Beginner Blues Bass "Survival Shapes” (Simple Method for 12 Bar Blues)

Nail the blues in 15 minutes with this no-fluff beginner blues bass lesson.

If you’re doing the Beginner to Badass course, you could easily play along with this lesson by Module 3. But you’ll really understand the theory behind chord progressions and the 12 bar blues starting in Modules 8 and 9.

Blues Survival Shapes

Here are the two Blues Survival Shapes - keep in mind you can move these around to any key you need.

High Shape (key of E)

Low Shape (key of C)

Basic 12 Bar Blues Form

This is the skeleton of the 12 bar blues. Remember there are variations on this form from song to song (like swapping the V for the I in the last bar), but this is always the starting point.

Killing Floor Fun Fact

While I was picking out songs for this lesson, I discovered a pretty wild story about the meaning behind Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor.” Apparently, it was originally interpreted to be about the ‘killing floor’ of a slaughterhouse… but the real story is much more colorful.

This interview with Howlin’s lead guitar player Hubert Sumlin is a trip, highly recommended read.

The TL;DR - the song is about Howlin’s jealous wife Helen who, after finding some ladies underwear in the tour bus, shot him. With a shotgun. :gun: :exploding_head:

Like I said in the video, I’ve been digging the blues ever since I was a little kid, listening to my dad play bass in blues bands (no shotguns involved).

What blues bass player or artist inspired you to start playing the blues?


Another awesome video, Josh!
You make it SO understandable to “get” a lot of these different musical ideas/concepts! I am enjoying all your videos (in addition to the course itself) and really appreciate all the wonderful suggestions and things to practice - you make it seem like newbs like me can truly “jam” with friends!



I just watched it. It was so simple to understand. Josh is such a great teacher!


Josh - too funny, I just did Mod. 11, Lesson 3 today, and noticed many of the songs lately follow this 12 bar blues pattern. I asked this question on the lessons just now, but I’ll ask it here too:

I’m not sure if anyone else wonders this, but how did these chord progressions come about? Who decided that that pattern of I’s and IV’s and V’s would be the way it is for the 12 bar blues - did someone just experiment with it, and it sounded great, and others then made songs based on it too? Or is there some theory behind why it works?

Also, how does the musician decide what key to write their music in? Do they try different keys and just pick the best one? Or is there some formula to that?

Okay, it’s a ton of questions - it’s all beginning to make sense, thanks to you. But it’s also leading to more questions!! Every one of your lessons/videos creates more aha moments, it’s great, and your course is like a symphony itself!


Thanks @kevwheez and @PamPurrs!

@Vik, I responded to your comment on the lesson page, but curious to hear other people’s thoughts, those are interesting questions!


In conjunction with the B2B course (I’m only on Mod 6), I’ve been doing a great deal of independent reading and learning about the circle of 5ths, the different keys, and chords. I’ve often wondered the same thing as you’re asking. I can see how a musician can look at the sheet and know exactly what to play, but how on Earth do composers decide upon which key to write the piece.
Glad you asked that question. I’m eager to hear the comments.


I have as well, @PamPurrs , and definitely some interesting stuff to delve into - never realized there was this much complexity to the music I’ve been hearing all this time! Luckily the B2B course has kept me anchored with a great sequence of learning some of these concepts, or I’d be pretty lost in information overload from some of the stuff online about music theory :stuck_out_tongue:

Hope you’re enjoying the course with that killer bass you got!!


So, I don’t know how the 12 bar blues scheme has evolved, and I haven’t read @JoshFossgreen’s answer in the lessons (so please bear with me if I state the obvious below), but I can give some personal input to the question on “picking” a key:

From my own experience composing songs, I never sat down and decided beforehand that a song had to be in a certain key (well, actually, thinking about it now, one of my earliest attempts to compose was to be in f minor, but probably just because I thought, for whatever reason, f minor was cool - it was really very silly looking back at it now). Mostly, the key would develop as I was “composing”, which, for me, mostly meant noodling on an instrument until some ideas crystallized. Thus, my guess is the key developed because I liked/preferred (subconsciously) to noodle using a certain range on that given instrument, certain keys (on a keyboards), certain strings or frets, and then certain phrases, licks etc that I was familiar with or actually could play - my approach to composing was, as mentioned, based a lot on trial and error and not necessarily on a complete mastery of a certain instrument, or working off a theoretical framework for composing.

So, I guess the instrument you play and your level of accomplishment on that instrument heavily influence what key a song will end up being in. This includes the fact that some keys are inherently “harder” on some instruments than others. I understand that guitar players really don’t like the key of E flat, but prefer keys where they can use a lot of open strings. Sax players tend to prefer flats to sharps. Nobody really seems to think keys with five or six flats (or sharps) are “nice” and really should be avoided.

Also, if you are a singer, and compose based off a melody that you intend to sing, then you will always tend to put that melody in a range that you can comfortably sing, and that would then determine the key of the song.

Finally, there might be something (individually? culturally?) that makes certain keys just “sound” better to our ears than other keys, but I really don’t know much about why that might be. Still, it could influence the composing process and subconsciously “guide” you to certain keys more often than others.


I really like your answer - it makes a lot of sense. Though not at the point of composing music, I can see how if you’re noodling around with your instrument, making up riffs and such, then noticing which notes they are, and what key they sort of naturally fall into, that will play a big role in it. Also, the ease of playing them too, on that particular instrument.

