Ask Charlie...

A Basic Blues Foundation

by Charlie LoachOctober 2023

Hello Troubadourians! Last month was the second installment about giving guitar lessons to a friend from work and, more significantly, teaching him how to be a more complete performer and musician. One important aspect of our lessons has been talking about, and playing through, basic chord progressions, the simplest being the I-IV-V blues progression. The blues progression is very basic music theory, but it is essential to building a foundation for understanding how songs are constructed and imparting the knowledge that is required to be able to figure out songs by listening to their basic structure. And from there being able to anticipate the next chord without having to know the song beforehand. For some of us “of a certain age,” this skill is second nature. But the music we grew up on was different than it is today. That’s not a value judgement, just an observation of the situation. Some genres are simpler and, let’s say more guitar centric than others, with blues and country music being two examples. But even those genres have often moved beyond the classic I-IV-V, 12-bar structure. This can make it difficult for a guitar student to learn the basic information that is necessary for ear training and foundational understanding of song structure and chord progressions. It can be equally difficult for a guitar teacher to teach this information if the student lacks the exposure or interest in simple music genres.

So, what is a I-IV-V progression? Most readers of this column will already know this, but I’ll briefly explain it anyway. Let’s take a C major scale as an example; the scale is made of eight notes with the first and eighth notes being the same but an octave apart. It looks like this: C D E F G A B C. For a I-IV-V progression in the key of C major, the chords would be C-F-G respectively. I’ll attempt to show a rudimentary 12-bar progression below:

| C / / / | C / / / | C / / / | C / / / | F / / / | F / / / | C / / / | C / / / | G / / / | F / / / | C / / / | C / / / |

There are hundreds of variations of this progression and structure, but this illustrates the basic sequence of the chords for a blues progression. Does that mean that anything that resembles or is based on this type of progression automatically a blues song? Does that mean that all blues songs are structures like this? No, not at all… to both questions. While common to blues, what it does mean is that we have established a point of reference for understanding basic song structure and have given it a name that is applicable and understandable to all musicians so that we can communicate our ideas clearly, accurately, and simply. For instance, if I’m going to perform Rodney Crowell’s “Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This” with a band that may be unfamiliar with the actual song, I can say, “It’s a 16-bar Blues in “A,” and it holds an extra two bars on the V and the IV chords on the return to the I chord.” Most pro musicians will know what I mean and will be able to follow the song.

BB King. Photo by Dan Chusid.

But an inexperienced amateur musician may not have the background to understand what I said. Especially if they haven’t been exposed to any blues music. This is where we pick back up with our lessons for my friend “T.” As I said, I’ve mentioned the term “I-IV-V blues progression” several times during our lessons but we’d only done very basic study and practice on the concept, because T either needed to focus more specifically on the mechanical aspects of the chord changes of a song he was working on or that he simply wasn’t ready to delve into the more abstract ideas of music theory. That changed at our last lesson. T told me that he had stumbled across the music of Muddy Waters and had become very curious and interested in exploring the blues. This was the opening that was needed to start building a basic blues foundation for both his guitar playing and his musicianship. He asked if Muddy’s music was an example if a 12-bar blues. My answer was “sort of….” While Muddy did write some 12-bar songs, he would just as often write songs that barely had any chord changes or songs that had abbreviated or extended bar structures. I said that if he wanted to listen to and study “classic” 12-bar blues, he should listen to Jimmy Witherspoon. I showed him a couple of Spoon’s videos on YouTube and that hit the mark. Sort of a minor epiphany… I recommended several other blues musicians, specifically those who recorded for Chess Records.

One other thing that we had briefly touched upon was the concept of major chords having a relative minor, and T asked if that applied to the I-IV-V progression too. I said that it did and offered BB King’s “The Thrill Is Gone” as an example of a minor blues. (It also has a really cool turnaround and instead of the I-IV-V it’s actually a vi-ii-IV-iii progression…) While we were talking, T asked about Robert Johnson and what I thought of his music and playing. Before I could answer, T started talking about the mythology that surrounds Robert Johnson, his supposed “Deal with the Devil” to become a better player, the crossroads, graveyards, and stuff like that. I said, “Well, the mythology of the blues extends well beyond Robert Johnson and is one of the things that adds to the experience of the music for both players and listeners.” “Whether you believe in it or not, it is a part of the music. Just like the mythology of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.” “But don’t let that stuff distract you from using blues for building the foundation for your guitar playing.” I think he got the message. In the days since that lesson and conversation, T has sent me the videos he’s watched of the songs he’s learned. I’ve noticed an improvement in his playing in just the short time since he started listening to that old blues music.

And just recently, T joked about wanting to hang out in a graveyard, so that he could “summon the haunts” like Robert Johnson… At least I think he was joking… Keep playing your blues and Happy Halloween!

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (


Popular Articles

Exit mobile version