The Language of the Blues: Terminology and other things all players need to know

The great Etta James

There is a language that is common in blues music—terms and concepts commonly understood by players as way of communicating and talking about the music. Some terms mentioned may vary slightly, and I will note that as I discuss specific things below. Knowing these things will help you go a long way as a player at whatever level you operate—from an occasional jam session participant to a professional level player. In my experience though, much of this is not completely understood by all players today. I believe there are reasons for this, but primary among them is that people are not being taught in the way many of us learned things in years past–that person to person process of coaching and mentoring. Also, many available resources for learning “the blues” right now focus on things that may not ultimately be helpful or complete. Some these approaches can even become confusing distractions or “rabbit holes” that leave players with not much more than a “paint by numbers” understanding that barely resembles the real thing. I think it is the responsibility of all of us who care about the future of the blues to step up and do what we can to fill the void. There are many players hungry to learn and struggling to find a way in.   

Here are some key terms and information you need to know. Look for videos here that will be out soon to fill in more specific details on each of these points:

Sue Foley

“Playing by Numbers”: This is a common question at many jams (“Do you play by numbers?”) and learning what this means, and how it works, is critical. The concept is based on something called the “Nashville numbering system,” and essentially is based around the idea that there are chords associated with each note in a major and minor scale or mode. Blues differs from standard western music in some ways, owing in large part to the unique harmonic structure. I have done videos in the past that explain this and will do some additional articles and videos in the future. To keep things simple for our purposes here, many blues songs operate out of a progression of three main chords associated with the first, fourth and fifth notes in the scale or mode. Sometimes other chords are added in specific songs and progressions, however to start, it is important to Understand what the “one,” “four” and “five” chords (often written with Roman numerals) are, and where they fall within various progressions. Often on a band stand someone may call out a song and say something like (as an example), “this song starts on the five, walks to the four and to the one, follows a “straight 12,” but has a stop at the “turnaround” under the verses. The chorus goes to the four. Straight 12s for the solos.” Often the person leading a song on a bandstand or at a jam will hold up fingers to signal changes in chords that are coming—especially if the progression or specific song departs from a standard 12 bar format (see below). As you can see, there are also other terms that are used in this process. Here are a few more…

“The Turnaround:” The turnaround is essential what happens at the ending of each 8 or 12 bar progression. As the name implies, you are turning things around and coming back to a “beginning.” The blues is often cyclical in this way—although there are exceptions in specific songs that do not really have a turnaround in the strict sense. There are also many kinds of turnarounds. As you build your musical vocabulary and learn songs, you will add an array of turnarounds to your tool kit. Look for a video out soon on turnarounds, how they work and different kinds and approaches. You will find it here.

“Head:” This idea really comes from the jazz world and is essentially a theme or tune that comes into the song in the beginning and usually again at the end to close the song. Sometimes it is a tune or riff based on the song’s verses that may be played all or in part by an instrument in the beginning before the vocals come in. There are songs with very distinct heads that are known to many players and may be reprised and built upon with variations during solos. Examples include the introduction to T-Bone Shuffle, Little Walter’s Off the Wall, or the old jazz blues song Love Me or Leave Me that has been covered by many blues artists. Little Walter’s version of the Willie Dixon song My Babe also has a kind of head that is a repeated phrase that is a part hint towards the verse and tune to come. These are important parts of the blues vocabulary to learn for reasons I will touch on later.

Magic Slim Holt

“Straight 12” and other alternatives: A “straight 12” is a commonly understood progression of chords as described in the section on “playing by numbers.” There are many songs that follow this straight 12 format, however there are also variations, including something called “fast to the four,” and 8 bar and even 16 bar progressions. It is important to understand the standard progression as a path towards understanding the variations and exceptions. If you go to this video and either go to the links in the description, or scroll to 29:24 you will find a detailed description of what all of this means.

“It sounds like…:” Common riffs, Heads, etc.: Most all blues players have a catalogue of riffs, grooves, songs, etc. to draw from that are also often referred to as players communicate. Very often someone will say something like (as an example), “this song is sort of like Scratch My Back and follows the same progression. Watch me at the turnaround.” Most blues players will know what that is and be able to play the riff and adjust to changes that may be taking place. This catalogue is built by knowing songs. As I have mentioned before, this is critical for understanding and learning the genre.

“Lumpty”, “Texas,” “Uptown,” and more: “Shuffles” and other grooves you need to know: In many ways, the “the shuffle” is the quintessential blues groove. There are many kinds of shuffles and many of us have been taught terms to describe how to play them, and have a catalogue of songs that we can reference when someone calls up (for example) a “Texas” or “rub” shuffle as a way to describe the groove for a particular song. Here is a video with a rudimentary description of a shuffles of various kinds and standard rhythms to play with those grooves. Go to 4:40 in the video for this.

Other Common Rhythms and Grooves: The blues has a wide variety of other common rhythms and grooves from “latin” beats to “country type” 2/4 rhythms. Learning songs is the best way to familiarize yourself with how all of these work. If you go to 15:33 in this video you will find descriptions and examples of many common blues grooves and ways to play them as a guitar player. 

“Stops,”” Choruses,” and other things to watch for: Specific songs have certain things that are critical parts of the song. A stop is just what it sounds like—a point where the background music stops and usually the vocals continue. There are also blues songs that have a distinct verse and chorus format. Sometimes that is also a point of a key chord change in the song (often going to the “four” chord), or a point where a stop happens. Sometimes these things are signaled by the person leading the song and sometimes it is just assumed that you know where these changes take place.

The things listed here are really a starting point, but will give you a good foundation to build from as a way of learning about the blues genre and finding a way in as a player or fan. It is important to note that as you learn songs and all of the key parts of those songs, you may encounter variations and other key aspects that will build your blues vocabulary and knowledge base. In upcoming posts and videos, I will cover application of all of these things in the context of a blues band, key songs to learn, how to play common licks, riffs and grooves and much more.

Play on!

Join our Facebook page Real Blues You Can Use for more discussions on these topics. For in-person or virtual lessons, coaching and mentoring with Mark, contact him at: imwiththebandmz@gmail.com and visit his website at: www.im-with-the-band.org.

Mark Zanoni

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