If you want to play rock, or even country, you should learn to play the blues. The blues is at the core of these genres, and it will teach you much of what you need to know about song structure, improvising, dynamics, and even how to solo effectively. The skills you learn will translate nicely to just about any other genre you want to play.
In this guide, we will look at the best blues chord progressions. Learn these. Get them under your fingers. And if you want to take it further, start experimenting and combine the progressions, or start coming up with your own ideas.
Here are some killer blues progressions you must know:
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I – IV – I – IV – I – V – IV – I – V (If You Only Learn One, Make It This Progression)
Example: E | A | E | A | E | B | A | E | B
The truth is, there aren’t that many chord progressions in the genre of blues. Most songs are made up of the same three chords (I, IV, and V), except with variations on the duration of each. There are still some conventions that aren’t often challenged, though.
Note that the above doesn’t show the progression in its most common “12-bar blues” form, which would be as follows:
I | IV | I | I | IV |IV | I | I | V | IV | I | V
And the final V chord is typically where there’s a “turnaround,” a chord or riff that creates a sense of completion while segueing back into the first chord in the sequence. And then the progression is repeated for the duration of the song because that’s how blues songs work. 11 bars, one-bar turnaround. 11 bars, one-bar turnaround. And so on…
Either way, if you don’t already have a solid foundation in the blues, this would be the place to start!
Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Pride And Joy” follows the above chord progression very closely, except that it’s in the key of Eb, and the first IV chord is replaced by a I:
What’s great about this 12-bar structure is that it’s easy to follow. Some songs in other genres are far more complex, with multiple progressions and rhythmic patterns across different sections of the song (sometimes in different keys).
That’s where the blues is much simpler, usually with one progression that repeats throughout the entire song, usually in the same key. And this creates space for awesome solos (usually guitar solos, but sometimes keyboard and bass solos too) to unfold.
If you want to master the blues, master the 12-bar structure. It will serve you well in all your future endeavors.
vi – ii – vi – IV – III7
Example: Bm | Em | Bm | G | F#7
Blues music generally leans heavily on the 12-bar structure in 12/8 time, the I, IV, and V chords, and a dominant seventh sound. But if you were to play a “minor” blues, it would look something like this.
Blues legend B. B. King is often emulated, rarely matched, but his impact on the genre is beyond undeniable. By his own admission, he played the same three or four notes over and over. But it’s the way he played those notes, and the sheer soul and power and thrust behind them that made him stand out from the rest.
Many would consider “The Thrill Is Gone” one of his masterpieces, and its chord progression is exactly as outlined above. Have a listen:
“The Thrill Is Gone” has got a melancholy, even hopeless sound, and it owes a great deal to the chord progression, which is perhaps more pop or jazz than it is blues. The Eagles’ “I Can’t Tell You Why,” for instance, features a similar progression.
In this case, the transition from the IV to the III7 chord acts as the turnaround, guiding the ear back to the vi chord, which is “home,” in this case.
Given that it undergirds B. B. King’s masterpiece, it’s worth a go, and if you know your way around barre chords, it shouldn’t give you too much trouble either. Use this as a jumping off point for a minor blues adventure.
I – ii
Example: A | Bm
Can a blues song really be this simple?!
Ask the late Etta James (and that’s a figure of speech because you can’t) because her “I’d Rather Go Blind” follows this form exactly, from start to finish.
In this case, the movement is created by the lead guitar and walking bass. But at its core, it’s just two chords repeating over and over. And if you have any doubt that this makes for a good slow blues, have a listen for yourself:
Most of the tension in this chord progression comes from the ii, which naturally wants to resolve to the IV chord, but in this case, never does. And this simplicity is just great. Sometimes less is more.
If the duration of the song was longer, this chord progression might start to put the audience to sleep. But for two and a half to three minutes? It can be quite effective.
As with “I’d Rather Go Blind,” if you want to take advantage of this chord progression, the trick will be to add some movement to the chords.
vi – I – II7
Example: Fm | Ab | Bb7
At first glance, this may not appear a very bluesy chord progression at all. But have a listen to Jonny Lang’s massive hit, “Still Rainin’,” and you will be convinced. This progression offers great movement and has that classic road trip vibe to it too.
In this case, the lines between country and blues are a little blurry, at least to me. But that doesn’t make me like this chord progression any less.
One thing I should comment on is that you probably noticed how the ii and iii chords sometimes turn into II7 and III7 chords. And this is a relatively common thing in jazz, and jazz is at the foundation of the blues. If you aren’t sure whether it should be a minor or dominant seventh in your own progressions, then experiment and see what feels right for you. Trust me – your ear will guide you.
But as Lang’s example shows, there’s no need to overcomplicate things either. You can play these chords as power chords and their impact will be heard.
VI – I – II
Example: E | G | A
This chord progression probably looks a little weird. The vi chord as a major? What’s going on here?
In this case, the chords usually aren’t major or minor – they’re power chords. Not sure what I mean? You will in a moment.
You will almost certainly have heard this chord progression in Canned Heat’s “On The Road Again.”
Obviously, this progression or rhythmic pattern is not unique to Canned Heat. You’ve also heard it on ZZ Top’s “La Grange.” And it obviously has its roots in the work of the blues legends that paved the way for the rest.
Another great blues progression / riff to add to your repertoire.
vi – IV – V
Example: Cm | Ab | Bb
Classic blues will always remain the staple, the foundation of the genre. Without it, you can’t tell the story of the blues.
But modern-day blues that pays homage to the genre while adding a unique spin to it is also a great place to look for inspiration. And this chord progression forms the core of Joe Bonamassa’s “Happier Times.”
Bonamassa claims to have been influenced by the likes of Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Peter Green, Paul Kossoff, Gary Moore, and others. To me, it’s almost like he’s filtered all of it through a distinctly Eric Johnson lens. That’s just my opinion, mind you.
This chord progression is yet another minor, serious, urgent sounding one. And it leaves plenty of space for some epic soloing.
Far from conventional blues, but moody to be sure.
V – IV – I
Example: D | Cadd9 | G
Is it a major progression? Minor progression? Is it in the key of D or key of G? G minor? D minor?
It's that kind of ambiguity that has made this versatile chord progression a favorite among bluesmen, southern rockers, and even east coast hair bands. It has that suspense and unresolved sound built right into it, and the truth is you can take it in any direction you want!
And you’ve heard it in music everywhere, whether it’s Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” or Bon Jovi’s “Dead Or Alive.”
The example I’ll offer here is Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s “Blue on Black,” which again, for me, kind of blurs the lines between blues and country:
What modern blues artists are showing is that just about any progression can be a blues progression if you use it the right way. And this one is rooted in simplicity.
vi – IV – I
Example: C#m7 | Add9 | E
John Mayer found wide appeal with his sentimental, gentle, and largely acoustic repertoire. But eventually he would come to reveal what he saw as his true self, influences, and all. John Mayer Trio’s “Who Did You Think I Was” sums it up nicely.
Mayer’s throaty, breathy, sing-song voice obviously played well in the acoustic arena. And there’s still no denying that it’s better suited to gentler genres than heavier ones. But Mayer wanted to show that he was more than that. Some of his biggest influences were in fact bluesmen and psychedelic rockers like B. B. King, Jimi Hendrix, and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Here we have a ballad that sits somewhere comfortably between pop and blues, “Slow Dancing In A Burning Room.”
This chord progression would not be an obvious choice for the blues. But when it’s played slowly, like it is in “Slow Dancing In A Burning Room,” it leaves plenty of space for soulful leads. And to be fair, Clapton has songs like this.
For best results, give it a slow, bluesy vibe like Mayer does.
I – vi – IV – V
Example: C | Am | G | Fmaj7
Now, let me say, at the outset, that this chord progression is certainly more pop than blues. That said, as with a few other progressions we’ve already looked at, it’s all about how you play it.
You will have heard this progression in countless songs, but here we’ll look at Jonny Lang’s emotive “Breakin’ Me.”
As Lang demonstrates, this is a great sequence of chords to use in a ballad. And there are some things that can only be said in a ballad.
With the right kind of licks, though, it can turn into a blues. It may take some creativity, but if you’ve made it this far in the guide, I trust you to come up with some of your own ideas.
And if you ever find yourself in need for a pop ballad progression, this is a good one to keep in mind.
Top Blues Chord Progressions, Final Thoughts
Blues continues to impact and evolve. It’s an amazing genre with inspiring roots, and it’s worth diving into its history, especially if it’s something you want to take seriously.
Its foundation is simple. It’s what happens above the rhythm section that wows, inspires, and surprises, whether it’s the vocals or the guitar solos.
At the end of the day, it’s not about the chord progression. It’s about the spirit of the blues. And that’s something you can only capture when you understand its origins.