Connect your 12-Bar Phrases with Soul and Style

December 29, 2004

Appearing in the final measures of a I-IV-V blues progression, a turnaround is a short phrase that functions as a musical ramp into the V chord. A hip turnaround generates momentum through tension and release: Tension builds en route to the V (the last chord of a blues progression), climaxes with the V, and finally releases when you hit the I chord at the beginning of the new cycle. Think of a turnaround as a boomerang that spins you into the next verse, chorus, or solo. Turnarounds are versatile—you can work them into your lead or rhythm parts—and they sound equally cool on steel- or nylon-string acoustic or electric.

In this lesson, we’ll stick with the most common blues structure, the 12-bar progression, and our turnarounds will drop into bars 11 and 12. Once you get the hang of these ten classics, you’ll find it easy to adapt them to folk, country, or jazz tunes, and reconfigure them to fit eight- or 16-bar progressions. With a little ingenuity, you’ll be able to create dozens of variations. Here are some ideas for expanding your turnaround repertoire:

• Learn a pet turnaround in at least three keys so you’re comfortable playing it in low, middle, and upper fretboard positions.

• Transpose a turnaround up or down an octave, but rather than slide it 12 frets higher or lower, refinger it on a new string set.

• Move several turnarounds to the same key, then separate them into two sections—the events leading to the V, and those occurring within it. Swap the front and back sections of these turnarounds to create new mutants.

• Change rhythms. For instance, play melodic intervals as harmonic ones, streamline triplets to simple quarter-notes, or energize chords by arpeggiating them.

• Change tempos. At slow speeds, give selected notes two or three extra attacks. At fast tempos, simplify the rhythm to make the turnaround more sleek and playable.

• Experiment with picking technique. Use a flatpick (many turnarounds offer gnarly string skips that are great for building chops), then a hybrid pick-and-fingers approach, and finally pluck the entire phrase with your thumb, index, and middle fingers. Tweak the phrase as necessary to accommodate these different approaches.

While learning a turnaround, take note of its construction. Is there a line that shifts chromatically up or down against a pedal tone? (A pedal tone is a fixed pitch that’s repeatedly played against other moving notes.) If so, is the pedal tone above or below the moving line? Perhaps you’re sliding an interval against a pedal. What interval is it? Understanding a turnaround’s makeup lets you recreate it in other keys and string sets.

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