It is every aspiring guitarist’s dream to strum a few chords and sing in front of an audience or their friends or family. It is often the first easy step towards an exciting guitar journey ahead before venturing into challenging solos or licks.
Though learning to strum chords is considered easier than playing fast licks, mastering the skill of holding different chord shapes and changing them quickly (while playing) can be quite a daunting task for a beginner or even for an intermediate level player for that matter.
The only way to conquer that skill is by practicing varied chords and chord progressions.
This chord progression typically uses 3 chords – the tonic, sub-dominant and dominant chords also called the One, Four and Five chords.
Sub-Dominant and Dominant Chords
These 3 chords are technically derived from the Root, 4th and 5th notes of a scale, the 4th and 5th chords are theoretically known as Sub-Dominant and Dominant Chords. These are the chords used in a typical 12 bar blues chord progression.
Theoretically, the Tonic, Sub-Dominant and Dominant chords are all Major chords, but in a blues progression, either 7th (or Dominant 7th) or 9th (Dominant 9th) chords are used, to get that “bluesy” feel to it.
So in this progression, we will be using an A7, D7 and E7 chords also known as I, IV and V chords.
- Where A7 is the one chord, denoted by Roman numeral I,
- D7 is the four chord, denoted as IV and
- E7 is the five chord denoted as V.
Building Major Scales
The scale intervals for building a Major Scale is W-W-H-W-W-W-H (where W is a Whole Step or Whole Tone and H is a Half Step or a Semi-Tone).
By applying this scale interval formula starting on the note A, an A Major Scale can be built as A- B- C#- D- E- F#- G#- A, where the Root note is A, 4th note is D and 5th note is E.
And the three chords used in the 12 bar chord progression are built from these 3 notes.
Building Dominant chords
The formula for building a Dominant 7th chord is 1-3-5-b7, meaning, a Dominant 7th chord is built from the 1st, 3rd, 5th and Flattened 7th notes of a major scale.
Flattening just means lowering a note by half step, a flat is denoted as “b”.
So by applying this formula, we get an A7 or A Dominant 7th Chord as A-C#-E-G
“#” means sharp, which means raising a note by half step, just the opposite of a flat.
Similarly, we can build the other 2 chords which are D7 and E7 from the given formula from their scales of origin.
- D7th chord from D Major Scale ( D – E- F# – G- A – B- C#) would be D-F#-A-C
- E7th Chords from E Major Scale (E – F# – G# – A – B – C#- D#) would be E – G#- B- D
Understanding a “Bar” in a Chord Progression
| / / / / | Forward slashes, this is how a typical bar would be denoted for chord progressions.
You can see that there are 4 slanting lines, each indicating a beat and here we have 4 beats in this bar.
Rhythmically, this is read as “1 And-2 And-3 And-4 And”, which can be translated into an equivalent strumming pattern on the guitar. And these beats should also be played at regular intervals.
Where “1 and” completes one beat, “2 and” the second beat and so on.
In “1 And-2 And-3 And-4 And”, the 1, 2, 3 and 4 are usually strummed in downstrokes & all the ‘And’s must be strummed as upstrokes. So each beat will get “up” and “down” strokes.
Tip: I would recommend a basic metronome for every beginner guitar player for practicing solos and chord progressions, which would greatly help in improving the timing and perfection.
Note: A bar can consist of 2 beats or 4 beats, it all depends on the type of song or progression that you will play. And also, there is no rule that an up and down stroke should exist in each beat, it can be in all possible permutations and combinations or various strumming styles.
The 12 Bar Blues Chord Progression
- I = One Chord or the Tonic Chord (in this case A7)
- IV = Four Chord or the Sub-Dominant Chord (in this case D7)
- V = Five Chord or the Dominant Chord (in this case E7)
Video Lesson on How to Play 12 Bar Blues in A
Before we jump into the theoretical aspect of playing the 12 bar blues in the key of A, you can watch this short and helpful video on how that’s really done “practically” on the instrument. This is a very useful lesson that shows you how to play the I, IV and V chords, i.e. A7 (the chord shape shown in the diagram in the upcoming section is different than the one shown in the video, but you can play it either ways), D7 and E7 on the guitar, which makes it incredibly easier for you to follow the upcoming two sections. And hey, you will also learn a concept called ‘Turnaround’ in this video. So please do watch it!
Blues Chord Progression in the Key of A (Open Chords)
In this lesson, I have created 2 sets of the same chords in 2 different positions of the guitar fretboard that you can play.
One set using the open chords, which means the chords having open strings, and the other set using Barre chords, that has no open strings.
Blues Chord Progression in the Key of A (Barre Chords)
Please don’t confuse yourself with a “Bar” in a chord progression and “Barre” chords, they are completely two different things.
Barre chords (or bar chords, but spelled as “barre”) are the type of guitar chords where you press down multiple strings across the fret board with your index finger or any other finger (like a bar) to build a chord.
The beauty of barre chords is that they are moveable to any position on the guitar fretboard or neck. So in this case, the barre chord A7 on the 5th fret, when moved to the 10th fret, becomes a D7 and when further moved to 12th
So in this case, the barre chord A7 on the 5th fret, when moved to the 10th fret, becomes a D7 and when further moved to 12th fret becomes an E7 chord. So the finger positions remain the same.
In the case of the barre chords, when you strum the equivalent of 2 & 4, you must add the note in the chord (with the finger indicated) marked in red and release it in the following “and”, which gives that “bluesy” feel to the progression.
Practice these 2 sets of progressions slowly till you get used to holding and changing different chord shapes.
- It’s for sure that initially, you will get sore fingers and achy hands, so take a break, never overdo it, maybe, take a day’s break, then resume the following day till you can get the chords sounding crisp and clear.
- Chalk out a regular practice schedule and never go out of touch for days. This is a great exercise to perfect your strumming and to streamline difficult chord changes of various chord shapes quickly.
Use a metronome
I would again like to reiterate the importance of a simple, basic metronome for practicing solos and chord strumming esp. for beginners. If you are not comfy with the online one, grab one from your nearest music store it won’t cost you a fortune. But the rewards are absolutely phenomenal in terms of gaining time control and perfection.