musically palatable progression.

Keep in mind that while drop D can (and should) make it easier for you to run through a power chord progression quickly, that you shouldn't get into the habit of ignoring the musicality of those progressions.

You should be more concerned with transitions and tone, especially if you're only shifting between three or four chords.

In that situation, speed is a fairly minimal concern.

3. An abnegation of your understanding of music theory.

A lot of helpful music theory goes into even the simplest chord progressions.

Playing often in drop D can cause guitar players to shift those theoretical elements out of their mind, perhaps since they're no longer in a standard tuning. Whatever the reason, it's a disservice to your own playing, since those theoretical elements give us structure and a grid that accommodates musical creativity.

If we're ignoring it, our playing gets limited to muscle memory, which should be acting in conjunction with at least a modest understanding of music theory.

4. Avoiding chords with root notes on the fifth string.

In drop D it might seem easier to play a C chord by moving to the 10th fret and barring the first three strings. Like this:


And at times, it is easier.

But if we get in the habit of ignoring any chords that can't be played on the sixth string, we're again limiting our own abilities. Because in some instances, it might be easier to play a C chord this way:


Sure, it requires more fingers, but the distance you have to go might not be as far, if say the chord prior was a low F barred on the third fret. You need to be ready and able to play the chord both ways, based on what's going to be quicker and more functional for you.

Dysfunction that Can Form

What can be even more damaging (and more difficult to correct) is physical dysfunction that can form as a result of misusing drop D. The physical development of your fingers and fretting hand as well as basic muscle memory, can be negatively impacted.

Though these issues can occur with the use of standard tuning as well, drop D is prone to the following two dysfunctions.

1. An unhealthy reliance on your pointer and middle finger.

Your pointer and middle finger are generally your two strongest fingers because of longer flexor tendons and more developed muscles.

Since drop D allows you to use one finger to play power chords, your tendency will be to gravitate towards either your pointer or middle finger, simply because they're the stronger of the four you have available.

That can cause you to try and use those fingers in situations where it would make more sense to utilize your ring and/or pinky finger.

2. Weakening of your ring and pinky finger.

As a result, your ring and pinky finger can weaken and lose strength, making it difficult to play more conventional chords or lead guitar patterns.

Your fourth finger in particular can lose its effectiveness if you're not intentionally working it into your playing. Many guitarists end up spending 90% of their time avoiding this finger, effectively handicapping their own guitar playing at three fingers instead of four.


So what's the solution?

How do we correct the bad habits and dysfunction? Do we simply limit the amount of time we spend playing in drop D?

As I've already mentioned, simply limiting our time in drop D is not a good answer.

Because the tuning itself is useful and shouldn't simply be avoided because it can lead to poor form and bad habits on the guitar. Trying not to use it doesn't address the root of the problem, and instead takes a valuable tool out of our hands.

We should start with some perspective on the use of drop D.

1. Understand that drop D isn't just about power chords as much as it is the key of D.

I've found that tuning to drop D is often more useful for when I'm playing in the key of D as opposed to just trying to play a bunch of power chords.

For example, here are two common chord progressions in the key of D: D, G and A and D, Bm, G and A.
    It's easier and more functional to play these progressions in the key of D. Giving the sixth string an open D root note simplifies the process by providing a low D chord and allowing you to start the progressions with open notes.

    2. Don't avoid open chords when playing in drop D.

    It can be tempting to avoid open chords once you break from standard tuning, but learning to find and use them in the different tunings you play in is an important part of making sure you're using all four of your fingers and preventing dysfunction from forming.

    In drop D it's easy to find open chords, since all the same notes apply, aside from the sixth string, where you just have to account for being down one whole step.

    3. Simply cut back on the amount of distortion you use.

    That low D note on the sixth string actually sounds really nice without distortion, which can allow you to come up with some great sounding clean riffs in the key of D.

    Arpeggios in particular work nicely here, so spend some time working through riffs and tabs without your  distortion turned on. It'll help you to see the drop D tuning in a different light and free you up from having to lean on a distorted signal.

    Using the Low Open D

    One of the reasons that drop D is so appealing to guitar players who make their home in the rock genre is because of the low open D that you get by tuning the sixth string down one whole step.

    If you're taking advantage of that low D, then chances are you're making good use of the tuning.

    One way to do that is by simply using the low D as a bass note for lead sequences in the same key.

    A simple way to start is by playing the low D, then adding an octave at the fifth fret on the second string and building out from there.


    At this point you can building either a minor or major sound depending on which notes you add. For a major key, you can add a tetrachord pattern that climbs up the fifth string.


    The minor configuration will start at the fifth and sixth fret on the same string.


    From there you can move into more complex and long-winded improvisation patterns. It's smart to memorize these initial movements just because they give you an easy door into either a major or minor pattern.

    More Resources on Drop D

    There's no question that the drop D tuning is a crucial element of the modern guitar style.

    Thus I've spent some time writing about it and developing material that is specifically designed to help you understand its functionality and gain experience with it.

    Here are a few articles and lessons that you might find useful when it comes to expending your abilities with drop D.
    Don't feel like you need to cover all this material. Some of it's beginner focused (like the simple tutorial on how to tune to drop D) and some of it might not apply to the music you like or the type of guitar player you want to become.

    It's also not meant to be a comprehensive list of resources.

    Instead, it just gives you a few extra directions to go in if you want to follow up on this material.


    We're all prone to fall into bad habits with the guitar, whether we're playing in drop D or not. But since drop D is such a popular tuning in our day, those who use it are wise to familiarize themselves with some of the pitfalls and issues that can stem from it.

    If you play in drop D all the time, keep it up.

    Just look for signs of bad habits that might be forming and dysfunction in your playing abilities. Once you know where to look, they're a lot easier to spot.

    Besides, if you're going to play in drop D (or play the guitar at all) you might as well do it right.

    Learn to critique your own playing and to diagnose your own problem areas so you don't form habits that are more difficult to correct.

    The earlier you spot them, the easier the fix.

    Constructive Criticism

    If you have experience with drop D and some of the problems it can cause, we want to hear about it. We'd be particularly interested in hearing about your ideas when it comes to correcting those problems and promoting functional guitar playing.

    Let us know via Twitter or Google Plus. Facebook is good too.

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    About Robert Kittleberger

    Robert is the founder and editor of Guitar Chalk and Guitar Bargain. You can get in
    touch with him here, or via Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus.


    How to Lock Down Basic 12 Bar Blues Rhythm Progressions for Good

    How to Lock Down Basic 12-Bar Blues Rhythm Progressions for Good

    In the context of the guitar, 12 bar blues often refers simply to bluesy-sounding progressions comprised of three chords.

    Formally, the three chords are the first, fourth and fifth in a given key, written in roman numerals.

    So in the key of E for example, a 12-bar blues progression would be the following:

    I-IV-V or Emaj, Amaj and Bmaj
    If we're to transpose it to a different key, we still take the first, fourth and fifth chord of whatever key we're switching to.

    So 12 bar blues in the key of D would be Dmaj, Gmaj and Amaj.

    Everything just shifts.

    Starting in the Key of E

    We'll start the process of locking down these progressions in the key of E, since it's a fairly typical key that the 12-bar blues is played in.

    Let's first identify the root notes of our chords.


    The key of E is a convenient home for the 12 bar blues because of the open E and A on the sixth and fifth strings. We can add a perfect fifth interval to each root to make an E, A and B power chord.


    In heavier blues and rock progressions, this is often all that a guitarist will play. If you want to add a more obvious major tone to the progression, you can add another interval by stretching up to the sixth fret on the fourth string.


    The scale that gives us our major interval can be seen on the fourth string and can be a good place to start a lead patter or some kind of improvisation. A good way to visualize it is to pull the pattern away from the root notes.


    If you just want to play the major version of each chord, here's what your tab will look like.


    But again, the best place to start is with simple power chords, before you build out into more complex configurations.

    The Process

    There's a template here that you can use more than once.

    Instead of just remembering the tabs, start with a theoretical understanding.

