12 bar blues variations blues rhythm guitar lesson improve your blues!

The contents of this blues guitar lesson is quite simple. Here I will show you lots of 12 bar blues variations for rhythm guitar. I’ll show you a range of 12 bar blues variations from the most simple to slightly more complex. Some of the differences are small but they all work. This guitar Lesson is more about the TAB than me talking so we can pretty much dive right in.

Before we begin

Yes I know I said we can dive right in but Just before we do that, a little housekeeping. Firstly, you may find that you know some of these 12 bar blues variations already. If so, simply skip them and focus on the ones that are new to you. It may also turn out that you don’t end up using a lot of the material here but if you find 1 or 2 variations that you like, it was worth it.

Another important thing to consider is the intention of this guitar lesson. You don’t need to play the variations as you see them and the intention isn’t for you to take a set of 12 bars from this lesson and loop it through a whole song or jam session. That would get boring pretty quickly.

The idea of this lesson is to help spice up your 12 bar blues rhythm guitar playing a little. Use these 12 bar variations as a way to mix things up during a rhythm section. You can even break these sets of 12 bars down and create completely new variations for yourself.

This brings me onto another point. The possibilities for 12 bar blues variations are basically infinite and therefore you should consider this article to be a part 1. The examples here are not where 12 bar blues variations end. 

What key are we in?

There’s 1 last thing that I need you to know before we move on. All examples are shown in A. I’m not utilising any open strings in any of the variations so you can freely move these examples to any key you like easily. Want to play an example in B flat? Move it up a fret.

12 bar blues variations #1 The 12 bar blues basic form

The first 12 bar blues rhythm variation that I’m showing you is the 12 bar blues rhythm in its most basic form. I’m working on the assumption that if you’ve found this piece, you’re looking for new ways of performing the 12 bar blues so most will surely skip this. Do remember however that sometimes, playing something in a simple way is what works best. This variation may be simple but it’s versatile. It can be performed in many situations at pretty much any blues tempo. For those of you who are new to the blues, this is your starting point.

12 bar blues variations #2 Ending on the V chord

Next up is a different way of ending the 12 bar blues. Instead of staying on that I chord, we’re going to end on the V chord and the chord type we’re going to use is a dominant 7. This alternate ending naturally happens at bar 12 of the progression and it can be used with pretty much any 12 bar blues variation that you see during this guitar lesson. There wouldn’t be any point in me showing you this alternate ending for every variation as that would make the lesson unnecessarily long so some common sense is required on your end.

You can change the strumming and rhythm of this final bar all you like. All you need to learn here is the concept of switching out that final bar for a dominant 7 V chord. In this case, it’s an E7. If you were in the key of G, it would be a D7 and so on.

12 bar blues variations #3 subtle change to #1

Not much explanation required for this next one. Just one slight change to 1 note which gives a slightly different sound. 

12 bar blues variations #4 mix of 1 and 3

As mentioned, you can cut these variations up to make an extra version. This 12 bar blues variation is an example of versions 1 and 3 merged together. Feel free to play around with this as much as you like during your rhythm sections.

12 bar blues variations #5 walking up in bar 4

This next one contains a nice little trick at bar 4. The rest of the example has remained a mix of versions 1 and 3 but bar 4 has a really cool transition from the I chord to the IV chord. Give it a try and see what you think. Don’t over use this though. It’s meant to be a nice little variation, not something that’s used in every set of 12 bars. Also notice how the D is now played at the 10th fret on the E string at times to make this easier to play.

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12 bar blues variations #6 another alternate ending

So we’ve looked at an admittedly fairly common way of ending a 12 bar chord progression with a dominant 7 chord. Here is an alternative way of providing the ending of your 12 bar sequence with a little variation. The little chords used in bar 12 are kind of like dominant 7s but without the 5th. The way I remembered them when I was learning this variation was that they were like your standard dominant 9 chord shape but with just the first 3 strings of the chord. Give it a try. It’s a cool way of linking to the next section.

