I realize this may sound like a stupid question, but I sense there is more to it than "play random blues scales over a 12-bar blues progression" to the blues tradition.

What techniques, resources and literature is there?

What makes up the tradition, besides the recordings of the greats?

Most importantly, how do you set to learn the blues, being already proficient enough to play a blues piece from a transcription?

Do you transcribe and learn licks from the greats?

You explore variations on progressions or the 12-bar form is set (as opposed to, say, jazz)?

  • If you study "the greats" and the not-so-greats you'll quickly see that no form is set, not even 12-bar blues. I'm not sure what the difference is between "the blues" and "a blues" in your question, maybe because I've never heard or read the latter phrase before. Are you looking to compose your own music in the blues style? Commented May 26, 2015 at 11:51
  • "A blues piece", that is. Commented May 26, 2015 at 11:57
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    @ToddWilcox: you tell me. Is composing expected of a blues player or just improvising over certain forms or standards? Commented May 26, 2015 at 12:00
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    @ToddWilcox: if no form is set, what makes a blues piece... blues? :) Or, if you prefer, what's some common "bluesy" forms and progressions? That's kind of the point of the question. I'm from Europe and I had a classical-ish education - but I keep hearing about this blues thing, but what defines it exactly? Commented May 26, 2015 at 12:02
  • I'm more inclined to recommend artists, myself. Robert Johnson, for sure. Son House, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddly, Sonny Boy Williams, Stevie Ray Vaughan, ZZ Top, Willie, Dixon, John Lee Hooker, Allman Brothers, Eric Claptop, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, B. B. King, John Mayall. Just keep listening (and maybe playing along) until you know what you want to know. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_blues_musicians Commented May 26, 2015 at 12:30

1 Answer 1


Blues is a language, with grammar and vocabulary. The difference between learning to play the blues and learning to play a blues is the same as the difference between learning to speak a language and learning just some words or phrases in that language.

In the vocabulary instead of words you are using scales and chords. In the grammar instead of order of words you are using harmonies.

The vocabulary in blues includes the scales: minor and major blues, minor and major pentatonic, mixolydian, and dorian. Those are used prominently, but there are many more. Some like to use the lydian b7 mode, for example. The vocabulary also includes the dominant 7 chords, which are very common.

The grammar (harmony) includes the various I7 IV7 V7 progressions (in different orders), like the classic 12 bar blues. The harmony in general tends to be heavily based in dominant 7 chords.

That's a very simplistic overview, and there's much more to it (minor blues, other modes, swing, the list goes on), but hopefully it is enough to give you an idea of what blues is as a language. If you want to learn the language you have to dive into it: teachers, lessons, books, tutorials, listening, transcription, practice, Music SE!, etc.

  • This is an answer I kind of like, because it suggests more detailed questions than I can come up with: "what are the various progressions", "what are the scales", "when to use which scale"? But if I'm not asking too much - where do I start looking for the answers to these questions? :) Commented May 26, 2015 at 14:36
  • @SomeDudeOnTheInterwebs Lessons. The exact place where you want to start will depend on your experience. The best thing you can do is getting a good teacher. Another option is getting literature about the subject. There's a lot of blues theory books, but you'll need to be able to read sheet music. You can also look for video lessons in youtube and similar sites, for many of those you don't need to know how to read music. If you don't know the basics of music theory, you might want to start there instead of going directly into blues. Commented May 26, 2015 at 14:47
  • Can read music, know theory. Absolutely no blues teachers where I live (really, I swear). Commented May 26, 2015 at 15:20
  • @SomeDudeOnTheInterwebs What instrument do you play? Some popular piano blues books are "Blues Piano: Hal Leonard Keyboard Style Series" by Mark Harrison, and "Improvising Blues Piano" by Tim Richards. Either would be a great starting point. If you are looking for learning material in general It's a good idea to go into a site like Amazon, type "blues <your instrument>", and see which books are available and you might like, the customer reviews will be very helpful there. Commented May 26, 2015 at 15:48
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    The principal characteristics of the blues are: 12-measure phrases in AAB structure; 4/4 rhythm with a back-beat (emphasis on beats 2and 4) heavy dependence on the I-IV-V chord progression, and pentatonic melody.
    – user1044
    Commented May 27, 2015 at 0:54

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