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Ch. 04: How to Build the Blues


A typical melody in Western music is built upon an eight note scale, which is most often either major or minor. The minor, or darker, sadder quality comes from the third note of the scale being flattened or lowered from its sibling, the major scale.

Major Scale
Minor Scale (lowered 3rd, 6th, & 7th)

The Western based scale is built upon an unequal series of whole and half notes. The blues, however, has been influenced by elements of the typical musical scale from West Africa, which contained 8 equidistant notes, that is, the scale was not made up of alternating whole and half note intervals, but, every note was the exact same distance apart. When combined with the Euro-tradition of major and minor, the result was a hybrid scale which incorporated both a regular third and a lowered third, a regular seventh and a lowered seventh in the scale. This blues scale, comprised of 10 notes instead of 8, is the basis for the characteristic sound of the blues melody: where the third note and the seventh notes of the scale oscillate between their regular and lowered (or flatted) positions.

Blues Scale (lowered 3rd, 5th, & 7th)

Because chords are made up of the notes in any particular scale, blues chords then, take on the characteristic of these altered notes. A typical blues song is made up of three chords in a specific relationship. They are called the I (1) chord, the IV(4) chord and the V(5) chord. Depending on what key the blues song is in, the actual notes change, but the relationship of the IV and V chords are based on where the I chord starts.

The easiest example can be seen in the key of C. In C, the I(1) chord is the C chord, the IV(4) chord (four steps up from C, DEF) is the F chord and the V(5) chord is one step up from that, the G chord. So a blues song in the key of C, would use three chords: C, F & G. However, because we are building the chords on the hybrid blues scale, which alternates some notes, the chords take on a darker, more complex progression.

Notice the difference between a simple C, F, G chord progression and one built with on an altered “blues” scale.

Example: C/F/G progression

Example: C/F/G blues progression.

These altered notes give the blues its characteristic earthy, almost sensuous quality.

The simplicity of the chord progression makes the blues predictable, but also easy to play. Regardless of the key, the chords in the most basic blues song are always in a I, IV, V relationship with the root note of the key. It will be a I, IV, V based on starting with a G, an F, an Eb, or a D.

At the heart of all pure blues songs is a formula known as the “12 bar blues”. It uses the three chords (I, IV & V) in a prescribed order. The “12 bar” part refers to the fact that there are 3 lines of music, each containing 4 measures (or bars). The three chords (I, IV and V) fit into the following spots in those 3 lines, 12 bars in this order:

By itself, the progression sounds like this:

Example: 12 bar blues with just piano right hand.

When you add drums, bass and guitar, all playing the same chord changes, you get this:

Example: Same 12 bar blues with full band.

By the time you add a blues melody to the backup, you get this:

Example: Same 12 bar blues, full band with melody.

One more element needs to be presented regarding the structure of a 12 bar blues song. We’ve pointed out before that the lyrics were about heartache and loss. There are thousands of poems out there that do the same thing:

My love, don’t ever leave me, (A)

For leaving would make me sad. (B)

In all my life, I’ve loved just one, (C)

This one love is all I’ve had. (B)

This song lyric, typical of millions of others has a second and fourth line that rhyme (sad & had), while the other two lines (me, one) don’t rhyme at all.

However, in the 12 bar blues, the rhyming scheme is not ABCB or even ABAB. The three lines of text (remember, 3 lines of 4 bars each) have an AAB rhyming scheme. Even simpler than that, the first two lines (AA) are identical lines of texts.

Baby, don’t leave this honey, you know it would make me sad. (A)

Oh, baby don’t leave this honey, you know it would make me sad. (A)

Don’t walk out that door and leave me, your lovin’s the best that I had. (B)

So, let’s put the pieces together. Take your basic sad lyrics about loss, written in three lines, first two identical, third line rhymes. Have the guitar, piano, bass and drums start the12 bars of music in a swing rhythm, using the blues I, IV, and V chords in the blues “formula”.

From there, it’s just a simple step to “Hound Dog” as performed by Elvis Presley, Little Richard’s “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” Tracy Chapman singing “Give Me One Reason” or B.B. King wailing “The Thrill is Gone.” Thousands of blues, jazz and rock songwriters have used this simple “12 bar, 3 chord” scheme to craft their hit song.

One slight variance on the typical 12 bar blues structure happens when the backup musicians suddenly drop out during the first line of 4 measures. This “stop time” creates spaces of silence for the soloist to create a more complex, extended line of music. The stop time generally occurs in only the first line of a verse, extending it from 4 measures to 8 measures, after which, the final 4+4 is presented unaltered. In a stop time presentation, a blues verse might sound like:

Example: Stop Time Blues

The genius of the 12 bar blues formula is its simplicity. Because it is so simple, the passionate plea of the singer and lyrics, the instrumentalist and the improvised melodies can come through. In the predictability, there is comfort. In the comfort, there is connection. In the connection, there is emotional discovery. In the emotional discovery, there is release—for both performer and listener. In this, the blues are a cathartic release, a letting go of the pain by taking it to the level of admittance, even celebration through singing.