I mentioned earlier that the possibilities for variations are endless and this is another example of why. The 12th bar of this example ends with that last chord ringing out for the duration of the bar but one could easily include a little quarter note slide down at the end there. You could even hit the chord again for the final beat instead of letting it ring. Showing the TAB for those 2 examples isn’t really necessary in my opinion as showing such tiny changes would result in 100s of images so just play around with the examples as much as you can.

12 bar blues variation #7 like number 5 but the other way around

Title says it all really. This example is similar to the walk from the A to the D but this time, we’re walking from the D to the A. We’ve moved to the 10th fret on the E string instead of the 5th fret on the A string in order to make the transition easier but aside from that, this is pretty simple. This isn’t one that I use a great deal but it works if you get the placement right.

12 bar blues variations #8 alternative transition from the V chord to the IV chord

Once again the title says it all for this one. Here in this example, we’re developing the change between the V chord and the IV chord which happens toward the end of the chord progression. Nothing particularly technical going on here. Just something a little different. You don’t need to follow that rhythm exactly. As long as you get that extra chord in at the end of the bar, you’re good.

12 bar blues variations #9 new notes!

The examples that we’ve seen so far have largely been based around the same feel with added bits and subtle changes here and there. This next example has a more direct change as we’re adding in a new part to our muted rhythm that is present throughout the whole 12 bar section. Have a play with this.

#10 mixing it up

Here’s an example of what it would look like if you were to mix up some of the approaches seen so far. This example demonstrates that it’s very easy to mix things up when you’re playing 12 bar blues rhythm guitar sections. This doesn’t even include any of the alternate endings or transitions that we’ve looked at either.

I could pretty much go on all day showing you examples with subtle changes like this but I think you’ve seen enough of the muted power chord style blues rhythm at this point. From here, you should be able to take what you’ve seen and make your muted blues rhythm more unique and varied.

We’re going to look at 1 more example so I can show you how the rhythm can be altered and then we’ll move on to more full chord based 12 bar variations.

#11 altering the 8th note feel

This will be the last example of its kind for today. It’s definitely worth including this one though as it shows how we can develop that constant 8th note feel that we’ve seen so far. Let’s get some 16th notes going.

There you have something else that’s easy to incorporate. As you can see, there’s no dramatic changes. Just small subtle ones. You can use this even less if you want and it will still sound great or you could use it more than I have in the example.

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That about wraps things up for that type of rhythm. Now let’s move onto some chord based stuff. These next 2 examples are the most basic forms of a more slow blues style. The first example utilises minor 7 chords and the second utilises dominant 7 chords. They’re to be played with a clean tone exclusively.

12 bar blues variations #12 and #13 basic slow blues

There’s nothing particularly noteworthy going on in either of these 2 examples. You’re providing backing for the forefront with mostly 1 chord per bar. Simple. Do remember what we learned in one of the earlier examples though. It may have been a different kind of rhythm but one can still choose to substitute that last chord of the progression for a dominant 7 V Chord. In this case, whether you’re using the Dominant 7 example or the minor 7 example, your last chord would be an E7.

Oh and by the way. If you’re ever looking for chord shapes, use the Eat Sleep Guitar Repeat Guitar Chord Library!

12 bar variation #14 a small change to the 12 bar blues progression

Aside from a couple of tiny changes, so far, we’ve stayed very close to the original 12 bar blues chord progression. In this next example, I’m going to show you a way of including a VI chord. Here’s the TAB.

You can see the change at bars 9 and 10. I’m using that same dominant 7 chord shape as before in the previous dominant example. This idea of adding the VI chord works with the minor version also but I find it more effective with the dominant rhythm. Either way, the VI chord should be a dominant 7 chord as seen in the example. You then simply shift the chord shape down a fret for the next bar before returning to the root chord.

12 bar blues variations #15 up tempo blues with dominant 7 chords

Here is a way of performing a 12 bar blues chord progression for more up tempo blues. We’re using dominant 7 chords only here. Pay attention to the placement of the chords. The first chord is placed directly on the first beat of the bar but the second chord is placed between beats 2 and 3. We will look at ways at developing the rhythm to make things more interesting later. You’ll also notice that there’s a lot of silence with this approach. This is fine. Sometimes less is more.

