Video Lesson: Exploring Blues Turnarounds

In this acoustic guitar lesson you'll learn a bunch of blues-based turnarounds in different keys—great moves to have at your fingertips when playing the blues.


Maybe you’ve heard of blues turnarounds but aren’t sure exactly what they are or how to use them on acoustic guitar. In this lesson you will learn a stock turnaround in E major, then work on variations in the same key as well as others.

What is a turnaround, you ask, and how do you play them? Well, in a nutshell a turnaround is a chord progression or lick that leads a song back to where it began, on its home chord. In the 12-bar blues form, the turnaround usually happens in the last two bars, and it helps return you to the I chord at the beginning of the form. Here I’ll show you a bunch of different blues-based turnarounds in different keys—great moves to have at your fingertips whenever you’re playing blues-based tunes.  



In order to understand a basic turnaround, let’s check one out in context. Example 1 depicts the last four measures of a 12-bar blues in E. The turnaround occurs in measures 3 and 4 (or bars 11 and 12 of the blues form). That’s one of the most common blues turnarounds, and it’s really pretty simple: After you play the E chord, just take an open D7 shape, move it up two frets to form an E7 chord, and then just walk it down in half steps (the distance of one fret) until you come back to the E chord in the last measure. Play through this example until it’s under your fingers—and in your ears—before moving on. 


There are a million variations of that turnaround in E. You could play the chords broken, as shown in Example 2, or, instead of three-note chords on strings 1–3, you could do just dyads (two-note chords) on strings 2 and 3 (Example 3). Example 4 is a cool variation on the dyad idea, while Example 5 is another pattern with descending half-step movement, this time on strings 3 and 5, pitted against the ringing open strings 1 and 2. For some fun rockabilly variations, try Example 6, in the style of Carl Perkins, and Example 7, which nods to Buddy Holly. 

You might have noticed that these examples all end on the V chord (B7). This nicely sets up the I chord (E/E7) at the start of the form (not shown in notation). That’s exactly why they call them turnarounds! 

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Now let’s try a turnaround in the key of A major. The simplest thing would be just to play the chords—I (A7), IV (D7), and V (E7), as shown in Example 8. But for something a little more challenging, try a really cool turnaround that Mance Lipscomb did (Example 9). Use your third finger to slide between the third and fifth frets on string 2. 


For a turnaround in the key of D, you can connect the I (D) and V (A7) chords by walking up in half steps, starting on the note F#—see Example 10. In the key of G, Example 11 shows a classic turnaround that Robert Johnson used on “Love in Vain” and a bunch of other tunes. Hold the G note on string 1 with your fourth finger, while playing a neat descending line to bridge the I (G7) and V (D7) chords. Example 12 shows another turnaround in G, with a bass line similar to that in Ex. 10. 

And now here’s a classic turnaround in the key of C (Example 13) that uses a descending melodic line—C–Bb–A–Ab–G—to create a chord progression of C (I)–C7 (I7)–F (IV)–Fm (iv)–C (I). By the way, you can play this and all of the other examples slow, fast, or anywhere in between.  

Astute readers might have noticed that some of these turnarounds are moveable—you can take their shapes and shift them up or down the fretboard to play them in any key. Example 14 shows how you can play Ex. 1 up a fret for the key of F major. Example 15 shows how to move it up six frets for the key of Bb. Once you’ve learned these turnarounds, I would encourage you to try coming up with some of your own. 

blues turnaround guitar lesson examples pt. 1
blues turnaround guitar lesson musical examples pt. 1

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Fred Sokolow
Fred Sokolow

Fred Sokolow, a Los Angeles–area multi-instrumentalist, is the author of hundreds of instructional books and videos for guitar, banjo, mandolin, lap steel, and ukulele.

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