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Study Units

An Overview

Ch. 1: Understanding Pitch

Ch. 2: Understanding Musical Pulse

Ch. 3: Understanding Volume

Ch. 4: Understanding Tone

Ch. 5: Understanding Melody

Ch. 6: Understanding Harmony

Ch. 7: Understanding Rhythm

Ch. 8: Understanding Bass

Ch. 9: Understanding Countermelody

Ch. 10: Understanding Structure

Ch. 11: Understanding Instrumentation

Ch. 12: Understanding Tempo

An Overview

Ch. 1: 19th Century: Pre-Foster

Ch. 2: Folk Music by the People

Ch. 3: Popular Music in its Infancy

Ch. 4: Stephen Foster – “Father of American Popular Music”

Ch. 5: The Importance of Stephen Foster

Ch. 6: Scott Joplin – “King of Ragtime”

Ch. 7: The Player Piano – Automated Music

Ch. 8: John Philip Sousa – “The March King”

Ch. 9: John Philip Sousa – Recording Artist and Activist

An Overview

Ch. 1: John Lomax – Recording American Roots Music

Ch. 2: Woody Guthrie – “Father of Modern American Folk Music”

Ch. 3: Leadbelly & Pete Seeger: End of the First Wave

Ch. 4: The Kingston Trio – Beginning of the Second Wave

Ch. 5: Joan Baez – “First Lady of Folk Music”

Ch. 6: Peter, Paul & Mary – Balancing the Message

Ch. 7: Robert Zimmerman – The Beginning of an American Icon

Ch. 8: Dylan in New York City

Ch. 9: Dylan after Newport

Ch. 10: The Importance of Dylan

Ch. 11: Folk Music in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: The Roots of Country

Ch. 2: Bristol Beginnings

Ch. 3: The Grand Ole Opry

Ch. 4: Cowboys and the Movies

Ch. 5: Western Swing

Ch. 6: Bluegrass: Hillbilly on Caffeine

Ch. 7: Honky-tonk: Merging Two into One

Ch. 8: The Nashville Sound: Country-Pop

Ch. 9: Rockabilly – Country meets R&B

Ch. 10: Country Feminists Find Their Voice

Ch. 11: The Bakersfield Sound

Ch. 12: Austin “Outlaw” Country

Ch. 13: Neo-Traditionalists at the end of the 20th Century

Ch. 14: Mainstreaming Country in the ‘90s

Ch. 15: Redesigning Country in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: What is Jazz?

Ch. 2: Before It Was Jazz

Ch. 3: Jazz is Born!

Ch. 4: Early Jazz Musicians

Ch. 5: Louis Armstrong

Ch. 6: Chicago and Harlem – Hub of 1920s Jazz

Ch. 7: Big Band – Jazz Swing!

Ch. 8: Big Band Musicians and Singers

Ch. 9: Jump Blues and Bop

Ch. 10: Cool Jazz

Ch. 11: Hard Bop

Ch. 12: Free Jazz – Breaking the Rules

Ch. 13: Fusion – The Jazz-Rock-Funk Experience

Ch. 14: Third Stream and World Jazz

Ch. 15: New Age & Smooth Jazz

Ch. 16: Summary – Jazz Lives!

An Overview

Ch. 1: Blues – The Granddaddy of American Popular Music

Ch. 2: Where Did the Blues Come From?

Ch. 3: What Are the Blues?

Ch. 4: How to Build the Blues

Ch. 5: Classic Blues – The Early Years

Ch. 6: Delta Blues – Authentic Beginnings

Ch. 7: Blues in the City – Migration and Power

Ch. 8: Blues in Britain – Redefining the Masters

Ch. 9: Contemporary Blues – Maturity and Respect

Ch. 10: The Relevancy of the Blues Today

Ch. 1: Timelines, Cultures & Technology

Ch. 2: Pre-Rock Influences

Ch. 3: Rock is Born!

Ch. 4: Rock is Named

Ch. 5: Doo-Wop

Ch. 6: Independent Record Labels

Ch. 7: Technology Shapes Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 8: The Plan to Mainstream Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Payola – Rock ‘n’ Roll’s First Scandal

Ch. 1: Crafting Sound in the Studio/Producers and Hit Songs

Ch. 2: West Coast Sound: Beach, Surf, and Teens

Ch. 3: The British Invasion: Two Prongs – Pop & Blues

Ch. 4: Motown and the Development of a Black Pop-Rock Sound

Ch. 5: Soul Music: Gospel and R&B in the Deep South

Ch. 6: The Sounds of Bubble Gum Pop-Rock

Ch. 7: The Arrival of Folk-Rock

Ch. 8: Psychedelic Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Early Guitar Gods of Rock

Ch. 10: Rock Festivals: The Rise and Fall of Music, Peace, and Love

Ch. 11: Anti-Woodstock and Shock Rock Movements

Ch. 1: Technological Breakthroughs

Ch. 2: Electronic Dance Music

Ch. 3: Hip-Hop & Rap – An Introduction

Ch. 4: The Beginnings of Rap

Ch. 5: Old School Rap – Up From the Streets

Ch. 6: Rap’s Golden Age

Ch. 7: East Coast – Political Rap

Ch. 8: West Coast – Gangsta Rap

Ch. 9: The Fragmentation of Rap – Pop, Party & More

Ch. 10: Further Fragmentation – Different Directions

Ch. 11: The Importance of Rap

Ch. 1: Musical Stage Productions in America before the 1800s

Ch. 2: Minstrel Shows and Melodramas

Ch. 3: Stage Presentations in the Late 19th Century

Ch. 4: Early 20th Century: Revues and Operettas

Ch. 5: The Arrival of the Modern American Musical

Ch. 6: Great Partnerships in Book-Musicals

Ch. 7: Musical Theatre Composers in the mid-Century

Ch. 8: Fresh Voices on the Stage in the 1960s

Ch. 9: Two Dominant Forces at the End of the Century

Ch. 10: New Voices at the End of the Century

Ch. 11: New Voices, New Sounds in the New Century

Ch. 12: Musical Theatre Glossary

Ch. 13: Is it “Theatre” or “Theater”?

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