It's hard to have Buddy Guy and Jonny Lang in your banner photo and then write anything that comes close to doing them justice.
Guy, in particular, is one of the most underrated guitar minds. His work with blues chord progressions and melody has inspired many guitarists that have come after him.
Lang is an excellent example.
In this article, we'll look at some of the theoretical principles and common blues guitar chords and progressions that are used in a wide range of popular music, by both past and present blues guitarists.
Generally speaking, we can understand these progressions using at least one of the following four theoretical principles:
- The circle of fifths
- Scale sequences
- Extended chords (7th, 9th, etc.)
- 12 Bar Blues
We'll put these four things together while using blues guitar chords to create progressions that will be illustrated with the following elements:
- Guitar tabs
- Audio samples
- Chord diagrams
Once you understand the theoretical structures used to build these progressions, you can craft your own in different keys and interject other chord voicings, according to preference.
While this material will get you to that point, we've also provided examples of blues chord progressions that you can draw from directly, without necessarily having to worry about the theory involved.
We'll go after theory, but in a way that's easy to understand.
Moreover, if you don't want to mess with the theory, just refer to the tabs and chord diagrams.
My advice to you is to take advantage of both the memorization and structural theory.
We'll start our work on the theory side, going over the circle of fifths.
More Blues Guitar Chords, Lessons and Courses
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They're the best when it comes to online guitar education, and they'll let you try everything out free for 14 days. After that, you still have 60 additional days to cancel with a full refund, no questions asked. It's plenty of time to cover most, if not all, of the blues material.
The Circle of Fifths
All the music we hear is based on the circle of fifths, which is simply a geometrical way to display the relationship between the 12 tones of the chromatic scale. In some instances the major and minor key association is also provided by a circle of fifths diagram.
A fifth, meaning a fifth interval, indicates seven semitones (frets, assuming you're talking about a guitar) of separation between two notes. We can see these intervals represented in the circle of fifths diagram. For example, going from C to F is seven semitones while going from B♭ to F is an additional seven semitones.
The example below moves clockwise, though if we reverse the order and go counterclockwise, we'd be using the circle of fourths instead.
This is more easily understood in the context of the piano, since the layout of the piano keys is more accommodating.
If you go through each chord in the above circle of fifths diagram, you'll see that it continues in this manner until rounding back to C, where the process began. The circle of fifths serves as a fairly common and preferred reference tool and provides a linear chord pattern for a number of the progressions I've outlined below.
- C, G and F (key of C)
- D, G and C (key of D)
- A, D and G (key of A)
We can follow the sequences in this circle to choose our blues guitar chords and form our progressions. It's not a requirement that you use this diagram, but it can be helpful for visualizing how the notes and the resulting progressions are separated by interval spacing.
The Seven-Note Diatonic Scale
What is more helpful is to use the circle of fifths as a supplemental tool to the basic diatonic scale, which can be thought of as the seven successive notes between two octaves separated by five whole tones and two semitones. Thus the C major scale with its seven notes and an eighth octave C, is sufficient for building a ton of different blues chord progressions.
Once we have our diatonic scale understood as a helpful reference, we can use scale degrees and certain sequences of that scale to build our chord progressions, then easily transpose them to different keys (key of E, G, D, etc.).
Let's start by looking at one of the most common blues chord progressions at our disposal, the 12 bar blues or "blues changes" via I, IV and V.
The I, IV and V Progression: One of the Most Common Blues Chord Progressions in Existence
The absolute most common blues chord progression is the I, IV and V arrangement, the contents of which will depend on what key you're playing in.
If these Roman numerals don't mean anything to you, let me take a moment to explain them, otherwise the progressions we list below won't make a lot of sense. First, consider the following diagram and caption:
Understanding Scale Degrees
Every chord progression is derived from a specific scale. To make it easier to identify chords within those scales, we apply Roman numerals to each root note going from left to right. This is what we call "scale degrees."
For example, degrees for the C major scale would be the following:
Scale degrees and chords in the C major scale.
In the C major scale, there are three major and minor chords, as well as one diminished chord, all indicated by upper and lowercase Roman numerals.
- I, IV and V are major chords
- ii, iii and vi are minor chords
- The leading tone (vii) is a diminished chord
The Roman numerals used and the arrangement of major, minor and other types of chords will depend on which scale or mode you're referring to.
For quick reference, I've found this Wikipedia screengrab incredibly helpful:
For example, the Roman numeral analysis of the C natural minor scale looks like this:
This means when we see a chord progression described as I, IV and V, or any other Roman numeral variation, we need to then determine what key and scale the chord progression is in, which is variable and will depend on musical context. In the aforementioned example we've assumed the key of C major, giving us the C major scale.
Therefore, I, IV and V became C, F and G.
In one of our blues chord progressions below, this becomes C7, F7 and G7, since blues standards often apply extensions to their chords.
Now that we've covered some of the basic theory involved, let's start choosing some blues guitar chords and use them to build actual progressions using these structural principles.
1. A, D7 and E based on "Crossroads"
Our first example follows the aforementioned I, IV and V pattern, this time in the key of A, giving us the A, D7 and E arrangement. The seventh extension can be added to any of the three chords to create a more bluesy sound.
For example, A7, D7 and E7 would tab out like this:
Either way, this gives you a fairly basic chord progression to start with. You can add the seventh intervals as you get more comfortable with the pattern.
2. E5, A5 and B7 based on "Sweet Home Chicago"
This is more of a power blues progression, which could take or leave the more complex B7 chord voicing at the end. That could just as easily be a B5 to match up with the other two chords. Then again, this gives you a more varied tone at the end of the pattern before you go back to the root E.
It's a great option to use for building a 12 bar blues pattern in the key of E major.
