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Blues Jazz Lesson – Spicing Up A 12 Bar Blues Progression

Elvis Elvis

In this blues jazz lesson we are going to take a simple 12 bar blues progression and give it a bit of a jazzy feel by adding some knew chords to the progression.

There are many ways to add chords to a blues progression without spoiling its essential character. Here I will cover three techniques that you can use together or individually to do just that.

First let’s look at the standard 12 bar blues progression.

The progression can basically be broken down into 3 sets of 4 bar phrases that look like so…

I7 - IV7 – I7 – I7
IV7 – IV7 – I7 – I7
V7 – IV7 – I7 – V7

Now let’s spice things up a bit by adding some new chords to this.

Blues Jazz Lesson

Technique #1 – The #IVdim7 to I7 move

If you want to add some new color for the move to the I7 chord, try raising the root note of the IV7 chord a half step to sharpen it. This creates a diminished 7th passing chord that will help draw the ear back to the I7 chord.

Blues Jazz Lesson   Spicing Up A 12 Bar Blues Progression

The #IVdim7 chord appears twice in the progression – in the second half of bar 2 and all through bar 6

Blues Jazz Lesson

Technique #2 – The IImin7 – V7 – IV7 move

This next blues jazz lesson technique fills bar 4, particularly the second of the I7 measures. Playing just the G7 chord for 2 measures can get a little old, so we will jazz it up a bit with a couple chords that will add a little tension and release.

The key as with most harmonic substitutions is to look ahead to the destination chord you want to arrive at and work backward from there. This will create an interesting path to the destination IV7 chord. The destination chord in this example is the C7 in bar 5.

Now if we temporarily treat the C as a I(root), then we can call on a classic cadence that will lead us to this temporary tonic. The cadence that I’m speaking of is the IIm7-V7-I7 progression. This progression you will learn is an integral part of swing, bebop, and other forms of traditional jazz.

Here’s an easy trick to remember this cadence for any key.

Using our handy circle of fourths and fifths chart, we can easily find the chords that we’ll lead us to the C7 chord.

  1. Find the root of the target I chord, it is the C in our example.
  2. From the target note, move clockwise and jump two clicks ahead.
  3. Now move counterclockwise from where you’re at, stopping at each tone along the way.

This creates our IIm7-V7-I7 cadence. We are moving from Dmin7 to   G7 to C7.

Circle of Fifths and Fourths   

Next, we need to harmonize and create chords for these notes. The “two clicks” note becomes a minor 7 chord, the “one click” note forms a dominant 7, and the last note is the destination or target note, the I7 chord. Using this information we will move from a Dmin7 to a G7 and into the C7 chord.

Remember that our C7 chord is actually a IV7 chord and was just a temporary tonic for the IIm7-V7-I7 cadence only. In the context of our 12 bar blues progression, the C note is the root of the subdominant chord, the
IV7 chord. That means we need to still keep moving towards the real tonic, the G7.

With time and practice you will eventually be able to precede any IV7 using this IIm7-V7-I7 cadence. Always refer back to the cycle chart for the root notes.

Blues Jazz Lesson

Technique #3 – Backcycling to the I7

This last technique I will cover involves moving backwards in fourths on the cycle chart.The objective here again is to construct another harmonic pathway that will lead us into the I7 chord in bar 11.

Why would I want to do this you ask? Well, by the time we are nearing the end of the standard 12 bar blues progression, we have heard the I7 and IV7 chords and awful lot and some new sounds could certainly be welcomed.

Here’s the procedure to follow...

  1. Find the root of bar 11′s I7 chord on the cycle chart, it’s the G in our example.
  2. From this target note move 3 clicks clockwise on the chart.
  3. From this new note, move back to the target note hitting every tone along the way.
  4. Make each note the root of a dominant 7 chord.

Following this procedure will produce a E7, A7, D7, and G7.

Use each of these chords for one measure, starting at bar 8 through to bar 11 where we land on our target chord the I7.

To own these three techniques, you need to use them in as many songs as you can, practicing in all keys.

In time you will be able to incorporate these techniques into your own songs without to much thought.

Hope you have enjoyed this blues jazz lesson!