    1. First, you need to know what key you're playing in.

    If you want to rattle off a 12 bar blues progression, you've got to know the key of the song you're playing or jamming on. That's the bare minimum.

    2. Then, you can use the I, IV and V chord of that key to find your progression.

    What might be worth memorizing is the chords in each key, which were referenced in the earlier link. If you're not able to just hear the chords, memorizing them isn't a bad idea.

    3. Once you've identified the chords for the key you're playing in, find the root note of each chord and start there.

    The root note of the chord is a starting point. Once you find it, you can add your intervals, octaves and ultimately make the chord as big (or small) as you want.

    4. Add whatever other pieces you want to the chord (intervals, octaves, etc.).

    This is a process that I like to think of as "chord decoration" where you're making the sound more interesting and adding more distinct tonality.

    It's the finishing touches for your progression.

    Starting with Another Key

    Now we'll take you through the same process in the key of G, for just a little extra clarity and practice. For starters, let's look at the chords we'll need in the key of G.

    Once again, here's our theory reference.

    As you might have guessed, the chords are Gmaj, Cmaj and Dmaj.

    Remember, to give it a bluesy sound we're sticking with major intervals. We can fudge the major sound on the chords themselves, as long as we're avoiding any tonal change to the key.

    In other words, a neutral power chord will work fine as well.

    So just like before, we'll start with the root notes and build out from there.


    If you don't want to switch strings, you can slide the root note on the sixth string up to the eighth and tenth frets.


    Now we're left with the task of decorating the chords, and as long as we don't compromise the major tonality of the progression, the sky's the limit.

    For example, you'll often here a bluesy progression like this one.




    Blues guitarists like Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters popularized this progression and sound, using it heavily as a backdrop for both lyric lines and guitar solos.

    Here are a couple more simplistic and straightforward variations of the progression.

    Major Second Intervals (basic power chords)


    Full Major Barre Chords


    Open Chords


    Learn this One Because It's Easy

    The 12 bar blues, though it can seem ambiguous from a surface definition, is one of the simplest and easiest ways to understand the rhythm of the instrument. The guitar itself is one of the easier instruments to learn because of how well it accommodates mistakes and the fluid movement of the human hand.

    Add the theoretical simplicity of the 12 bar blues and you've got an easy, practical tool that can give you a whole new world of possibilities as a rhythm guitarist.

    That's what makes it worth memorizing.

    If you don't memorize the chords for each key, here's another way to look at it that will be easier to remember.

    A 12 bar blues progression that starts with the root note of the first chord on the sixth string will always look like this.

    Root - perfect fourth - perfect fifth.


    You can always use this interval pattern to pick out the root notes for the chords of a 12 bar blues progression in any key.

    Simply pick your root note, then add a perfect fourth and fifth, both of which will become root notes of the other two chords in the progression.

    It'll always be the same shape, regardless of the key.

    Easy, right?


    You'd be surprised how often you're hearing this chord structure in modern music. Pop and rock in particular use this progression heavily, even if you're not hearing a bluesy tone.

    In short, it's not just for blues-related genres.

    It's far more common and foundational than that, which is why it's such an important progression to learn.

    Anytime you have the I, IV and V chords in a given key, you've got the basic components of the 12 bar blues. The timing is what makes it a true 12 bar blues, but that's not something you need to be picky about, since timing and length of a riff will change from song to song.

    On a practical level, it has all the same uses as other chord progressions.

    It's just easy to memorize and play.

    Your Thoughts

    Got something to contribute? A tab, thought or idea about the 12 bar blues that I might have missed? Share it with us over at Guitar Chalk's Twitter account.

    Recommended Reading and Resources

    Products that might actually be useful to you, and aren't showing up because Google spied on your browser history.

    The Complete Guide to Blues Guitar: Rhythm Guitar by Joseph Alexander

    200 Blues Licks: Guitar Licks Goldmine by John Heussenstamm

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    About Robert Kittleberger

    Robert is the founder and editor of Guitar Chalk and Guitar Bargain. You can get in
    touch with him here, or via Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus.