What is the blues?
The term blues is sometimes used, especially in the English language, to describe any song that expresses sadness, however, musically this is not quite correct.
The bass in the blues has a leading role, keep reading this lesson if you want to know the keys to play well the blues bass.
For any musician the word blues means to imagine a 12 bar cyclic structure based on the typical harmonies of tonic, subdominant and dominant, where those three chords become blues chords. That means, all three are chords with dominant structure, (major chord with minor seventh).
In the same way, the Blues is characterized melodically by the use of blue notes, which are notes outside the chord, and that create the typical tension of this music, which is still a folk music, since it does not respond to the standards of traditional harmony.
We can say that the blues respects the movements of the tonal degrees, but within these chords, it uses its own rules or notes, called blue-notes, which give it its unique character. It also has its variants of the blues scale.
As I said, nowadays the structure of the blues has been standardized and is usually 12 bars.
But if we digging into the history of the blues, early country blues singers used more anarchic metrics, for example, one of the first blues guitarists and songwriters, Robert Johnson, in a verse could use 12 bars, 12 and a half, 13, 15 or even more. The blues is a cyclical structure, when it reaches measure 12 it returns again to measure 1 and turns around depending on the soloists.
Today, having standardized the blues structure to 12 bars means that any musician can join the wheel of a blues without having to agree to any changes.
If you have played the blues, just by listening to one turn of the structure you know how it works to join in.
Playing Blues Bass
To play blues with the bass we only need three fundamental notes, which are; the tonic of a chord, the fifth, and the minor seventh, the octave can also be used, this creates what we call THE BLUES BOX, and with different combinations that we are going to see, we will be able to make almost infinite accompaniments, infinite Blues Bass riffs.
And I don’t play the third? Well, it is not necessary because whenever we are playing the blues we always have a pianist or a guitarist who usually gives chords and in these chords the third is already implicit.
Why are we going to play the third, if by playing the fifth or the seventh we are going to define the blues progression, and besides, we are not going to overload anything,
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t play the third, but well, to begin with, the blues box is the best thing you can do, because you will develop your ear, you will develop rhythm and above all, you will develop technique.
So, we’re going to focus on this box and I’m going to go through so you can see all the combinations that we can get.
We’re going to start on the blues right now, playing the root note of the chord, that is, the 1 will be the tonic, always of the chord, although I can go into the octave of the chord, but for the moment, these blues bass patterns are going to start with the tonic of the chord.
Many times, especially in jazz-blues, we play crotchets as walking bass. I advise you to complement this blues lesson with the lesson on how to play walking bass on bass.
Rhythm in BLUES
Within the blues, which we have said is a standard structure, we can find different variations in terms of rhythm. This is what makes it a very diverse genre.
Before we get down to business, don’t forget to check out the bass rhythm lesson.
Besides the typical forms of major blues, we can also find minor blues or Latin blues, and even the most extreme blues such as “Parker blues“, which is a major blues structure in 12 bars, but with the typical bebop harmonies that Charlie Parker introduced in his blues.
Thus we can play a blues in a flat way, i.e. not adding anything anomalous to the eighth notes, and simply following the harmonic changes.
This is also known as playing even. When we say …we are going to play a blues, everybody knows the structure…only the key is missing, then you ask, in what key, a blues in A…and then you ask, and in what rhythm…even…or suffle-swing…even…or suffle-swing…even…or suffle-swing…or suffle-swing…or suffle-swing? Even? or suffle-swing? or grooved?
Most blues have the rhythmic feeling called shuffle.
The shuffle rhythm or shuffle playing consists of converting the two eighth notes of each beat into an eighth note triplet, so we play the first and third eighth notes leaving the middle eighth note free.
This creates the rhythm so characteristic of many blues which is like a jumping rhythm, within this interpretation I can articulate it more choppy or looser.
If you notice the idea is to give a ternary sense to the music, over a value that can perfectly well remain in binary.
Most of the shuffle is written in 4×4 but played with this ternary sense.
However, there are other blues that are written in 12 by 8 directly, this is usually reserved for slow blues where there can be more nuances within the triplet, as is the case of the typical slow blues, where the dynamics play a fundamental role.
The Turn Around
The last two measures of a blues are called the Turnaround, the Turnaround is part of the standard blues structure.
Whenever we are going to play a blues we will surely have to execute a Turnaround in the last two measures, the old forms of structure did not usually have this movement, which occurs in measure 11 and 12, between chords 1 and 5.
This is what can commonly be called the perfect cadence because the last measure, which is the 5th degree, is going to end on the one, and so it is going to give sense to the cyclic structure of the blues.
The truth is that the Turnaround has evolved throughout the history of the blues giving rise to many combinations, which are basically substitutions of that 1-5 movement.
That’s why sometimes you can find a Turnaround of four chords instead of two, where the 1-5 movement is subdivided into a 2-5 movement of each chord:
Even also in a 1-6-2-5 movement, because a Turnaround is still a tonic movement towards dominant and can be perfectly substituted by 1-6-2-5, which is the same thing:
The Structure of the Blues
We have to start to see how the structure of the blues works, for this, I am going to propose three structures, we will go from less to more and we will stay with the last one and then we will play together.
The degrees of a blues correspond to the tonal chords which are 1, 4 and 5, which in tonality would be the tonic, subdominant and dominant.
So if we are playing a blues in A, I will have the tonic chord which is degree 1 (A7), the subdominant chord which is (D7) degree 4, and the dominant chord which will be (E7) degree 5.
However, as we have already said, in a blues all the chords become major minor seventh chords, it does not take away that some tonal functions are respected within a blues, as we have already said, the movement 5-1 above all.
Knowing now which are the degrees of a blues, let’s analyze the three most common structures of a major blues of 12 measures.
Basic blues structure
The simplest blues structure that exists is what is known as basic blues structure.
It has twelve measures is by Chuck Berry and you have heard it for sure, it is the song Johnny B. Goode, in the background it is a blues even and it has the characteristic that in the second measure it does not change to the fourth degree, therefore, it is the most basic structure of the blues and it is formed with:
- 4 bars of I7
- 2 bars of IV7
- 2 bars of I7
- 2 bars of V7
- 2 bars of I7
This blues form or this structure does not contain the turnaround that I mentioned before.
Another blues structure: