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I'm trying to write a blues song for my GCSE composition. I'm trying to make it sound like Led Zeppelin crossed with Muddy Waters' Harmonica. At the moment the piece contains the following instruments: lead & rhythm guitars, saxophone, piano, harmonica and drums. I'm in the key of E blues and using the 12 bar blues pattern. However, I'm getting bored with the same chord progression and some of my mates are as well.

Is there any way I could make the 12 Bar chord progression more interesting? For example changing key or something like that.

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    Does it have to be in the standard form (like I V I V G V I) Look at All Blues, Freddie Freeloader, Straight No Chaser, Sandu, etc.. for examples of "Blues" songs that don't follow the typical pattern.
    – Greg
    Mar 15, 2017 at 18:35
  • Are you asking about adding interest to a single song? Or is the issue that all your songs are 12-bar blues in E? Mar 15, 2017 at 20:15
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    12 bars were inherently boring even before we all played them to death. Don't make it a 12 bar. And find less stereotypically bluesish chords. In D a C9th chord can be cool (sorry, no clue how to say that in Roman numerals). If everything you play is out of the stereotype book it'll bore you because those are the things you've heard too often. Experiment. Find happy accidents you haven't heard before. That's what those fleshy protuberances behind your sideburns are for. Or at least do your homework and find more obscure sources to plagiarize -- that's the true spirit of the blues! Mar 16, 2017 at 12:19
  • A bridge that holds on the IV or a mVI is easy and adds a lot of interest, as well as potential for deeper development - especially the mVI.
    – Stinkfoot
    Nov 17, 2017 at 20:13

1 Answer 1

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There are lots of ways to modify a 12-bar blues progression. I will narrow it down quite a bit because from your references to Led Zeppelin and Muddy Waters I gather that you're not so much interested in a jazz blues progression. Check out that site though, you'll find some inspiring variations on the 12-bar blues form.

Some of the variations I'll mention here are also used in a jazz blues, but not exclusively. First, let me write down the most basic 12-bar blues progression in the key of E, so we know what we're talking about:

|| E7 | E7 | E7 | E7 |
 | A7 | A7 | E7 | E7 |
 | B7 | A7 | E7 | B7 ||

If the tempo is slow, the first four bars can seem very long without any change, so a common variation is to play a IV chord in the second bar:

|| E7 | A7 | E7 | E7 |
...

Another very common variation of the basic progression is to add some tension in bar 6 leading back to the I chord. Most commonly this is done using a diminished chord:

|| E7 | A7 | E7 | E7 |
 | A7 | A#dim7 | E7 | E7 |
 | B7 | A7 | E7 | B7 ||

That A#dim7 is just the upper structure of an A7 chord with the bass note moved up a half step:

A7:     A - C# - E - G
A#dim7: A# - C# - E - G

So in practice it's often just the bass player who changes the root from A to A#, and the rest of the band just plays the upper structure of an A7 chord (i.e., without the root).

That diminished chord can also be substituted by a bVI7 chord. In the key of E that would be a C7 chord:

|| E7 | A7 | E7 | E7 |
 | A7 | C7 | E7 | E7 |
 | B7 | A7 | E7 | B7 ||

If you want to take things further, check out the Allman Brothers' version of Stormy Monday. It's a 12-bar blues in the key of G with some extra chords. The basic progression goes like this:

|| G7 | C7 | G7 Ab7 | G7 |
 | C7 | C7 | G7 Am7 | Bm7 Bbm7 |
 | Am7 | Cm7 | G7 C7 | G7 D7 ||

If you listen to many blues songs you'll hear more variations that you might like. Of course you can also be creative and come up with your own variation.

Since you specifically asked about making a 12-bar blues progression more interesting, my answer is just about the chord progression itself. There are of course many other ways of making a piece more interesting without changing the progression. Think of instrumentation, dynamics, rhythmical variations, etc. There are endless possibilities!

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  • Great answer with some nice insight! The second progression you mention (w/A7 on the 2nd bar), I've heard it called "fast change blues". Have you heard such a name for it before? Also, might be worth mentioning the secondary dominant substitution (in the key of E, swap B7 by F7)
    – mkorman
    Mar 17, 2020 at 13:38

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