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Blues Chord Progressions & Variations


Introduction to Jazz Blues Guitar



This chord lesson is all about the blues. We all know the chord progression for a typical blues, but there are so many variations that it's hard to know them all. The blues originated in the USA and evolved from African, European and Latin influences. Blues had a very big influence on jazz and nowadays every jazz musician has some blues in his repertoire.

There are many many different sets of blues progressions, going from the basic original blues to more modern variations like the changes played by Charlie Parker. The foundation however stays the 12 bar blues with a set of 3 chord changes.


Blues Characteristics

Before we dive into the theory behind each of the 6 jazz blues progressions in this lesson, here are some characteristics of the blues:

  • Most blues chord progressions are 12 bars long, although there are also 8, 14, 16, 24 or more bar blues changes. There are many different 12 bar blues forms though.
  • The tonic chord of a blues is a dominant 7 chord, a fact that doesn't fit very well in traditional music theory.
  • The blues is not only about chord changes and scales, but is also about a certain sound, a feeling.
    Responsible for that sound are the blue notes:  a lowered 3rd note and a lowered 5th note.
  • The 3 basic chords of a blues are all dominant 7 chords.


Now that you’ve looked at some blues background, let’s take them to the fretboard in the next section.

In the audio files and written examples below you will hear and see common comping patterns over each of these 12-bar progressions. To keep things practical, the chord voicings on the chart are written as you would see them on a lead sheet, G7, Dm7, Cmaj7 etc.

But, as in any practical, jazz comping situation, those chords can be embellished with 9ths, 13ths, 6ths, and other color tones. So, if you hear or see a G13 chord and it's written as G7, that's a common approach to comping over lead sheet jazz-blues chord changes, and it is something you can explore further.


Basic Blues

To begin, let’s take a look at how the basic blues changes look from a chord name standpoint:

Basic Blues (aka I-IV-V Blues)
Bb7   F7  
C7 Bb7 F7  


Let’s move on to looking at these chords from a lead sheet standpoint. Notice how these changes use only three chords, the I7, IV7 and V7 chords. Because of this, they are often referred to as I-IV-V blues chord changes.

Listen to an example of these changes in the audio file below. If you already have a few 7th chords under your fingers, then try jamming along with the changes over the backing track, or on your own at first if you need some practice to get the tempo worked out.


Listen & Play

Jazz Blues Chords 1


To help you get started with taking these chords onto the fretboard, here is a chord study you can learn and apply to your own playing over the basic blues changes. To keep things simple, this study is written in a basic riff style, where a short chord riff is played over each change in the progression.


Listen & Play

Jazz Blues Chords 2


1930’s Blues Changes

Moving on to the next blues form, you will now add a IV7 chord in bar 2 of the blues, as well as a II7-V7 turnaround in the last four bars. Here is how those chords look in the key of F:

1930s Blues Changes (aka Quick Change Blues)
F7 Bb7 F7  
Bb7   F7  
G7 C7 F7 C7


Because there is a quick move to the IV7 chord and back to the tonic in the first three bars, this chord progression is often referred to as a quick change blues progression.

To help you get your head around these changes further, here is a chart for the blues with the Roman numerals underneath so you can work them in all 12 keys if desired.


Listen & Play

Jazz Blues Chords 3


Now that you have your head around these quick-change chords, here is a chord study written out over a quick-change blues in F progression. Start by learning the chords on your own slowly, then play along with the given audio, and finally take them to a backing track on your own.


Listen & Play

Jazz Blues Chords 4


Count Basie Blues

One of the innovations Count Basie brought to the blues, or at least popularized, is the use of the #IVdim7 chord in bars two and 6 of a jazz blues progression.

You will also see in the examples below that there is a iim7-V7/IV in bar 4 of the tune, as well as a VI7b9 chord in bar 8, both now commonly used ideas that were popularized by the Basie Band.

