Writing a 12-Bar Blues Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Writing a 12-Bar Blues

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The stereotypical image of the blues is of poor black Americans wailing about the misfortunes of this world, accompanied by an acoustic guitar. This, of course, is not completely accurate. Plenty of white people sing the blues, and the electric guitar is probably more important in the development of the blues than the acoustic. But one thing is sure: the most characteristic type of blues is the 12-bar blues song.

Here's how you do it.

Pick a Subject

The main subject for the blues is the awfulness of life - how you're down on your luck and how everything is going wrong. The most popular one is 'my baby's gone and left me', but it could equally be about how you've got no money, how you've lost your job or any other example of the cussedness of life. If you're a woman at home, you also have the option of the special blues subject 'the sun's goin' to shine in my backdoor someday' which at least offers a glimmer of hope.

Write the Lyrics

The lyrics of the 12-bar blues consist of three rhyming lines, but the first two are identical:

The first line of the blues is always sung a second time1
Yeah, the first line of the blues is always sung a second time
So by the time you get to the third line you've had time to think of a rhyme

As you can see, the lines should be fairly long - although the exact length and the number of syllables, and so on, is not important. It should rhyme though. The first (and second) line may launch into the woe straight way, or may tell a story which ends in the bad things happening later. Here are a few good examples of first lines:

Working from seven to eleven every night...2

Been down so long being down don't bother me...3

I was in the kitchen, Seamus the dog was outside...4

Well I went down on 31st Street to pick up a jug of alcohol...5

I just had to get out of Texas, baby, Lord, well it was bringing me down...6

Well I woke up this mornin' and found my pet gerbil had died...

Once you've mastered the first verse, go on to write the second, third, fourth and so on. It's good form to stop at about 15.

Pick a Key

Grab that old guitar and strum an A chord. This is a good key, not too high and not too low. Sing a low A and a high A. Good, you can sing that high. If the top note is a bit of a wail, so much the better. Can you also sing down to the E below the low A? Even better, it's not too low.

If A is too low or too high, you're going to have work a little harder and figure out which chords to use yourself, as we're not going to do it for you here.

Sing the Scale

Sing out a blues scale based on A:

A B C/C# D E F# G A

The third note in particular needs an explanation. It starts at a C but slides up to a C#, making it not really either. When singing your melody, you can use either C or C#, whichever sounds best, or slide between them. This is a blues note.

Practise the Rhythm

Blues is played with a slow rhythm. Try saying Humpty Dumpty Rumpy Pumpy over again, with one word per second. You'll naturally settle into the Blues rhythm, with a strong beat and the 'y' syllable coming just before the next beat. Now try that on your guitar on the A chord:

down ...(up) down ... (up) down ... (up) down ... (up)

That's one group of four beats, which is known as a bar. There'll be 12 of these in the blues.

Practise the Chords

The chord structure of the 12-bar blues is almost always the same. The '/' symbol here means the same chord as before. We'll only show the chord at the start of each bar (group of four beats):

A / / / D / / / A / / / A7 / / /
D / / / D / / / A / / / A7 / / /
E / / / D / / / A / / / A / / /

That's it. There are minor variations on it, but that's the basic 12-bar structure. Play it until it gets into your soul.

Add the Vocals

Now it's time to add the song to the chords. Don't worry about the fact that you haven't written any tune. Just sing the words out in any sort of a way that sounds right. Remember to repeat the tune of the first line again exactly the same for the second line, even though the chords are different. Finish off with a different tune for the third line.

Repeat for the other verses.

Sharing the Blues with a Friend

You might like to let a friend sing some of the verses, or perhaps they could improvise a guitar solo by making guitar sounds while miming on air guitar instead of one of the verses. If you haven't got a friend, that would make a good first line for your next blues:

Oh I ain't got no friend, not one in all the world.
1This joking blues is by Richard Stilgoe and is from the show 'Starlight Express'.2Led Zeppelin, 'Since I've Been Lovin' You' taken from the album Led Zeppelin III. This is not technically a 12-bar blues, but it's in the same style.3Lenoir and Atkins, from the Sting album Bring on the Night.4Pink Floyd, 'Seamus' from the album Meddle.5Rory Gallagher, 'One Hundred Percent Alcohol'.6Nick Gravenites and Janis Joplin, 'Ego Rock'.

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