Jazzy Kinds Of Blue

INJECTING SOULFULLY SWINGIN’ JAZZ LINES AND LUSH EXTENDED CHORDS INTO THE 12-BAR BLUES. TWELVE MEASURES,THREE CHORDS, infinite possibilities. As mystifying as it may seem, the pedestrian simplicity of the standard 12-bar blues has been the Spartan framework supporting some of the most groundbreaking, inspirational, and timeless musical innovation of the last century. In the hands of masters from all genres such as Robert Johnson, Count Basie, Chuck Berry, the Beatles, Miles Davis, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and even Sun Ra, these durable dozen bars of musical possibility have accommodated all manner of instrumentation, stylistic interpretation, and melodic and harmonic invention. Guitarists especially have been drawn to the duality of the blues, its simultaneous provision of down-home familiarity and open-ended improvisational freedom.

For born-and-bred rockers, it’s pretty darn tempting (not to mention gratifying) to blast through the blues’ three-chord construct in mindless “full shred ahead” mode, riffing on a pentatonic minor scale ad nauseum. But logging some serious shed time conquering the art of playing on top of the changes—a classic jazz approach that crafts lines based on the tones of the underlying chords—can turn the same old blues into a whole new ballgame and offer new chordal and melodic contours to your sound no matter what stylistic stomping ground(s) you call home. So grab your hollowbody jazz box, (or vintage Tele, or cutaway Breedlove acoustic, or Ibanez 7-String, or Line 6 Variax) and explore some new ways to make I-IV-V come alive!


A good point of entry for a jazz indoctrination is mastery of some tasty new chord shapes. Don’t be freaked out by numbers greater than 7. Think of 9ths and 13ths as 7th chords with extra color. They’re all derived from the same scale and jazz musicians will use these extensions interchangeably.

Imparting the wisdom of blues classics like Miles Davis’ “Freddie Freeloader” or TBone Walker’s “Stormy Monday,” Ex. 1 builds a riff with an A7 chordal stab followed by a chromatic-leading-tone slide into the 13 (the F# on the 7th fret of the B string). Note that the second chord is a rootless voicing of an A9, and that the A13 refers to the overall harmony of the entire lick.

This same phrase transposed over the IV chord is the basis for Ex. 2. The F# in the previous measure is now the 3 of the D9. Dig how the 3 of the A9—the C# on the 3rd string— drops down to a C, which is the 7 of the D9. This little half-step drop is a can’tmiss way of implying a I-IV change.


Most guitarists know the classic E7#9 that opens Ex. 3 as “the Hendrix chord” but jazzers were hip to this grip long before Jimi ever kissed the sky. Using a sliding 7#9 voicing to suggest a V-IV-I cadence this is a tasty way to nail the last four measures of the 12-bar vamp.

Once you have the above examples solidified, plug them in to their corresponding harmonies (Ex. 1 over the I chord, Ex.2 for the IV, and Ex. 3 for the turnaround) to complete a sweet-sounding 12-bar comp.


New and exotic chord shapes sound pretty rad when played block-style but they can also serve as the lattice for crafting intricate, melodically adventurous single-note lines as well. The E9 four-finger spread that kicks off Ex. 4 is a useful tool for playing jazz, blues, rockabilly, or Western swing. Here, it is arpeggiated high to low, then bumped down a whole step to spell out a D9 before morphing into a more traditional A minor pentatonic lick. When played up to tempo, you should clearly be able to discern the underlying VIV- I-V turnaround harmony even though the line is almost entirely derived from single notes. Heed the suggested fingerings to stay on top of the rapid-fire position shifts in the first two bars.


Set over the I-IV-I-I motion typically found in the opening four bars of the blues, Ex. 5 makes heavy use of chromatic leading tones. The Bb to B nudge that helps delineate the 3 of the implied G13 in bar one is replicated as an Eb to E kicker for the C13 in bar two. For bars three and four, reach for the D on the first string with your pinky to nail the tricky lick. This allows you to replicate the Bb to B leading- tone approach—now up an octave—with a smooth-as-silk first-finger slide.


Listen to single-note-line jazz guitar masters like Grant Green and Charlie Christian to catch the vibe of Ex. 6, a phrase that also spans the first four bars of the 12-bar blues. The funky swagger of bars one and two is copped from a Bb minor pentatonic scale with a lowered 5 and 6 added. The D in the 3rd measure nails the 3 of the I chord, then in the 4th measure comes the kicker—a brief detour to the key of Eb to outline a Fm7 to Bb7 to Eb progression. That’s right— a classic II-V-I jazz turnaround!

For Ex. 7, let’s stake out some minor blues territory. Bar one suggests an E alt (short for altered) chord. This is an E7 chord with all the diatonic extensions, plus some non-scale chord tones such as the #5, b9, #9 and #11. This exotic-sounding line starts on the root of E before ascending to the b9 (F), the 3 (G#), the #5 (B#), and the #9 (G). It eventually resolves to the E on the 5th fret of the second string— the 5 of the Am I chord—but not before feigning one half-step above and below this target pitch. These colorful chromatic dance partners can be woven around any given note and are often referred to as orbit tones.

Modally-based blues forms such as Miles Davis’ “All Blues” or Charles Mingus’ “Nostalgia in Times Square” let the first four measures of the 12-bar pattern function as an extended vamp. This expansiveness works out especially well in 6/8 allowing the creation of long flowing melodic ideas like the descending sequence in Ex. 8. Cool move alert—by changing all the Ebs in this run to Es, you can imply a chord substitution of Fmaj7 for the F7. Now, go practice ’til ya turn blue!