The Many Faces Of The 12-Bar Blues

Piano players and other musicians who desire to learn the foundations of purely American music should start with the blues. This music form began over a century ago. Today’s jazz, hip-hop, rock-and-roll and rhythm and blues owes a debt to it.

Certainly, the word “blues” evokes a sense of the mood of being blue. The music has those qualities, but in its own way it is also capable of being very uplifting. Many blues songs are cries of hope for better days to come.

The blues form developed out of the African-American experience. The music we call blues is a touchstone back to their struggles in America and their growth as a people to more freedom. Blues songs are rooted in work songs, field chants, singing and talk. They also have their basis in spiritual songs and country ballads.

The first blues emerged out of the Deep South, in Texas, Louisiana and the Mississippi Delta. The music sang of the struggles of the worker and the impoverished lives many of them lived. Their great toil and sacrifice had articulation in stories, with many of them presented in song form.

A big boost to the stature of the blues came in 1912, when William Christopher Handy transcribed and published the song “Memphis Blues.” He was an African-American dance orchestra conductor. He gave himself the name “Father of the Blues” because of his tireless efforts to write, transcribe and publish blues music to get it to the masses.

The blues progressed from the Deep South to the north and entrenched itself in cities such as Chicago and Detroit. The music changed as it moved northward. No longer all about the poor conditions in the south, the music began to speak of the urban environments African-Americans were now living in.

The blues changed even more in the ’40s and ’50s as radio continued to spread its songs all over America. New electronic innovations lent the blues a different sound, with electric guitar at the forefront. Musicians carried this fresh electric sound with blues elements into the rock and R & B genre, which developed.

Those who hear that blues sound in much of today’s music may not understand that the music is very basic in its construction. A piano player desiring to learn the blues can understand its elements quickly with a little bit of study.

The most common blues heard and played are the 12-bar blues. Blues musicians found they could express their thoughts fully in a mere 12 bars or measures of music. However, there is room in these 12 bars for much creativity, whether musical or lyrical.

Almost all of blues music is in 4/4 time. This means there are four beats in each bar. Within a bar, each quarter note receives one beat. Further, a 12-bar blues song is broken down into three sections of four bars each. Musicians usually build blues chords on the first, fourth and fifth notes of an eight-note music scale. These form the blues chord progression. The first chord is typically prominent in the first four bars. The second four bars normally highlight the fourth chord of a scale, and the last four bars highlight the fifth chord of a scale.

For the lyrics to a blues song, the AAB pattern is predominant. A singer will sing the first and second four-bar verses with the same lines sung in each. The third four-bar verse will have different lines. Therefore A and A refer to the verses with the same lines; the B refers to the verse with different lines.

There can be different 12-bar segments in a blues song. When one 12-bar section gets resolved with the last four bars answering the previous eight, a new motif can develop in the next 12-bar section. In addition, while the 12-bar blues are the most common form in the blues arena, there are exceptions to it for variety and experimentation.

In the 1950s and 1960s, there was a movement in Britain, which brought about the “British Blues.” They were followers of the American blues tradition and very strict in following this form to a tee. This ended in the middle 1960s as the musicians from this country began to develop their own blues concepts and styles, although still based on the pioneering American blues school of thought.

The blues lends itself to much of the piano music available for playing today. Its influence is apparent in Broadway show tunes, film music and much music of the love-ballad type. Blues music can be a welcome addition to any pianist’s repertoire.

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