3. iii, vi and V Chord Progression in the key of C (E, A, G)
In the key of C major, the iii and vi chords (E and A) are listed as minor chords. For our progression, we've left all the chords without their minor third interval in favor of a major-sounding progression, though you could drop those two intervals one semitone each for the darker, minor-sounding chord.
In this example we've moved our key up to G major and used the two preceding chords in the circle of fifths, yet with some fairly advanced chord extensions.
Once again, I should re-iterate that the structure of this progression is adhered to without regard to the extensions used. The seventh, flatted fifth and 13th extensions are all optional and simply add to the melodic flavoring of the chord.
While we've used some uniquely complex extensions in this progression, the structural backing is still more important to understand.
5. The I, vi, ii, V Progression in the Key of C Major (Cmaj7, Am7, Dm7 and G7)
Instead of building into the root of the chord, we begin with the root C and cycle through a four-part progression before starting the pattern over again. We can still see how this chord progression has been derived from the circle of fifths, following a similar pattern of building into the root.
We can also see the development of this progression using Roman numeral analysis of the C major scale. Use the diagram below to identify the I, vi, ii and V chords in the C major scale.
This gives us a C, Am, Dm and G progression, which then allows us to add our seventh note extensions to each chord. Again the I, vi, ii and V pattern can be applied to any other key, giving us an entirely new set of chords which can also serve as a base for adding extensions and different interval variations.
6. A, E, D
If you listen to the audio, you'll notice that this progression doesn't resolve because we end on the F, similar to how we setup the progression for the previous example (number three). An easy fix would be to just come back around and play the Cmaj7 again, or some variance of that chord.
Since C is the tonal center of our progression, we can move around a bit and partially ignore the order of the circle of fifths, with the understanding that C is going to be the focal point or the "home" we return to after moving to different chords. Thus, our tension chords in the circle of fifths diagram will look like this:
We're starting with D and G before jumping to F. We can use different arrangements of chords in the circle of fifths without necessarily following the linear order of the diagram.
In this instance, it helps to hear the progression ending on a resolved root C chord without the seventh interval.
That final C chord is just the root C with a third, fifth and octave, which gives a more restful feel than the inverted Cmaj7 chord at the beginning of the progression.
7. Bb, Eb, G5, F5
In this example, we neither begin nor end on the root C, though again we can add that root chord to either the beginning or end of our progression, if and when we decide to resolve the tension.
For example, your progression could look like either of the following arrangements:
- C7, Dm7, G7, A7
- Dm7, G7, C7, A7, C7
You could also simply omit the A7, though in that case you'd be back to the progression we used in the first example.
Either approach works. You can also experiment with order and sequencing of these chords, particularly when you know how to utilize the different scale degrees. Once you understand the theory, the order of the chords becomes more intuitive and allows you to apply more variance.
8. A, D, C and E7 based on "Mannish Boy"
In this progression our E7 chord is what gives us our most bluesy-sounding chord, though keep in mind you can also add seventh extensions to the other three chords.
Technically this is based on the C major scale, taking the vi, ii, I and iii scale degrees, without regard to major and minor distinctives. If you listen to the progression, it still has a darker quality to it, which means you could ad the minor thirds to the vi, ii and iii chords.
If you listen to "Mannish Boy" by Muddy Waters, you can get a better feel for how you might apply this arrangement.
9. C7, F7, F♯7, G7 based on "Mustang Sally"
The seventh chords in this progression add an extension on the second string. However, you can omit that note in favor of just using the root, third and seventh on the fifth, fourth and third strings. In either case, three of the four chords are movable by fret and don't require you to change strings.
Your last chord is an open G7, which you could also minimize to a lower note count if you wanted to simplify the pattern.
10. Am7, Dm7 and Em7 based on "All Your Love"
This time we've included the minor third intervals for each chord, giving us a much darker grouping of blues guitar chords, all with seventh extensions. Unlike the previous example, these are all open chords that are difficult to minimize, making it a more challenging progression to tame.
You might recall that in the first progression, we simply used A, D7 and E, echoing the pattern in "Crossroads."
The same principle applies here, in that you could use either minor or major chords with our without the seventh extensions.
11. V, ii, I Chord Progression in the key of C Major (G7, Dm7 and C7)
In our final example we're using the familiar G, D and C progression but adding seventh extensions to each chord with a Dm7 in the middle. The feel of this progression leans jazz, especially with cleaner amp settings and tones. However, you can certainly make the Dm7 a regular D7, which might make the grouping a little more applicable.
As long as you have the root bass line established, it's easy to play around with intervals and experiment with different extensions.
Since this is a simple G, C and D derivative, it's a good opportunity to experiment with some different major and minor arrangements and some more complex extensions.
With blues it's better to learn and understand structure than to focus on specific progressions or patterns. If you understand the circle of fifths, scale degrees and chord extensions, you can build your own blues guitar chords and then put together progressions all day long.
It's important to avoid getting stuck on particular chord shapes or voicings at the expense of learning the theoretical structures in place.
Here's a quick review of those structures:
- Circle of fifths
- Keys and scale degrees
- Bass lines, chord progressions and chord extensions
Without these principles, you'll quickly get lost and confused by simply looking for specific root note arrangements. As you search in books and around the web, you'll notice that many of these chord progressions don't even reference a specific key, but instead favor the Roman numeral designation that we've been using in our examples.
Once you understand this structure, you can go about memorizing and favoring specific chord progressions and keys.
At that point, it'll make a lot more sense and be far more enjoyable.
Marohnic, Chuck. How to Create Jazz Chord Progressions. Columbia Pictures Pubs.
“Section 5.2 Roman Numerals.” High-Yield Music Theory, Vol. 1: Music Theory Fundamentals, learnmusictheory.net/PDFs/pdffiles/01-05-02-RomanNumerals.pdf.