Blues Boomerangs: 12 Classic Blues Turnarounds

Nothing rejuvenates a 12-bar groove faster than a fancy turnaround, and we’ve got a dozen of them in this lesson.
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Are your blues a little tired? Crave some fresh sounds?

Nothing rejuvenates a 12-bar groove faster than a fancy turnaround, and we’ve got a dozen of them in this lesson.

You can use these moves onstage tonight or at your next jam session. In addition, as we learn each turnaround, we’ll analyze the musical principles that propel it. This scrutiny will help you create turnarounds of your own.

So brew up a cup of something hot, grab your favorite guitar, and get rolling!

First, a definition: A turnaround is a short, typically two-bar passage at the end of a blues progression that’s designed to elegantly walk you to the V7, which in turn resolves to the I7 in bar 1. Think of a turnaround as a musical 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 you can adapt them to folk, country and jazz.

A turnaround derives its energy from tension and release. Tension pulls you to the V7, and release occurs when you hit the I chord.

FIGURE 1 shows how contrary motion is an excellent way to build tension and release. This turnaround begins at bar 11 and continues through bar 12—the last two bars of a 12-bar blues. We’re in the key of A, playing in shuffle-approved 12/8 time. After establishing the I7 chord with an eighth-note chank, we play a series of intervals that end in an E octave.


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Take a close look at the intervals in bar 1’s second, third and fourth beats. It’s helpful to visualize them as forming two melodic lines. The top line ascends chromatically from C# to E, while the bottom line descends chromatically from G to E. Both lines obtain momentum from stepwise motion, and although they’re pulling in opposite directions, both lines draw our ears to E. The final F7–E7 chord change is a classic bVI7–V7 blues move. We’ll be seeing a lot of this tension-producing shift in subsequent turnarounds.

Contrary motion also powers FIGURE 2. We’re in the key of C, starting our turnaround on beat two of bar 11. Again, we have two chromatic lines that lead to an octave. This time, however, they converge. The top line descends (Bb, A, G#,G), while the bottom one ascends (E, F, F#, G). Watch the “let ring” markings—let the triplets sustain within each beat.


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You don’t have to arpeggiate the intervals. For variety, simultaneously squeeze the two notes (E–Bb, F–A, F#–G#, G–G) and hold them for a quarter-note. This approach is particularly handy at fast tempos. Whichever way you interpret the intervals—triplets or quarter-notes—play FIGURE 2 fingerstyle or with a hybrid grip.

Many turnarounds feature a moving line against a repeated, static note. In FIGURE 3, the stepwise line (C#, D, Eb, E) ascends against A‚ the I chord’ s root. You can use this turnaround in either a 12-bar blues or an 8-bar blues, like “Key to the Highway.” In a 12-bar progression, this turnaround starts at beat two, bar 11. In an 8-bar tune, you’d begin the climb at beat two, bar 7.


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The Eaug functions as an uptown V7, adding a touch of jazzy sophistication. When Eaug sounds too frou-frou, simple replace it with a down-home E7, a rocking E7#9 or a swinging F7–E7. (Conversely, you can dress up an A blues turnaround by swapping Eaug or E7. Try ending FIGURE 1 this way. Substituting an augmented V for the V7 works in all keys.)

Let’s first analyze this turnaround in terms of scale degrees. The line comprises 3, 4, b5 and 5, and the root repeats above it. Now, try to picture the turnaround as a series of contracting intervals: a minor sixth (C#–A), a fifth (D–A), a diminished fifth (Eb–A), and a fourth (E–A). Examining the musical elements within a turnaround lets you transpose it more readily.

Such analysis also lets you compare one turnaround to another. Take FIGURE 4. Once again, we have a stepwise line moving against a static root note, but we’ve flipped the turnaround over, so that this time the line descends against the root below it.


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We’re in the key of C. The line (Bb, A, Ab, G) translates to a b7, 6, b6, 5 move against 1 (C). The contracting intervals are a minor seventh, a sixth, a minor sixth and a fifth. Another way to delve into a turnaround is to analyze its harmony. In this instance, we begin by implying C7, F/C, Fm and C, a I7–IV–Ivm–I progression.

This turnaround has a distinct R&B flavor, and works beautifully with a Chuck Berry–style “Memphis” groove. Palm mute as indicated, and fret that low G with your thumb.

It’s surprising what can happen to a turnaround when you shift it to a afferent set of strings. FIGURE 5 uses the same descending line—Bb, A, Ab, G—we encountered in the previous example, and we’re still thumping away on a low C, so the implied harmony remains C7, F/C, Fm, C. This time, however, the action takes place on the sixth and fourth strings. The turnaround is easier to finger and therefore works at faster tempos. Try this turnaround in a brisk honky-tonk tune, snapping the fourth string with you middle finger as you flat pick the muted sixth string. Pay attention to the accents and staccato notes—they really make the phrase come alive.


