How to Add Jazz Flavors to the 12-bar Blues Form 

In this lesson, we’ll explore how you can spice up your blues with a range of jazz ingredients, starting simply and then progressing to more advanced concepts.

The blues is of central importance to American music. Without the earthy style that emerged around the 1860s, you wouldn’t have jazz, rock ’n’ roll, hip-hop, and so many styles and variations. Jazz and the blues go hand in hand; traditional blues guitarists enrich their playing with jazz vocabulary, while jazz guitarists use the feel and simplicity of the blues to add emotion and grit to their playing. 

In this lesson, we’ll explore the interaction between the two styles—more specifically how you can spice up the blues with a range of jazz ingredients, starting simply and progressing to more advanced concepts derived from bebop. The examples are based on the classic 12-bar blues progression common to both blues and jazz. To make the most of the lesson, try transposing the examples to other keys and memorizing some of the licks to have at your disposal in your own soloing.

Week One

Let’s start off by exploring the 12-bar blues in the common guitar key of E major, which allows you to make good use of the open strings, as shown in Example 1. This figure sticks to the E minor pentatonic scale (E G A B D) scale in open position in bars 1–4, moving to the E blues scale (E G A Bb B D) in bars 5–8. 


Note how in each two-bar segment, an ascending line is answered by a descending one. This sort of call and response is common to blues and jazz. And while the first eight bars are composed of eighth notes, bars 9–10 add some triplets for rhythmic variation. 

Play this figure—and all of the others—with a swing feel. Swing can be highly personal and difficult to quantify, but basically play each pair of eighth notes not evenly as written but long-short. The best way to develop a solid sense of swing is to play along with other recordings or master musicians.


It also would be a good idea to try Ex. 1 in other fretboard positions—like V, for instance, with most of the notes falling around frets 5–8 (except for the third-fret G). To make the transition from blues to jazz you’ll need to be able to visualize and play notes all over the fretboard.

Beginners’ Tip #1
Learn the minor pentatonic (1 b3 4 5 b7) and blues scales (1 b3 4 b5 5 b7) all over the fretboard.

Weekly Workout: How to Add Jazz Flavors to the 12-Bar Blues Form Week One musical notation and guitar tablature

That’s the end of Week One. The complete lesson features four weeks of workouts (plus a bonus exercise.) There are two ways to access the full video and musical examples: Join our community at OR Buy the July/August 2024 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Acoustic Guitar magazine cover for issue 347

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2024 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Ron Jackson
Ron Jackson

New York City-based jazz guitarist Ron Jackson has performed and recorded in over 30 countries, with artists such as Taj Majal, Jimmy McGriff, and Ron Carter.

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