These silences are indicated by the little symbols in each bar known as “rests” a rest basically tells you to play nothing for a certain amount of time. Each rest symbol indicates a different amount of time to be silent. This isn’t a music theory lesson so if you want to know more about rests then do a little research. For now, just know that the first chord in the bar is played on beat 1 and the second is played between beats 2 and 3.

#16 up tempo blues with a combination of dominant 7 chords and dominant 9 chords

This next example is similar to the previous one only I’ve switched out some of the chords. The IV chord and the V chord have been changed from dominant 7 chords to dominant 9 chords. This gives a different sound and a different option. Aside from that, everything is the same apart from the last bar. In bar 12 I’ve used that dominant 7 V chord just to mix things up.

#17 Walking to the IV

Here is a cool way of moving from the dominant 7 root chord to the IV chord. The bar with the change is bar 4 and instead of moving from the 6 string dominant 7 barre chord to the 5 string version, we’re sticking with the same shape so that we can simply shift the shape up ending up at the D dominant 7 at fret 10. We do see a return to the 5 string shape later for efficiency of movement though.

#18 walking 9 to 9

A similar concept the previous example here only we’re going back to those dominant 9 chords from earlier and adding an extra 9 in to move us from the E9 to the D9 toward the end of the 12 bar sequence.

#19 incorporating dominant 13 chords

We’re going to stick with the same feel for this next example but we’re going to add to our chords by including the dominant 13. This chord can be achieved by playing a standard 6 string dominant 7 as we’ve been doing in the other examples and then adding the 4th finger to the B string at the same fret as the 3rd finger. The dominant 13 chord is used sparingly in the next example but it’s another way of developing those 12 bar progressions even more. You will also notice that the rhythm has changed slightly too.

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#20 rhythm development continued

In the previous example, we added some dominant 13 chords which altered our rhythm slightly. In this next example, you can see that the rhythm has been changed ever so slightly again. Once again, some understating of rests and/or the placement of chords in a bar will be required to fully grasp what’s going on but hopefully you can see what’s happening. If not, here’s a small breakdown.

In bars 4 and 7, I’ve moved the I chord from the first beat to between the first and second beet. In other words, you’re playing that chord half a beat later than you were before. At bar 9 we get more adventures again as the 3 chords are all played between the beats. The first chord falls between beats 1 and 2, the second chord falls between 2 and 3 and the third chord falls between beats 3 and 4. The following bar is similar only this time, that first chord does fall directly on beat 1.

See how something as simple as where the chords are placed can make the rhythm more interesting? This is something that’s really easy to play around with. 


I’m wrapping this lesson up at 20 examples. The lesson feels like it’s getting a little long. There’s plenty of 12 bar blues variations that I want to show you so a part 2 of this lesson will definitely be on the way in the near future as mentioned in the introduction.

There should be plenty of material to sink your teeth into here especially if you’re relatively new to blues rhythm guitar. You’ve got some muted power chord style blues rhythm, some slow blues and some more up tempo blues examples.

Going back to what I said right at the beginning, the intention of the lesson is not for you to learn the examples bar by bar and memorise them. If you’re brand new to blues then that would be a place to start but what I really want you to take away from this blues lesson is ideas. My hope is that the material found here helps you to inject some variation into your blues rhythm sections which will hopefully result in more interesting blues music for you. The last thing you want is to get stuck in a rut of looping the same 12 bars over and over again. Hopefully the material here will help you avoid that.

No lead guitar?

You may have noticed that I haven’t included any lead guitar in this lesson. When I play 12 bar rhythm sections, I often like to slip in little lead licks here and there and I know I’m not alone with that approach. I’ve decided to not include that here though because that is a subject on its own and at some point in the near future, I’ll create a dedicated lesson for it.

What next?

This was actually the first 12 bar blues lesson that I’ve written for Eat Sleep Guitar Repeat but it’s not the first blues rhythm lesson that I’ve written. Perhaps the most natural thing that I could recommend you check out next is this introduction to the 8, 16 and 24 bar blues that I wrote a couple of months ago. If your aim is making your blues guitar playing more interesting, that may be the next place for you.

Another thing that you could try is taking your first steps into jazz with my introduction to jazz chord progressions guitar lesson. 

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