12 Bar Blues Basic Guitar Lesson

12 Bar Blues Guitar Tips From William Handy

William Christopher Handy (November 16, 1873 – March 28, 1958) was an African American composer and musician, known as the “Father of the Blues”.
and 12 bar blues. Handy was one of the most influential American songwriters. He was one of many musicians who played the distinctively American blues music, and he is credited with giving it its contemporary form. Handy did not create the blues genre and was not the first to publish music in the blues form, but he took the blues from a regional music style (Delta blues) with a limited audience to one of the dominant national forces in American music.

Handy was an educated musician who used elements of folk music in his compositions. He was scrupulous in documenting the sources of his works, which frequently combined stylistic influences from various performers.


12 Bar Blues Player


Early life

Handy was born in Florence, Alabama, the son of Elizabeth Brewer and Charles Barnard Handy. His father was the pastor of a small church in Guntersville, a small town in northeast central Alabama. Handy wrote in his 1941 autobiography, Father of the Blues, that he was born in the log cabin built by his grandfather William Wise Handy, who became an African Methodist Episcopal minister after emancipation. The log cabin of Handy’s birth has been preserved near downtown Florence.

Growing up he apprenticed in carpentry, shoemaking and plastering.

Handy was deeply religious, and his musical style was influenced by the church music he sang and played as a youth. It was also influenced by the sounds of the natural world. He cited as inspiration the sounds of “whippoorwills, bats and hoot owls and their outlandish noises”, the sound of Cypress Creek washing on the fringes of the woodland, and “the music of every songbird and all the symphonies of their unpremeditated art”.

Handy’s father believed that musical instruments were tools of the devil. Without his parents’ permission, Handy bought his first guitar, which he had seen in a local shop window and secretly saved for by picking berries and nuts and making lye soap. Upon seeing the guitar, his father asked him, “What possessed you to bring a sinful thing like that into our Christian home?” and ordered him to “take it back where it came from”, but he also arranged for his son to take organ lessons. The organ lessons did not last long, but Handy moved on to learn to play the cornet. He joined a local band as a teenager, but he kept this fact a secret from his parents. He purchased a cornet from a fellow band member and spent every free minute practicing it.

Musical development

Handy, ca. 1900, director of the Alabama Agriculture & Mechanical College Band
He worked on a “shovel brigade” at the McNabb furnace and described the music made by the workers as they beat shovels, altering the tone while thrusting and withdrawing the metal part against the iron buggies to pass the time while waiting for the overfilled furnace to digest its ore. “With a dozen men participating, the effect was sometimes remarkable…It was better to us than the music of a martial drum corps, and our rhythms were far more complicated.”[4] He wrote, “Southern Negroes sang about everything….They accompany themselves on anything from which they can extract a musical sound or rhythmical effect…” He would later reflect that “In this way, and from these materials, they set the mood for what we now call 12 bar blues”.

In September 1892, Handy travelled to Birmingham, Alabama, to take a teaching exam. He passed it easily, and gained a teaching job in the city. Learning that it paid poorly, he quit the position and found employment at a pipe works plant in nearby Bessemer.

In his time off from his job, he organized a small string orchestra and taught musicians how to read music and the different 12 bar blues scenarios. He later organized the Lauzetta Quartet. When the group read about the upcoming World’s Fair in Chicago, they decided to attend. To pay their way, they performed odd jobs along the way. They arrived in Chicago only to learn that the World’s Fair had been postponed for a year. Next they headed to St. Louis, Missouri, but found working conditions were bad.

After the quartet disbanded, Handy went to Evansville, Indiana. He played the cornet in the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. In Evansville, Handy joined a successful band that performed throughout the neighboring cities and states. His musical endeavors were varied: he sang first tenor in a minstrel show, worked as a band director, choral director, cornetist and trumpeter.

At the age of 23, Handy became the bandmaster of Mahara’s Colored Minstrels. In a three-year tour they traveled to Chicago, throughout Texas and Oklahoma, to Tennessee, Georgia and Florida, and on to Cuba. Handy was paid a salary of $6 per week. Returning from Cuba the band traveled north through Alabama, where they stopped to perform in Huntsville. Weary of life on the road, he and his wife, Elizabeth, decided to stay with relatives in his nearby hometown of Florence.

Marriage and family

Bronze statue of Handy in Handy Park, Beale Street, Memphis, Tennessee
In 1896, while performing at a barbecue in Henderson, Kentucky, Handy met Elizabeth Price. They married on July 19, 1896. She gave birth to Lucille, the first of their six children, on June 29, 1900, after they had settled in Florence.

Teaching music

Around that time, William Hooper Councill, the president of the Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College for Negroes (AAMC) (now Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University), in Normal, Alabama, recruited Handy to teach music and some of his 12 bar blues techniques at the college. Handy became a faculty member in September 1900 and taught through much of 1902.

His enthusiasm for the distinctive style of uniquely American music and 12 bar blues, then often considered inferior to European classical music, was part of his development. He was disheartened to discover that the college emphasized teaching European music considered to be “classical”. Handy felt he was underpaid and could make more money touring with a minstrel group.

Studying the blues

Footstone of Handy’s grave in Woodlawn Cemetery
In 1902 Handy traveled throughout Mississippi listening to various styles of black popular music. The state was mostly rural, and music was part of the culture—especially in cotton plantations in the Mississippi Delta. Musicians usually played the guitar or banjo or, to a much lesser extent, piano. Handy’s remarkable memory enabled him to recall and transcribe the music heard in his travels.


After a dispute with AAMC President Council, Handy resigned his teaching position to rejoin the Mahara Minstrels and tour the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. In 1903 he became the director of a black band organized by the Knights of Pythias, located in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Handy and his family lived there for six years. In 1903, while waiting for a train in Tutwiler, in the Mississippi Delta, Handy had the following experience:

A lean loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept… As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars….The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard…….

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How To Play Acoustic 12 Bar Blues Rhythm Guitar

Lets Play Some 12 Bar Blues Rhythm Guitar

Picture this, you’re jamming a 12 bar blues ripping it up with a killer improvised solo on your acoustic guitar. You finish and go to play the rhythm while someone else takes a solo. What do you do to keep things interesting, and to inspire whoever is soloing over your rhythm playing?

Hopefully you have a little more to offer than the same old chord forms and strumming patterns. If not, this is something you need to fix, as it’s a great in-balance in your playing that is never good. In fact it’s very common to hear players excel in the soloing department, and really struggle on the rhythm side of things. Yet, generally speaking, rhythm guitar is what we do the majority of our time when playing music.


12 bar blues guitar

Blues is a great vehicle to start developing your rhythm guitar chops as it’s the universal language amongst musicians. Everybody can play through a 12 bar blues, and it’s often the go to thing to do when first meeting up with someone for a jam. There have been many times in my own life where I have literally just met someone and within minutes we are jamming out a blues together, sometimes in actual gig situations. It’s great fun to do!

However, as stated previously, you need more than just soloing and improvisational skills to really cut it. The rhythm side is just as important and today I’m going to show you 3 awesome ways you can approach a 12 bar blues when playing the rhythm. You will be able to take these ideas into your next jam and blow everyone away as you yourself won’t just sound better, but everyone else playing with you will too.

The 12 Bar Blues Progression

A 12 bar blues is something most guitar players learn very early on. Today we will work in the key of G. Here is the progression:

|G7 | | | |C7 | |G7 | |D7 |C7 |G7 |D7 ||

Now, there is nothing wrong with reading your way through this chart playing open or bar chords. The problem is if this is all you can do. As you can imagine, that would get pretty boring, pretty quickly, not just for yourself who is playing the chords, but for the person soloing over them too.

Unfortunately, many guitar players can only do this (ie. play basic chord forms) when put on the spot to play a 12 bar blues, whether it be at a jam or in a gig situation. It’s a shame because there is so much more you can do with a 12 bar blues as far as the rhythm guitar part is concerned.

The other thing to consider when developing your rhythm guitar chops is the benefits it has for those you play with too. I know that I have always improvised my best when I am playing with a great rhythm guitar player. It gives me so much more to feed off, and you can bet I will be seeking that player out again to jam with, or perhaps form a band.

So, if you want to be the player everyone wants to play with, develop your rhythm guitar playing!

Let’s get into it…

1. Adding A Touch Of Jazz To The Blues

Jazz and blues are closely related, and the styles actually cross over with what is commonly known as a jazz blues progression. This is also 12 bars in length and typically uses more chords than your standard 12 bar blues. I love adopting this approach when playing the rhythm part to a blues. It really brings out some cool sounds when you solo over it.

Here is a 12 bar jazz blues progression in our key of G:

|G7 |C7 |G7 |Dm7 G7 |C7 |C#dim |G7 |E7 | Am7 |D7 |G7 E7|Am7 |D7 ||

As you can see and hear there are more chords in our example above, however we are playing the same 12 bar form. In the jazz world it is very common to substitute chords into a progression. While it’s beyond this article to go into detail regarding this, the above progression is a great way to introduce some more chords you can use in your rhythm guitar playing. This is true not just for a blues but for other areas of your playing too.

With that being said, learn the example above and start getting some of these chords into your ears and your fingers so they become part of your rhythm guitar playing arsenal you can draw from when playing/jamming.

2. Rhythm Riffs For Your Blues Playing

One alternative approach to strumming chords all the time is to use riffs in your blues rhythm playing. These are known as rhythm riffs funny enough, and are great for creating a part that will work well in line with someone improvising over them. When you have some rhythm riffs down in your playing it would be a good idea to create variations of them.

3. Using Block Chords In Your Blues Progression

Block chords are another great way to approach playing the rhythm part of a blues progression. I remember when I first came across these guys many years ago and literally applying them to everything and anything I could. I loved the possibilities I could do with them and they were the first kind of chord I really understood after learning open and bar chords.

These chords are sometimes referred to as 4, 3, 2, 1 voicings in relation to the strings they fall on.

What To Do Next

Your first step is to get each example down above. This may take a little time, which is fine, just don’t rush it. Once you have however, there is more you should and can do.

I purposely kept the examples in this article in the same key. This was so you could more easily connect them together. Once you have these rhythm approaches down, you then want to apply and connect them together. This is vitally important if you want to make anything in this article part of your own guitar playing.

I can’t stress this point enough.


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Apply the things you learn, over and over, in many different musical contexts. Also mix the things you learn together too. By doing this you will inadvertently come up with your own variations which is the whole point. Your aim is to be able to play and improvise through a blues coming up with varying rhythm parts as you progress from one chorus to another.

Learn Guitar Blues Scales

Learn Guitar Blues Scales In Different Keys

The tempo of the blues has called you for a long period, and today you would like to learn guitar blues scales on your electric guitar. Whether you get guitar or classical guitar lessons, participating in the blues is easily inside your reach.


Learn Guitar Blues Scales


American communities in the Deep South, the rich legacy born out of the hardships of slaves and prisoners. They made music from field hollers, chants, shouts, and work songs which grew into the unique form of American music known as the Blues.

There is one legend that a cornet player and bandleader named William Christopher Hardy wrote the first blues song, which was both documented and printed in the year 1912. The song was called “Yellow Dog Blues.” Over the years blues music has become more and more popular all around the world. It appeals to all ages, and many music lovers want to try to learn blues guitar.

Blues and guitars are like bees and honey…they are made for each other. If you want to play blues, then whether you buy an electric guitar or an acoustic guitar, either would be perfect. If your choice is an acoustic guitar, then nylon strings are not the best choice for creating the most traditional blues sound. Thicker strings should help you to get a tone better suited to blues, plus tone sustainability.

A vast majority of blues songs are played following the 12 bar. 12 bar blues simply means that the song is divided into 12 bars, or patterns, with a given chord sequence. If you are really interested in how to learn blues guitar, then you must start by learning this basic pattern. It is also the easiest to learn.

When you are playing 12 bar blues, you repeat it over and over for every verse until the song ends. When you are practicing, it’s recommended you start with a single down strum for each beat, until you become comfortable with it. Later, you can try to elaborate each strum and try other variations. RELAX

Now here is a bit of music theory. In most songs, blues is in major chord structure, but other scales can be used to create or add the colorful tone associated with blues: scales such as minor pentatonic, major pentatonic, mixolydian and dorian, used in any combination or individually. When you take your guitar lessons, you will learn all of this easily.

To really learn guitar blues scales, you should understand the 3 rhythm “feels” that define blues music. Here is a little bit of music theory about the unique qualities of blues rhythms.

  • Straight feel – the rhythm spaced is evenly apart, by placing each note exactly on the beat.
  • Shuffle feel -divides notes into 2 unequal halves, giving a bit of a hesitant jazz rhythm.
  • Twelve/eight feel – means in a triplet rhythm, playing 3 notes in the normal time for 2. This produces a kind of syncopated forward motion in the music.

Your technique is also vital when to playing blues guitar. One of these is vibrato, created when a note’s pitch is made to waver by rocking the finger back and forth on the string as you hold it down on the fret.

Turnarounds, transitional passages at the end of a section, are usually played on the last 2 bars, making the solo complete, and point the song back to its beginning. Some turnarounds have become famous intros and endings to songs.

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