Nikki O'Neill Nikki O'Neill
Posted August 11th
A song structure (aka song form) serves a purpose — to support the storytelling quality of the lyrics and melody. It's fun to experiment with different structures as a songwriter. It's also great for your craft. If you feel stuck with a song, changing the structure often inspires new ideas.
We'll explore four classic blues song structures that also are used in rock, Americana and other styles of music. The examples will be in the keys of A or Am.
This is the blues song form that most of us are familiar with, thanks to classics like "Got My Mojo Working" and "Pride and Joy". A standard 12-bar blues song has a I-IV-V chord progression with three lyric lines. Each line is four bars long:
Breaking It Down:
Line 1 is sung over the I chord (A) on bars 1-4. Line 2 sometimes repeats the lyrics from Line 1. It is sung over the IV chord (D) on bars 5-6 and then the I chord on bars 7-8.
After the singer sings a phrase, there's often a space left where an instrumentalist can respond with a solo phrase. This is known as call and response.
Line 3 goes from the V chord (E) in bar 9 to the IV chord in bar 10. The last two bars create a chord passage or melodic phrase called a turnaround. It serves as a passage from the end of one verse into the next.
As the V chord reappears in bar 12, it sets the listener up to hear another verse or an instrumental solo. If you want to end the song, play a I chord there instead.
Songs in minor keys usually sound darker and more melancholy because of the prominence of minor chords. Two famous minor blues songs are "The Thrill Is Gone" and "Black Magic Woman."
You can use the 12-bar song form, but the I chord is always a minor chord. Often, the IV chord is also minor, while the V chord is either minor, major, or a dominant 7th.
There are variations of minor blues songs that include other chords in the last four bars, but this 12-bar example in Am sticks to Am (I), Dm (IV) and E (V):
Some classic eight-bar blues songs include "Key to the Highway", "Heartbreak Hotel", "How Long", and "Ain't Nobody's Business".
Eight-bar blues songs have more chord variations than the twelve-bar blues. Some common features include:
-The I-chord moving to the V-chord right away in bar 2.
-The move to the IV chord in bar 3.
Here are the chords for "Key to the Highway", using A (I), D (IV) and E (V):
A / E / D / D
A / E / A / E
Gospel blues originally combined blues and ragtime guitars with preaching lyrics. Famous songs include "Trouble Will Soon Be Over", "Up Above My Head", and "John the Revelator".
Gospel blues is often happy in its feel, with a strong rhythmic accent on the upbeat (think of a congregation clapping.) Parts of the song can be repeated or extended. Call-and-response elements are also popular.
Chord progressions and the length of the form vary in these types of songs. Here's the 16-bar chord progression for "Up Above My Head":
A / A / A / A
E / E / A / A
A / A7 / D / D
A / E / A / A
What beat should you use? In traditional blues, the three most common rhythmic feels are:
Shuffle ("Let Me Love You Baby", "Pride and Joy")
Straight eight ("Johnny B. Goode")
Slow blues in 12/8 ("Stormy Monday", "I Can't Quit You Baby.")
Other great rhythmic feels to use include rhumba ("Black Magic Woman"); funk rhythms and "second-line" marching style rhythms (for more of a New Orleans-flavor); different rock beats; the country-style train beat ("Mystery Train"); the accenting of the upbeats like in gospel music, and more.