Here is how those changes look in the key of F:

Count Basie Blues Changes
F7 Bb7            Bdim F7 Cm7            F7
Bb7 Bdim F7 D7b9
Gm7 C7 F7  



Notice that the II7 chord from the previous section is now a iim7 chord, constructing a ii-V progression in bars 9 and 10 of the blues, another commonly used change in the modern jazz world.

Here is how those changes look on a lead sheet and sound in the audio example to give you a further look into these fun and commonly used blues changes.


Listen & Play

Jazz Blues Chords 5


To help you take these changes further in your studies, here is a chord study written in the Key of F that uses Basie blues chords Try these chords out with the audio below, and then apply them to other jazz blues jams or practice routines.


Listen & Play

Jazz Blues Chords 6


Bebop Blues

Getting into the bebop era with these changes, you will notice a ii-V of the iim7 chord in bar 8, as well as a iii-VI-ii-V progression in the last bar of the tune, which showcases the bebopper’s love of ii-V’s and fast moving changes.

Here is how the bebop blues changes look in the key of F:

Bebop Blues Changes
F7 Bb7 F7 Cm7            F7
Bb7 Bdim F7 Am7b5       D7b9
Gm7 C7 Am7           D7 Gm7           C7


To get these changes into your ears, here is an audio example and lead sheet for the bebop blues that you can check out, and use to begin practicing these important blues changes.


Listen & Play

Jazz Blues Chords 7


You can also learn the following chord study in order to begin applying these bebop blues changes to your studies:


Listen & Play

Jazz Blues Chords 8


Tritone Substitution Blues

You can also apply tritone subs to various bars in the jazz blues progression, as you can see in the following examples:

  • Bar 6: the Bb7 is replaced with a tritone ii-V (Bm7-E7).
  • Bar 6 and 7: there are four descending 7th chords in bars 7 and 8, with the E7 and Eb7 being used to connect F7 and D7b9 chromatically.
  • Bar 10: there is a tritone approach chord added to the Am7, Bb7 in place of E7 (the V7 of Am7).


Tritone Sub Blues
F7 Bb7 F7 Cm7            F7
Bb7 Bm7           E7 F7               E7 Eb7            D7b9
Gm7 C7              Bb7 Am7           D7 Gm7           C7


To get this chord substitution under your fingers and into your ears, here is a lead sheet and audio example for the Blues in F using the tritone subs and chromatic 7th chords mentioned above.


Listen & Play

Jazz Blues Chords 9


As well, here is as one-chorus chord study you can learn to take these changes directly to your playing in a jazz blues context.

To help hear the effect the tritone subs have on a blues progression, try playing the previous bebop blues changes once, the chord study if you can, followed by this chord study. Often times hearing the difference between chord progressions will be the key element when learning a new jazz blues chord progression.


Listen & Play

Jazz Blues Chords 10


Bird Blues

The last blues progression we’ll look into is named after Charlie Parker, called Bird blues, and is found in one of most famous compositions Blues for Alice.

Reflecting the bebop love of ii-V’s, this progression is full of various ii-V progressions in a number of different keys.

As well, the tune starts and ends with an Fmaj7 chord, which is odd for a blues progression, but it does help to make these changes stand out from the rest of the jazz blues you will encounter when jamming with other people.

Here is how those changes look in the key of F:

Bird Blues Changes
Fmaj7 Em7b5       A7b9 Dm7           G7 Cm7           F7
Bb7 Bbm7         Eb7 Am7           D7 Abm7         Db7
Gm7 C7 F                 D7 Gm7           C7


To get these changes into your ears, and understand how they look on paper, here is an audio example and lead sheet for Bird Blues in F.


Listen & Play

Jazz Blues Chords 11


Here is a chord study written out over a Bird blues in F that you can use to get these changes under your fingers:


Listen & Play

Jazz Blues Chords 12


As you can see, there is a wide variety of approaches when playing the blues progression in a jazz setting. Try each of these progressions and find your own favorites to pursue further, and get the others under your fingers in case they come up in a jam.




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