As for some keys just “sounding better”, Josh put a link to a YT video in his response, which I’m posting below. It gets into tuning, and some theory topics that are probably worth exploring at some point, though, will leave that for another day!


Glad to help out :grinning:

And, interesting video… this would go in my “cultural” influences category, as most of us only ever have to deal with and are confronted with the equal temperament. And thus, intuitively, we realize some keys sounds “better” or “purer” than others…

So much to explore…


Very good, @JoshFossgreen . . . :slight_smile:

Comparing this video with your “Simple Blues Groove” video and with Module 8 Lesson 5 in the B2B course was helpful to me. I had been confusing some terminology up until now: the “pattern” (e.g. root, third, fifth, root) with the “key” (which could be anything).

Let me see if I got this straight:

If the skeleton of the 12 bar progression has note names (E, A, D) it tells the user what key each bar is to be played in (but doesn’t specify what pattern).

If the skeleton of the 12 bar progression has Roman Numerals (I, IV, V) it tells the user what the pattern is (root, fourth, and fifth) but doesn’t specify what key.

Is this correct? I don’t want to confuse these Roman Numerals with the “Nashville numbering system” . . .

Thanks and thumbs up for your video, Joe


I think key usually refers to the entire piece music, not bar by bar. And very often the first chord used is also the key the piece is in and it’s usually the chord (or note) you are trying to resolve to.

Your example, E A D, if played in that order, wouldn’t be a 12-bar blues progression since those notes aren’t the I IV V of a major scale (they’d be the I IV VII of E major). But if you changed the order to A D E, then you’d have the I IV V of A major and that would fit the 12-bar blues pattern.

In your example with roman numerals, the note you choose to start with is the key you’d be in.


@Jazzbass19: they way I see it, the Roman Numerals IS the Nashville numbering system!

You garden variety 12 bar blues will follow the chord progression laid out by Josh (I - I - I - I - IV - IV - I - I - V - IV - I - I), so let’s stick with that and not (yet) worry about some slight modifications to this scheme. This is THE blues scheme/progression. It follows the same sequence no matter what chord you start with (i.e., no matter what the blues “is in”).

So, if someone calls a blues in C, you know you’ll have four bars in C, two bars in F (the IV for C), two bars in C, one bar in G (the V to C), one bar in F, and two bars in C.
If someone calls a blues in Ab, then it’s 4xAb, 2xDb, 2xAb, 1xEb, 1xDb, 2xAb… and so on.

The pattern you play on each one of those bars can be those that Josh suggested: root-third-fifth-root, or root-third-fifth-third, where “root” corresponds to the current chord in any given bar. Thus, in the first example: you play c-e-g-c or perhaps c-e-g-e (for the four bars of C), then f-a-c-f (for the bars in F), and g-b-d-g (for the bars in G).

(Note: all these examples are for major chords (or dominant chords). If the blues uses minor chords, then remember the flat third!!)


Thanks, @Korrigan . . . I didn’t specifically mean E,A,D in that order (I meant any note letters vs Roman numerals), but your answers really helped me get a better grasp.

Then the “12-bar blues” is always I, IV, V (1st, 4th, and 5th note) of any major scale?

I guess my problem is getting definitions and terminology straight . . . :frowning:


And thank you too, @joergkutter . . . :slight_smile:

The way you explain this helps to fill in some more gaps for me!

As I said above to @Korrigan, I’m trying get my terminology straight. I don’t know why I’m having so much trouble with this, though . . . I think I learn best with lots of examples, so thanks again to the both of you!

I’ve been going back over Josh’s course and reviewing areas that I didn’t thoroughly grasp the first time around . . .

All best, Joe


No problem @Jazzbass19, we’re all in this together right? :slight_smile:

Here are a couple of articles that helped me and although it’s for guitar the theory is the same:

Major blues progression

Minor blues progression


Got it, @Korrigan . . . one of the things that I was looking for is termed “variations of the progression”, I just couldn’t articulate that when I was asking questions.

Learning all this music theory is indeed like learning a foreign language . . . I need to build up a good vocabulary first.

Feels great to get something done today! . . . :+1:


Stevie Wonder loves B major! (5 sharps) Sir Duke, Do I Do, All I Do… probably lots more!

And “You and I” is in Gb major (6 flats). Dude must love nasty key signatures. :stuck_out_tongue:

But really, it’s because:


Like @Korrigan said, the key doesn’t change from bar to bar. So if you’re playing a blues in E, and the three chords are E, A, and B major, the whole thing is still in the “key of E.”


These are Nashville Numbers! Same system. :slight_smile:


It is a great feeling, and, like you, I’m sort of wading my way through it all too, and, slowly, but surely, it’s coming together - I think things started getting tougher around Module 9 (which I’ve earmarked to come back to). It’s like it all came together at once there, and to keep it straight:

  1. what key you’re in
  2. what the chord progression is on a per bar basis
  3. is it diatonic? then, within that bar, playing the root/3rd/5th of only that major/minor scale as indicated by the diatonic chord chart
  4. know where the notes even are on the fretboard, how to easily access them, in time with the rhythm, and keeping that straight :crazy_face:

For now, for me, all that is not happening all at once, and a lot of my playing is just rote following of the tablature in the lessons. But, little by little, I’m beginning to see why I’m even playing what I’m playing, and why it sounds “right”.