The blues is a cornerstone for many other musical genres.
If you are looking for interesting blues progressions you’ll find the variety is low because the genre has some defining rules.
It is very rigidly structured for one thing!
Most of the variation comes from improvisation, dynamics, and the spirit of the musicians themselves.
The best blues progressions are the classics; the infamous 12-bar blues the quick-four, and the bird blues.
There are some killer blues progressions around and most stay within the parameters of the genre.
Others are a little more outside of the box.
The following chord progressions are essential to play the blues effectively and also applicable to rock, pop, and country.
Let’s take a look!
1. I – IV – V
Example: A – D – E
We are starting with the building blocks of blues.
The simplified version some might say.
The blues is structured usually from three chords. They are I, IV, and V.
The only thing that varies in a classic traditional blues progression is the duration that you visit each one for.
More often than not blues bands play over the first three measures and leave the fourth bar empty as an introduction.
You will hear it used all over the place. “Hoochie Coochie Man” by Muddy Waters is a prime example as is the considerably more sultry and sexy “I Just Wanna Make Love to You” by Etta James.
Both use the same key and progression and both have a different bluesy edge to offer.
They employ a seventh note with the fifth chords making it I – IV – V7.
You’ll find that this is very often the case in blues.
The harmonic seventh note of a chord isn’t called the “blues seven” for nothing!
You could play all of the above chords with a dominant seventh if it appeals to you.
2. I – IV – I – I – IV – IV – I – I – V – IV – I – V
Example: E – A – E – E – A – A – E – E – B – A – E – B
A traditional 12-bar blues chord progression has a little more to it but it is a must-have progression.
This 12-bar sequence is known as the quick-four because it hits the fourth chord of the key on the second measure.
Much more quickly than some blues progressions is a blues essential.
The quick-four is a foundation on which all other blues progressions are built.
Having something to play on each bar get’s your brain thinking in patterns of twelve, a base concept which a lot of classic blues centers around.
12-bars is easy to follow, it is a pattern that repeats which you should ingrain in yourself early on.
Being repetitive leaves lots of space for playing with melody and adding a great solo later.
We will take a look at shorter progressions further down the article but mastering the 12-bar as a theory is a must!
This progression has been used for decades but remains ever popular as it is something we all recognize musically.
The first 11 bars are the true progression, the twelfth is counted as a turnaround.
You could forgo the final V chord and sit on the I.
Often you might hear the first four measures repeated as verse sections before the progression “progresses”.
You also might hear it with the V elongated dominating two measures instead of one like this;
I | IV | I | I | IV |IV | I | I | V | V | I | V
3. I – IV – I – IV – I – V – IV – I – V
Example: E – A – E – A – E – B – A – E – B
So you might notice this is a shortened version of the above progression and you are going to find a lot of the blues progressions boil down to variation.
This one has less of an energetic turnaround to it working better for a slower-building blues song.
This variation doesn’t have the same turnaround as the one above which has more of a sense of completion play them both and compare them side by side.
Stevie Ray Vaughan uses this type of progression in “Pride And Joy” in the key of Eb but replaces the first IV chord with the root major.
So you can see there’s room for variety.
You could use Major seventh chord variations to give it more of a twang and open up your melody options.
4. vi – ii – vi – IV – III7
Example: Bm – Em – Bm – G – F#7
So that’s the major blues taken care of for the most part, but one of the characteristics that define a lot of the blues that came out of Missipi early on was pretty darn melancholy.
One such artist who made a huge impact on the molding of the genre in its formative years was B.B. King.
Now as we said the blues revolves around a three-chord setup and he himself admits to playing the same three-notes day in and day out
But just how he played them remains for the most part unmatched.
This minor blues progression can be heard in the legends’ hopeless track “The Thrill Is Gone” which has a jazzier vibe than many blues tracks.
Most consider it a masterpiece and at the very least it is iconic.
The song’s progression has been used as the skeleton of many songs to follow.
Each artist adding their own flavor and tweaking the sequence.
You can build out from it and evolve it, add a range of other chords, take the listener into a new section, and return to its comfortable familiarity.
The minor blues progression is as familiar as the need for a hug when you are upset for most musicians.
Sherman Robertson does just that with his track “Make It Rain”.
The song is well worth a listen to see where the building blocks of “The Thrill Is Gone” can take the listener if put over a different time signature.
5. V – IV – I
Example: D – C – G
This one again is a versatile chord progression that can be used in rock as well as blues and country.
It features the infamous blues I-IV-V chords but changes the order of the start and finish, resulting in a walk-down feel.
“Sweet Home Alabama” is a prime example of how the song feels like it’s descending a staircase, stepping down.
