Describing Music : Folsom Prison Blues

I wonder could someone check my understanding and musician speak, please. I had a possible “Ah Ha moment” this morning!

I’m enjoying the course, and am up to module 9, having left a lot of the Fast workouts (to give myself something to work towards at a later date.) I had a go at the 50 songs challenge “Bad Moon Rising” but really struggled to learn the song, I had to played it from the tab, but then had too many things to concentrate on… so here is the point already:

This morning I skipped ahead a bit for a look at Johnny Cash “Folsom Prison Blues” and some of the lessons and theory start to make learning the song seem a lot easier. I looked at Josh’s tab in the 50 First Songs section. Would it be correct to describe this song as
"an 11 bar blues I, IV, V progression in F#, playing quarter notes, root and inverted fifth." Describing it like that sure makes it easier to remember!

I have never heard of an 11 bar blues, but this seems to have a repeating 11 bar section, repeated 6 times… so logic suggests its an 11 bar progression.
I, I, I, I
IV, IV, I, I
V, V, I

Does any of that make sense, is it accurate, is there a better way to express it in music speak?


Definitely sounds like you did. :slight_smile: And yes, that’s why knowing a bit of music theory is beneficial: the notes start making sense, and are no longer just a random sequence of fret numbers. That makes the song much easier to memorize, because you only need to remember that one sentence, not 2-3 pages of sheet music.


:smiley: Wow. I feel I have attained enlightenment, I have been smiling all morning, and trying to hum V,I,6x(I,I,I,I, IV,IV,I ,I, V,V,I ) ,V,I while chopping logs!


@pauls1024 you’ve got it. A standard 12 bar blues consists of 12 bars of music. It’s commonly written out by the scale degrees. So the I (one) chord is the root and the 4 and 5 chords are the 4th and 5th degrees of the major scale. So once you know the root you know the rest of the song. You get to the 12th bar (also known as the ‘turnaround’) and the whole thing repeats.


In Jazz sometimes you’ll sometimes see it written as an AABA piece. Meaning it’s two sections of A (that could be 6,8,12 etc bars) one section of B and then back to A.

So you’re right, once you’ve learned the 11 bars of Folsom you just repeat those bars for the 4 verses and 2 solos. Music theory is cool.

Here’s a really clear explanation:


well done!!

Yes, it’s an 11 bar blues.

Heads up - 99% of the time you play this song with other people, it will end up as a 12 bar blues. That’s been my experience. The 12 bars is so ingrained in people’s ear and muscle memory, that they end up adding an extra bar at the end.


This is great. At high school I tried to learn bassoon (I was given the bassoon cause I was tall enough to pick it up!) and it (I?) was horrible. Always just a string of random notes that had no context or shape.

A few weeks of bassbuzz and things are starting to take shape. I’m beginning to see patterns and relationships between different pieces.

I love the way the theory and technique are introduced together in this course. And the advice to push on when you nail the slow workout! It feels like I’m always achieving something … even when something else has gone horribly!



This is what I keep saying. The Beginner To Badass course is the best I have ever seen for people just starting out.

I am happy that this has clicked for you.
A lot of people shy away from music theory because they say it is too hard but this is a prime example of how it can augment your understanding and playing of music and overall make it easier to learn and play a song you love all the way through.

Good job!!!


I was jamming to this track this afternoon and thought this would add nicely to this thread @pauls1024.

This a jam track based on the 12 bar blues formula. There’s screen grab to show you the chord progression. It’s a quick change, so the second bar goes to the 4 chord, but apart from that it’s the same. So you could play the track on YouTube and just stay on the root note for each bar to get a really good feel for the progression. It just loops and loops the same 12 bars.



@Barney @Gio @Celticstar

I’m an engineer. I loved maths and science at school. Music seemed to be taught as an alien language that you could either feel or not feel…

This time around I have been given the foundations, some of the explanation of why it works. The structure and patterns are becoming clearer. I can start to make my own decisions or interpretations or simplifications using that knowledge. I love it.

@Barney thanks for the links: I had a look around the Justinguitar site and spent a while using the interval trainer there. Regarding learning the progression and feel of the song, I was thinking along the same lines earlier this afternoon… I can learn the feel for the changes in Folsom Prison Blues by just playing the roots. Then when I have the timing of the chord changes down I’ll add the fifths back in. And if I get the feel of it and it all comes together I can experiment with throwing in a few extra 1/8 notes … sounds to me like there might be a few extra (walking?) notes at some of the changes on the Johnny Cash track!


I love all the ways you can see math in music. Like the way tonal frequencies mapping to notes is basically modulus math on a log2 scale. Take a note, double the frequency; it’s the same note in the next octave.


@pauls1024 yes you’re on the money. It’s sometimes called a walking bassline or walking up or down to the chord. If you listen to the live version you can hear it clearly in the first verse. The lyrics are ‘Since I don’t know when’ At about the 18 second mark the bass walks up from the first chord to the new chord. I use the lyrics as my cue to remember the changes. Your mileage may vary :slight_smile:

Here’s the zen master himself with a far better explanation than I could ever give.

Cool. I just got a DAW out and started to play around with the major and minor intervals and scales to try to visualise the intervals on a log scale with a fast fourier transform view… It is becoming more obvious why some intervals work well together!


Yep, especially the perfect fifth :slight_smile:

Also both the major and minor thirds.


:smiley: I played Folsom Prison Blues today. Without looking at the tab. That’s probably not a big deal for most people here, but it is a big step on my journey!

I know the chord progression. I know it is roots and inverted 5th’s. So I don’t need to look at the music. This theory works!

I have listened to the tune a lot and played along a few times.

Another Ah-Ha moment today? First song I tried to learn was Bad Moon Rising. I was trying to mechanically do what the tab told me to. I was chasing the beat. I was not in control. This time round I have listened to the tune more, and hummed along to it, I have looked at and understood the structure. Even before picking up the bass and trying to play the tune I am probably further on in learning how to play it. I am having fun playing a simplified version, and starting to add to it. It sounds more musical already.

Thanks for the encouragement folks!


:+1: good stuff
I had to the same with BMR, playing with the tabs/bass play along from the course didn’t sound well at all… it was not until I just listen to the song carefully and follow the pattern in context that I actually could play in rhythm and anticipate the changes


This has made the world a better place.
Somewhere, a bass player has gotten their wings.