12-Bar Blues Song Recipe
1. Start on the “1” (the root chord)
2. Tell the first part of the story in four bars
3. Go to the “4” (4 whole steps up from the “1”)
4. Build the story there for another four bars
5. Wrap up the story and climax it with a "hook," or “The Turnaround,” jumping to the "5," then "4," then back to "1" again (" 5-4-1") in four bars
6. Repeat steps 1-6 for verses 2, 3, etc.
7. Optional: Put in a bridge (usually involves going to the "4" and doing some other fancy stuff)
8. Optional: Repeat Step 6, as desired, and vamp to end the song
Any musician with even a minimal knowledge of the blues knows that "5-4-1" is The Turnaround. The Turnaround is where it all comes together.
Don’t be deceived at how simple this looks. I’ll tell you from experience, it’s not an easy form to write. I’ve given the form a good try a few times in my day, and have only been modestly successful.
A good blues song is a miracle.
First of all, there has to be a story with an edge, a good story with a unique way to put it. And then there’s the necessity of the “hook” at the turnaround.
What a thing to behold is a good blues song! Cases in point: “Goin’ To Chicago,” “Have You Ever Loved A Woman,” “St. Louis Blues,” “I’m Tore Down,” “Hound Dog,” “The Thrill Is Gone,” “Woke Up This Morning,” and of course “Room To Move,” just to name a few.
I was contemplating this several years ago as I was driving my car on one of our usual family shuttling trips. My husband, “The Bluesman” John Mayall, was relegated to the back, as our then-11-year old, Sammy, had commandeered “shotgun.”
Sammy--we called him Lil’ Dude then--with his baseball cap strategically low and tilted to one side over his wraparound shades, sat up front with an ulterior motive: to put the car radio on the local Hip-Hop station, because that's what he was into then.
Poor Bluesman. “Aaarrrgh” is what I think I heard him say back there behind me.
Protesting at the assault on our ears, I turned it off, emitting complaints from Lil’ Dude.
I’m not saying I don’t like Hip-Hop, because that wouldn’t be true. I refuse to close my mind to any genre of music, but my taste was still stuck in the 90’s and early 2000's, though, with Will Smith’s “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” Run DMC’s “Walk This Way,” 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” and Yung Joc’s “It’s Goin’ Down,” Outkast’s “Hey Ya” and Jurassic 5’s “Work It Out.” Oh, and “Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix-a-lot, because I like a little humor.
But the song that was playing was actually draining IQ points from my brain. I could feel my intelligence slipping away. So, as usual, I made this a "teaching moment" for Lil’ Dude.
"Lil' Dude," I said, "here’s how it goes: someone sets a thing called a drum machine on a catchy Hip-Hop beat and then they add a booming bass line to it. Then someone plays a cheesy chord and the rapper starts a monotone rap. The lyrics will go something like this...." I then kind of used a goofy Brooklyn-type accent or something, for effect.
"I’m kickin it around and the girl has got me groovin
I like your #*#s and they shake with how you’re movin...."
"And then they change to another cheesy chord," I say.
Lil' Dude's mouth had dropped open.
I couldn't see his eyes, because of the shades you know, but I think I had his attention at this point.
I forge ahead:
“You R da bomb and I like it like that, You R da bomb and it’s really @@##in phat." (I think I'm on a roll here)
I continue, "Then the girl comes in. She doesn't really have a melody, just the key, so she vamps with what we call 'The Wobbly Singing."
"I’m your girl and I’m humpin with the bumpin and baby I’m your girl and I’m bumpin with the humpin"*
Pause here, for effect. Drink it in, Mom, drink it in.
“Ha. Ha. Ha,” Lil’ Dude deadpanned, as he slapped the radio back on, in defiance of what I personally feel was an absolutely spot-on brilliant satire. Then the song that came on was pretty much a copy of what I just demonstrated.
Chalk one up for big mama.
Lil’ Dude looked at me incredulously for a moment, like I’d just performed a magic trick right there in the car. Then he slumped down in his seat, crossing his arms. I think there may have been a hint of admiration in his eyes, though, but I couldn’t really tell, under the shades and all.
I looked at The Bluesman in the rearview mirror. He was smiling with me.
Eventually I had to let it go with Lil’ Dude, the same way I did with his big brother Skater Dude Zak. Thank God the Hip-Hop stage didn't last very long. They eventually come around if you leave 'em alone.
These days, The Bluesman and I and our two sons share the diverse language of music as more of an exchange. I learn a lot from them. And I actually really love most of the stuff they listen to. And I hope they've learned something from us.
But I’ll always marvel at the simple form of a good blues song.
And rejoice in The Turnaround.
(This piece originally appeared as my first essay for my column called "The Tour Bus is on Fire," in October 2006. It has been slightly edited for updating here, and, please note: *Simplified lyrics example only—No actual songs were harmed in the making of this essay.)