The progression is so popular among bluesmen and rockers that you will find a plethora of other examples.
Bon Jovi’s “Dead Or Alive” for one.
6. I – ii
Example: A – Bm
You might be surprised to learn that a blues progression can be simplified down to just two chords.
While it doesn’t have that three-chord turnaround that the major offers when playing with minor chord structures you can lilt back and forth between the root and minor second chord of the key.
This is exactly what “I’d Rather Go Blind” by Etta James does.
She sings a melodic line above it with so much soul that you don’t notice there are just two lowly chords buried under her from start to finish.
The walking bass line helps to disguise the humble transition making it appear as though the progression goes elsewhere.
But it doesn’t and the time signature 6/8 also creates more movement than there is as each measure and bar takes a while to catch up with itself giving it longer phrasing.
7. I – vi – IV – V
Example: C – Am – G – Fmaj7
Johnny Langs’ genre blending between country rock and blues gives us something interesting to listen to.
This particular progression is used throughout his track “Breakin’ Me” and is another to consider if you want to steer clear of traditional blues.
This is a go-to pop progression but having the magical bluesy I-IV-V in the traditional order means you can make it as bluesy as you choose with the musical elements chosen in the composition.
The vi-chord gives it that miserable feel in the second measure that makes it perfect for a pop ballad.
This is the reason you have heard it in the charts time and again!
If you’re not convinced, take a listen to Lang’s licks and come up with your own blues riff to compliment the chords.
Example: Am – C – D
Starting with the ii-chord might seem crazy from the get-go, in terms of blues we typically start on the root or the fifth.
But this progression will be instantly recognizable to you, it creates a groove that resolves in a typical blues manner.
Neglecting the one gives it a neverending drive that just continues to build.
You will have heard it in a variety of songs, we have chosen a classic by ZZ Top, “La Grange.”
Other great examples of this bluesy progression include “On The Road Again” by Canned Heat, “Green Onions” by Booker T. & the M.G.’s, and Stevie Wonder’s less bluesy and funkier “Higher Ground”.
9. iv – VI – III – VII
Example: Bm – D – A – E
This one might not be your typical blues song, but alt-country group Delta Rae put it to incredibly good use in their hit “Bottom Of The River”.
It has an almost gospel call-and-answer feel which is reminiscent of how the blues originated as chants out in the fields.
Despite being considered a country track, we think it makes for a gritty blues progression if you are creative enough with it.
The blues has a well-defined vibe that comes from its typical three-chord progression.
If you want something a bit more unique, you have to venture away from the traditional for something with a modern edge.
This one steers well clear of the familiar blues I, IV, and V recipe but in the key of F# major.
Starting on that minor sixth chord gives you something gloriously dark to work with if you want to sing about your woes without sticking to the 12-bar formula.
10. The Bird Blues
We are leaving you with the jazzier variation on the 12-bar blues that kickstarted be-bop as a genre.
Known as the “Bird Blues” or “Charlie/Parker Blues”.
Because it is the blues reimagined and reharmonized by Charlie Parker first seen in his sax track “Blues For Alice”
We didn’t put it in typical roman numeral chord progression because it looks something like this;
I-ii-V of vi-vi-ii-V of I&-IV7-cycling chromatics to the ii- V’s to the ii-V-I-VI-ii-V
It is a little chord heavy as progressions go because of the cycling between the main “target” chords.
So it’s by no means a recommendation for a beginner to wrap their head around theory-wise!
In essence, you can see the regular 12-bar blues structure within it just with seventh-chord inversions.
The big change is that the first chord is major, not dominant, and the second bar has a cadence that goes into the relative minor.
Here’s an image to demonstrate the two!
Imagine the 12-bar blues if it had mini progressions between each target chord!
The best demonstration is to hear it.
This is a great blues progression variation to learn if you want to practice your soloing and amp up your skills.
Best Blues Chord Progressions – Final Thoughts
The blues is still as appealing today as when it rose out of the deep south.
With a 4/6/8/12 or even 16-bar structure to follow you have a lot of room for creativity even if you keep yourself restricted to the classic three chords.
Blues progressions are simple, even the 12-bar sequence is easy to wrap yourself around as it is so recognizable it feels “correct” and “complete”.
It is cyclic and pretty straightforward giving the vocals space to recount a tale over the top.
For that reason you might not be bowled over by the complexity or variety of blues progressions there are to work with.
The blues is a vibe, the origins make its narrative, it has a spirit and has gone on to influence jazz, country, rock, and pop.
And it’s still evolving! So take some of our top ten blues progressions and start thinking outside of the box with your own musical pursuits.
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