B.B. King was the undisputed King of the Blues, but if you assumed this to mean he only played standard 12-bar blues progressions, think again. King’s voluminous discography features a rich variance of song forms and chord progressions that are just as bluesy as any 12-bar affair, so let’s investigate using a figured bass system, in which many different chord progressions can be illustrated without being associated with a particular key. Here’s how it works.
The notes/steps of a chromatic scale are indicated using the following Roman numerals and accidentals: I, bII, II, bIII, III, IV, #IV/bV, V, #V/bVI, VI, bVII, and VII. Each numeral corresponds to a half-step of the chromatic scale in a given key. For example, in the key of C, the notes correspond to the figured bass numerals as follows:
I=C, bII=Db, II=D, bIII=Eb, III=E, IV=F, #IV or bV=F# or Gb, V=G, #V or bVI=G# or Ab, VI=A, bVII=Bb, and VII=B.
If you are unfamiliar with figured bass notation, make a chart similar to the one above for each key. These will help you to determine which note corresponds to a given Roman numeral in any key. Chord types are indicated using the same method as standard chord symbols. For instance, “I7” indicates that you build a dominant seventh chord on the first degree of the scale, “IV9” indicates that you dominant ninth chord built from the fourth degree, and so on. If nothing appears after the Roman numeral, just play a major chord. When two Roman numerals are separated by a slash (I/V), play the first numeral as a chord over the bass note indicated by the second numeral.
Ex. 1 illustrates the process with an up-tempo 16-bar shuffle in the key of C. Establish a one-bar rhythmic motif—say a dotted-quarter-note followed by an eighth-note and a two-beat rest (or check out previous Rhythm Workshops for more ideas), and then apply your favorite full or partial C7 voicing(s) and vamp on the I-chord for eight bars. (Tip: Any dominant seventh chord can be embellished with its 9.) The remainder of the progression in bars 9 – 16 assumes the role of bars 5 – 12 in a standard 12-bar blues, so the progression is essentially a 12-bar form with four extra measures out front. Drop in the appropriate IV7 (F7), I7 (C7), and V-chords (G7), and you’re done. Rinse and repeat.
Moving to the key of G, the medium shuffle depicted in Ex. 2 features a busier 16-bar verse/A-section, plus an 8-bar bridge/B-section added to create a 32-bar A-A-B-A song form. In addition to the I7 (G7), IV7 (C7), and V7 (D7) chords, this progression also contains a #IVdim7 (C#dim7), a I/V chord with the 5 in the bass (G/D), dominant VI7 (E7) and II7 (A7) chords, and an augmented V-chord (Daug).
Get the idea? Good, because from here on the chord symbols vanish and you’re on your own regarding keys. We’ll maintain a key-of-C reference in the text for continuity, but keep in mind that B.B. often favored flat keys, such as Ab, Bb, and Db. (Tip: See this month’s Under Investigation.)
Ex. 3 charts another 32-bar, A-A-B-A form, this time with a slow-blues 12/8 feel. The double A-section/verse (bars 1 – 8, plus the second ending) introduces several new chords—the III7 (E7), the bVII9 (Bb9), the bVII7 (Bb7), and the VII7 (B7), with the latter two employed as a double-chromatic approach back to the I7 (C7). The 8-bar B-section/bridge adds a #V7 (G#7) to the mix. Jump back to the top (D.C.), skip the first ending to complete the 32-bar form, and you’re home free.
The bVII9 (Bb9) and II7 (D7) return in the A-section/verse of Ex. 4 for another slow, 32-bar A-A-B-A progression. The only new chord here is an embellished VI7#9 (A7#9) in bar 4. The out-of-the-ordinary 8-bar B-section/bridge comprises a IV7-I7-IV7 progression (F7-C7-F7 for two bars each), followed by the II7 (D7) and V7 (G7) for a bar apiece. (Tip: B.B.’s version features a one-bar, V-chord [G7] intro.)
A slightly faster-paced slow blues, Ex. 5’s 32-bar A-A-B-A progression is prefaced with a four-bar, I7-IV7-I7-#V7-V7 intro (C7-F7-C7-G#7-G7). Here, the 8-bar A-section/verse gets into Gospel territory with the I6, I7, IV7, and IVm chords (C6, C7, F7, and Fm for one bar each), followed by the I7 and bVII7 (C7 and Bb7) for one beat each, the VI7 (A7), IIm7 (Dm7), and V7 (G7) for two beats each, and a two-bar I7-V7 turnaround (C7-G7). The second ending features a busier I-IV-I-V7 turnaround (C-F-C-G7) before we head into the 8-bar B-section/bridge, which entails simple I, IV, II7, and V7 chords played for two bars each. (Note the I-I7 and IV-IV7 moves in the first four bars.) Follow the D.S. back to the top of the A-section/verse (skip the intro) and jump directly to the second ending to complete the 32-bar form.
Of course, the B.B. King catalog is rife with 12-bar progressions. Beyond the norm, Ex. 6 shows a half-Dorian/half-Aeolian-flavored slow minor blues—let’s call it A minor—which utilizes eight bars of the Im (Am) in bars 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 8, 11, and 12, the IV9 (D9) in bars 5 and 6 (that’s the Dorian part), a V7#9 (E7#9) in bar 9, and a IVm (Dm) in bar 10 for an Aeolian/natural-minor touch. B.B.’s most famous 12-bar slow minor blues is similar, but Ex. 7 shows how it contains a few twists. Bars 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 8, 11, and 12 are identical, but the IVm chord (Dm) in bars 5 and 6, the beautiful bVImaj7 (Fmaj7) in bar 9, and a V7sus4-V7 cadence (E7sus4-E7) in bar 10 provide the variations. Play it up a whole step in B minor, and you’ve got “The Thrill is Gone.” (Tip: Play it up a fifth in E minor at a much faster tempo with a few accoutrements, and you’ve got the Doobie Brothers’ “Long Train Running”!)