Blues music is usually played over a 12 bar pattern. That’s usually. Blues music doesn’t need to be over 12 bars, but you’ll find that a lot of Blues music is played over 12 bars. Until you find the whole bunch of Blues songs that are over 10 bars. Or some other number. Or a Blues song where sometimes it’s 12 bars except when it’s not. For the purpose of this article, I’m going to pretend that all Blues songs are over 12 bars. That makes the explanation of a Blues turnaround  a lot easier.

I’m aiming this article at more novice guitar players and people less familiar with the Blues. If you’ve listened to a lot of Blues, you probably already know what a turnaround is, so what are you doing here? But seriously, understanding Blues turnarounds, whether you’re a guitarists, a general musician, or just a lover of the Blues, will make you appreciate the style of music so much more.

What Is A Blues Turnaround?

Put simply, a Blues turnaround happens at the end of a 12 bar Blues pattern that brings everything back to the beginning. There’s technical reasons why a turnaround feels like it does, but when you hear it, you feel like the musical pattern is returning to the beginning. In this way, the pattern “turns around” and goes back to the beginning.

What’s actually really interesting about the Blues turnaround is that I’ve actually seen a few definitions of what a Blues turnaround actually is. Some sources are saying a turnaround goes over one bar, some say two bars, two say four bars. So let’s break apart the anatomy of a 12 bar Blues pattern and pinpoint where the turnaround is.

In a 12 bar blues pattern, you’re mostly playing between the one and the four chords. So if you’re playing E, you might do four bars of E, two bars of A, two bars of E, a bar of B, a bar of A, a bar of E, then a bar of B.

Let’s concentrate on those last four bars: B, A, E, B.

In the above progression, E is the first degree of the scale, A is the fourth, and B is the fifth. Playing the fifth, also known as the dominant, is a signal to the ear to return back to the root. The fifth wants to resolve to the root. So that pattern of 5, 4, 1, 5 is saying to the listener “we’re going back to the beginning.” This is why some people say the “whole” turnaround is actually the last four bars. That move from the the five chord (the B in this example) to the four (the A) predicts the move, then the twelve bar pattern ends on the five chord which just really wants to drop back down to the root to start things over again.

But if you’re just concentrating the last bar, which, as mentioned, is a chord based on the fifth degree of the scale (a B in this example), you’ll often hear this final bar be played not as a chord, but as a lick that walks to the fifth degree of the scale before returning to the root or walks down from the 5th degree of the scale before returning to the root. Or some combination of all of this to push musically back to the root (via the fifth).

To me, that’s where the turnaround is. It’s that last bar that, as mentioned, quite literally turns the pattern around and gets you t start at the beginning.

Here’s a couple basic examples.

Here’s a basic Robert Johnson style turnaround in A. Concentrating on what’s happening on the 4th string, it starts on the flat 7th and walks down chromatically to the 5th degree of the scale. The turnaround also uses a drone on the 1st string, once again playing the root of the scale (an A). So there’s a lot going on here that really pushes that feeling of walking down to the 5th but also concentrating on the root so that the pattern wants to finally resolve.

This turnaround is a lot of fun because it sounds like your typical Delta Blues style turnaround while also being a great basic for so many turnarounds that use a very similar pattern but do so much more. Learn this turn around then try it as triplets, droning the root as a triplet rather than an eighth note. Alternatively you can just play the drone note on the quarter note beats while playing the walk down as eighth notes instead. Play around with it and find different ways to play this basic turnaround. It really makes Delta Blues sound like Delta Blues.

Here’s another basic Blues turnaround that walks down from the major 3rd to the root then up to the fifth. Again, it emphasises an eventual move to the root, but via the 5th. This one is over two bars and in E.

This turn around is (obviously) and example of one that walks down through the third on the second to last bar of the pattern (which is the root, an E in this example) before walking up to the fifth (a B in the example). While this is a basic turnaround, once again you can build on it. Find other ways to walk down from the 3rd in the second to last bar before winding up on the fifth.

While I really like Blues turnarounds that walk down to the fifth, like in the first example, my favourites are the ones that walk up. Listen to some Stevie Ray Vaughan and you’ll hear that walk up a lot.

Does The Turnaround Only Feature In The Blues?

Not at all.

So much of Rock and general Pop music is based on Blues music. If you take a look at some of your favourite Rock and Pop songs, you’ll find that, although they may not always follow a basic 12 bar pattern, they’ll often follow a 1, 4, 5 pattern in the chord progression, with that typical 5, 4, 1, 5 chord pattern at the very end. This very much shows Blues influence on Rock music and popular music in general.

Maybe the turnaround isn’t as prominent as it is in Blues music, but it’s still there!

And when we’re talking Jazz music the turnaround can be just as obvious as it is in Blues. At its core, Jazz is really just a more complicated form of the Blues, so it takes the same traditions. Sure Jazz may use a few more chords, but it’s still built on Blues’ 12 bar pattern with a turnaround at the end.

What Other Blues Turn Around Are There?

There are literally hundred of Blues turnarounds out there.

This article is supposed to be an introduction to the Blues turnaround and just explain what it is. At the time of writing, I don’t have any articles with other great turnarounds to play, but they’ll come in the future. For now, master the two examples I’ve given and try to expand on them. It ain’t Blues without a great turnaround.

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