In 1914, remembering hard times he’d experienced in St. Louis in the late 1800s, the composer W.C. Handy penned a prototype for the 12-bar blues as we know it today, “St. Louis Blues.” An incalculable number of tunes—not just blues, but jazz, rock, and beyond—are built around variations of the 12-bar structure, with its repeating first two lines and overall melancholic effect, found in the verses of “St. Louis Blues.”
The song became a pop and jazz standard, and among thousands of interpretations, singer Bessie Smith’s dirge-like 1925 version stands out as one of the finest. That recording, with Louis Armstrong on cornet and Fred Longshaw on harmonium, was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1993.
Smith’s interpretation of “St. Louis Blues” is the inspiration for this arrangement, based on common, mostly open grips suggested by the harmonium part. I’ve diagrammed the chord progression heard in the verse—commit it to memory, and check out the great turnaround in the last two bars. (If you’re playing the song at a faster tempo, feel free to omit the turnaround in favor of a simpler progression, like D7 in bar 11 and A7 in bar 12.
“St. Louis Blues” will accommodate a variety of accompaniment patterns, but a good place to start would be to plug in one of the rhythmic approaches from Erin McKeown’s intro to jazz lesson. The 16-bar bridge, which is in the parallel key of D minor, was originally played with a tango feel, so for that section, try strumming dotted quarter note/eighth note/quarter rest/quarter note in each bar.
This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.