Friday, 8 February 2013

3-Chord Songs, part 1: The 12-Bar Blues

3 Chords

Previously we reviewed songs that can be played with only two chords, the I and the V7 (also known as the tonic and dominant seventh). Many children's songs, folk songs and hymns fit this pattern.

By adding a third chord, the IV or subdominant, you open up possibilities to play exponentially more music—and more importantly, to start to make sense of the music that you play. Here are the I-IV-V chords for the most common ukulele keys:

Basic 12-Bar Blues

The 12-bar blues is based on these 3 chords and is the basis for much popular music. What do we mean by 12 bars? A bar is a unit of measurement in music. In the case of the blues, it is counted out in 4 beats—so a bar is a unit of 4 beats, counted 1-2-3-4, with each beat getting equal time. The vertical lines below are the dividers between bars. Each slash is a beat, and you can see how it is counted above the slashes. Twelve sets of 4-beat bars:
The most stripped-down chord progression for the blues looks like this:
—and if you were to play in the key of C, we can substitute C, F and G for I, IV and V to get:

Chord Variations

There are many variations on this pattern. You might see the IV chord put into the second bar like so:
In the third line, you frequently come across this pattern, with the IV substituted for the second V:
And sevenths or other variations of the chords can be substituted, as well. Since we are relatively new players, we're sticking to the sevenths for now.
If the blues is going to go on for more than one verse, a turnaround can be employed at the 12th bar. The easiest turnaround is the V7 (shown again in the key of C):

Playing in Different Keys

To play the 12-bar blues in any other key, you simply substitute the appropriate I, IV and V chords (the I chord is always the same as the key you are playing in). So to play 12-bar blues in F,  your 3 chords are F, Bb and C. To play in A, you use A, D and E. (Again, you can substitutes the sevenths of any of these chords.)


Another way to vary the sound of your 3 chords is to walk up and down a little, as Ukulele Mike does here, playing in A:
Two ways to dissect this pattern:
  • you look for the 5th note of the chord you're in, walk up one step, another half step, and back down to the half step
  • more simply, as explained by Al Wood at Ukulele Hunt, you play the sixth and seventh of the chord in question. This is called the blues shuffle.


The blues lyrics pattern is usually written A-A-B:
Line 1, bars 1-4, states the premise (A)
Line 2, bars 5-8, repeats the premise (A)
Line 3, bars 9-12, comes to some conclusion (B)

You can see this very clearly in the classic St. Louis Blues (with chords on top):
Or you can make up your own heartfelt, bluesy lyrics in the A-A-B pattern to produce your own song. Here's mine:

The 3-Chord Blues

I only know the C chord, and the F and the G
Said I only know the C chord, and the F and the G
But I can play the 12-bar blues, and that's enough for me

You can play this in F, G and A without changing the final line, and only minor modifications need to be made to play it in D and Bb.

For popular songs in the 12-bar blues pattern, see this post.

Online Resources

By far the most comprehensive source for playing blues ukulele is the Ukulele Hunt e-book, How to Play Blues Ukulele. The $17 (at this writing) download includes a 78-page .pdf file with multiple appendices and mp3s to aid understanding. There is also a printable version of the book, for those who would prefer to have a bound copy.

Ukulele Mike also has some videos, one of which is embedded above. He also has a lesson on playing the 12-bar blues in G, improvising blues in the key of C, and playing/improvising in the key of E.

Brett McQueen of Ukulele Tricks has 3 lessons in playing blues ukulele, broken down in a way that's easy to understand. Here's the first one. When you finish it, you can follow the link to the second part, which also has a link to the third section.

Aldrine Guerrero of Ukulele Underground has this 2-minute video explanation.

And if this isn't enough for you, just search for "blues ukulele" on YouTube for more than 28 million results!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you this has been very helpful.. also thanks to Uncle Mike.. from Cheryl