Twelve bar blues basslines: Groove Backpack #6

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One of my favorite styles to play is the blues. Playing a driving walking bassline with a drummer that can play a mean shuffle, is probably one of the best feelings there is. Unlike what a lot of bass players think, when it comes to the blues, the possibilities of feel and note choice are endless. To get you started on one of my favorite styles, I will show you five different bass lines you can play over a twelve bar blues.

What is a twelve bar blues?

If you have never heard about a twelve bar blues, let me break it down to you. A standard twelve bar blues progression in the key of G would look like this:

A twelve bar blues in G

A lot of blues music is based around this same twelve bar blues progression. Of course not every song is in the same key, but the way the chords relate to each other is the same.

In this progression you can find three different chords. If you have read my article about modes and know how chords relate to each other within a key, you can see that these chords are the I-chord, the IV-chord and the V-chord.

It’s essential you learn this progression by remembering the relation of the chords to the key of the song. This way, you can play a twelve bar blues in every key there is.

All three chords used in the progression are dominant chords. Read my article about how chords are constructed if you want to learn more about dominant chords.

Playing a basslines over a dominant chord typically gives you two choices. You can either use your pentatonic scales or the Mixolydian mode. Try to identify the different scales in the upcoming five examples.

Five examples of bass lines over a twelve bar blues

In this video I demonstrate five different bass lines you can play over a twelve bar blues. Next to using the Mixolydian mode and the major pentatonic scale, I also make use of chromatic approach note. In some of the examples I even add the minor third for a signature sound you will hear a lot when using to blues music.

To get the most out of these basslines, try to transpose them to all twelve keys. That way you will be prepared when someone calls out a key at your local jam session.

Download bass tabs for a twelve bar blues and musical notation

You can download the whole transcription by clicking here. The transcription has two systems, one of them being standard notation and the other being bass tablature.

Walking basslines

All five examples I presented above are examples of walking basslines. In blues music it’s very common to play a walking bassline. One of the key components of the walking bassline is it’s rhythm. Most times these lines are constructed with straight quarter notes, giving them a driving feel. In conjunction with the drumtrack I programmed (playing a kick drum on every down beat) you get a solid beefy groove. It’s hard not to dance to a blues like this!

If you look at the transcription I made, and listen to the track, maybe you notice that I play some ghost notes on the track which I didn’t write down. These ghost notes add life to the lines and can really spice up your lines. It’s very personal where you play them so try to add them at places that feel appropriate to you.

How do you add dynamics when playing blues bass?

When a certain blues song revolves around a walking bassline, it’s not so common that you add dynamics to the song by leaving out certain notes. To keep the music going, you will want to keep the straight quarter notes going, even when the dynamics of the song are at their lowest. Some ways to add dynamics to your blues playing is by choosing to play with volume and note length.

When a blues soloist starts their solo off very quietly, you can add a lot of suspense by playing on a low volume (maybe with your thumb and even palm muting the strings). Choosing to play the notes shorter (staccato) will even intensify this feeling more. Also, leaving all your ghost notes out and just playing straight quarters will increase tension.

When the soloist is reaching their climax and the drummer is going crazy behind you, you can choose to attack the strings harder and play long connected notes (legato).

Keeping it simple

During the verses and the choruses of a song it is very common to stick to a main motif/pattern that you repeat. This is to keep the listener tuned it, but also to add cohesion to the song. As part of the rhythm section one of your most important jobs is to keep the band together. In a blues context this often mean creating a good part and sticking to it.

I therefor advise you to choose one motif from the examples presented above and keep true to it throughout a song. You can of course add little things like a chromatic line to the next chord, but keep it simple. Also, in most situation you can take some liberties during the solos as long as is supports the soloist.

As a general rule, don’t switch motifs all the time, your band members and the audience will thank you for it.

How do you write blues bass lines?

These are just five examples of the million possibilities you have as a bass player when playing blues. Extract parts you like from the lines I showed you, combine them and create your own lines in the process. Also try incorporating the Mixolydian mode and the major pentatonic. Hear how different notes work together in various lines and be creative in producing something that is unique to you.

If you need more inspiration, I recommend you transcribe lines by the greats. Listen to the sidemen for B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Freddie King and all the other blues heroes that came before us, and you’ll be grooving away in no time!

More free example bass lines

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I hope you found this article helpful! Let me know in the comments what your thoughts are and if you have any questions or suggestions.

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