The structure of the 12 bar blues is very straight forward and is one of the easiest chord progressions you will ever come across. This is what makes the blues sound so good – it keeps it simple!
It doesn’t matter whether you are a complete beginner or a long time classical player, as learning to play the 12 bar piano blues chords will only take a few minutes. So let’s get started.
There are only 3 chords to learn
The traditional 12 bar blues requires only 3 chords, and you can choose to play in any key you like. I would recommend choosing the key of C to begin with, but I will also explain how you can transpose and play the 12 bar blues in any key you like on the piano!
Let’s being with the key of C and the 3 chords you will need –
C, E, G (C chord)
F, A, C (F chord)
G, B, D (G chord)
Now we need to insert those 3 chords into our 12 bar blues.
Use the 3 chords in your 12 bar blues
Now that you know the 3 chords you can now play them for a total of 12 bars – but how many times do I play them and in what order? Before we look at how many times we play the chords we need to understand the rhythm of the 12 bar blues.
There are 4 beats per bar for a total of 12 bars, and for the first 4 bars you need to play the C chord. You can either play the chord once per bar or even 4 times on the beat if you wish. For bars 5 and 6 we use the F chord, and then return back to the C chord for bars 7 and 8.
For bars 9 and 10 we can use G and F (sometimes just G for both bars), leaving bars 11 and 12 to play the C chord for a final time. You can also replace bar 12 with a G chord – this varies from song to song.
Use your left hand too
Whilst playing the chords in your right hand you can also consider playing along with your left hand to make your 12 bar song sound even better. All you need to do is play a single note at the same time as you play your right hand chord.
The note needs to be the same as the chord you are playing – so play C for the C chord, F for the F chord, and G for the G chord. For an even fuller sound you can also play octave notes in the left hand rather than a single note. This means you play two of the same note in the left hand which are 8 notes apart.
Now try playing in different keys
If you want to play the 12 bar blues chords in a different key, all you need to do is work out the distance between each note. For example, if you are playing in the key of C you will notice that the F chord is the 4th note on the C scale, and the G chord is the 5th note.
So if you want to play in the key of E then you would need to count up 4 and 5 notes on the E scale – this would be A and B. To work out the chord of A and B you would need to know how far apart each note should be from each other
Go back to your C chord of C, E and G and then count the distance between the notes. You should find that E is 4 notes above C and G is3 notes above E. So if you want to know what the E, A and B chord are you would need to count 4 from E which will give you a G#, and then 3 notes up again which would give you a B.
Using this method you can work out any major chord you like on a piano!
Play and sing along to your favourite blues songs
There are lots of famous songs which use the 12 bar blues progression, and you can start playing and singing along to them today. Below I’ve included three fantastic songs that you can play along too, and I have also stated the keys they are in so you can find the chords quicker on the piano.