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FIGURE 6A illustrates what happens when you fret the static root note on the first string and work descending chromatic line against it on the fourth string (think Billy Gibbons and “Jesus Just Left Chicago”). We still have the I7–IV–IVm–I progression that’s been tagging along for the last two examples, but because we’re in A, the chords are A7, D, Dm and A. What’s different is the air—this is a very open turnaround. Check it out: We start with a ninth (G–A) and work our way to an eleventh (E–A)—an octave plus a fourth—one fret at a time.


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If you feel an urge to fill that space, try the spicy FIGURE 6B. The top and bottom parts stay the same, but we add a second descending chromatic line (E, Eb, D, C#) on the second string. Now we’ve got two lines pulling against the static root.


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Notice how by adding the second line, we’ve created an Ebdim on beat three. We’ll be hearing lots more of this bVdim passing chord, so make friends with it now.

In FIGURE 7, we take the previous I7–bVdim–Ivm–I turnaround and nudge it one string set lower. Thicker strings mellow the tones, and the refingering yields a nice stretch from the 6th to 10th frets. Want a great warm-up exercise? Move this turnaround down to E, descending one fret at a time to the first position.


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FIGURE 8 proves that you can run FIGURE 6B backward and get a brand-new turnaround. There are differences—we’re in 4/4 (as opposed to 12/8), we’re in D, and we’re ascending and contracting—but as soon as you play this phrase, you’ll see the essential physical similarities. Our D, Gm, Abdim and D7 changes translate to a I–IVm–bVdim–I7 progression. Though often overlooked, the final dominant-9th voicing is an essential funk form.


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FIGURE 9 may be the mother of all turnaround. This is classic Delta blues—wide intervals and ringing, open strings, supported by an insistent palm-muted low E. (For a real treat, play it on a 12-string.)


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Now contrast FIGURE 9 with FIGURE 10. Despite the obvious key and time-signature differences, both turnarounds feature the same I7–bVdim–IVm–I progression. What makes them sound so different is their density. The harmony in FIGURE 9 is spread across two octaves, whereas in FIGURE 10 the chords are voiced very compactly. See how they occur on only three adjacent strings? FIGURE 10 sounds great with the stinging Strat-and-Tweed-Champ tone Eric Clapton favored during the Layla sessions.


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Here’s the point: You can render the same turnaround a number of ways, depending on the musical setting. Acoustic blues demands that you fill rhythmic and harmonic space, as in FIGURE 9. However, to cut through a noisy electric band, it’s wise to simplify your rhythms and stay in a smaller fretboard area, as in FIGURE 10.

Whenever you learn a turnaround, take a moment to search for ways to reharmonize the essential line.

For instance, FIGURE 11A gets its forward motion from the descending line on the second string—F, E, Eb, D. We’re in G, so the line is b7, 6, b6, 5. We first saw this chromatic line in FIGURE 4, but this time it descends against a 1 played above. Here, we start with a twangy major second (G–F) and gradually expand to a fourth (D–G). Compare this to FIGURE 4, which moved from a minor seventh to a fifth. FIGURE 11A is tighter—perfect for when you’re staying out of the way of, say, keyboards or horns.


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But there are times when you need to occupy more space, not less. In such situations, it’s often possible to fatten a lean turnaround you already know by harmonizing its essential line with more voices. FIGURE 11B illustrates the process. Originally, our chromatic line descended against a static root. Now F, E, Eb D is sandwiched between two companion lines that descend alongside it (B, Bb, A, G on top and D, Db C, B below).


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When it comes to turnarounds, sometimes a single, stepwise line will do the job. But there are times when a cluster of stepwise lines do it even better.

Consider this: You can simply view FIGURE 12 as a chordal turnaround. From this perspective, you’d analyze C7, Am7, Ab9, G9 and C9 as a I7–VIm7–bVI9–V9–I9 progression, memorize this harmonic formula and then have a new turnaround to play in all 12 keys.


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That’s cool—but why stop there? Peer one level deeper and you’ll discover that this turnaround contains four stepwise lines. They don’t all run the length of the progression, but at different points each contributes important momentum. Let’s take a peek:

• The top chromatically descending line spans five chords, yet uses only three notes: E, Eb, and D.
• The next lower line moves in whole steps (Bb, C) and half-steps (Bb, A). It also stretches across the two-bar turnaround.
•Another line starts on bar 1, beat 3, and continues for the duration of the turnaround. This line descends chromatically (G, Gb, F, E).
• A fourth line starts at bar 1, beat 3, and stops at the end of bar 2. This too descends chromatically (A, Ab, G).

One you learn to see lines within chord progressions and—this is important—visualize the lines on the fretboard, your playing and musicianship will take a quantum leap forward.

Best of luck.