Essential Terms and Concepts for Playing Blues

In case you missed it, check out part 1 of this series.

Since blues is an ideal genre for jamming and improvising, your knowledge of certain terms and feels can dramatically boost your value as a player. Whether you’re doing a blues gig, going to blues jam at a local club, or getting together with other musician friends to play for a few hours, your life will be easier if you understand these concepts:

1. Be able to play through a blues progression in any key.

Learning how to play different feels in the key of E is great, but you’ll often find yourself at the mercy of the vocalist (they may like to sing in F#).

2. Learn the difference between a walking shuffle, box shuffle, straight time feel, two-beat, rhumba, and slow blues.

We’ll be covering these terms in detail in future lessons.

3. Understand “Slow blues in Bb.”

This is the most common form of communication that you will receive when going to play a blues tune. It literally means “we’re playing a slow blues in the key of Bb.” In this situation, you don’t necessarily need to know the song but you do need to know how to play a slow blues. If you’re unfamiliar with blues feels, pick a couple of common blues tunes (think “Pride and Joy,” “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Red House,” “Stormy Monday,” and “Hootchie Cootchie Man”) and practice playing along with them. Since many blues tunes are similar in feel, you’ll be able to relate whatever the bandleader calls to a song that you already know.

4. Understand the term “Quick 4.”

In a typical 12 bar blues progression, the first four bars are on the I chord. If someone says “Quick 4,” play the second bar of the progression as a IV chord, then go back to I for the 3rd and 4th bars and continue the progression.

5. What does “In on the five” mean?

This implies that there is some kind of lead line (vocal or instrumental) that will introduce the song and that you are expected to come in on the V chord of the 12 bar progression (bar 9). Someone may also say “In on the four” and they expect you to begin on the IV chord (bar 5).

6. What is the “Turnaround?”

The turnaround can refer to two different places. It can either be bars 9 and 10 of the progression (sometimes players will substitute a II-V chord change for the normal V-IV) or it can refer to the last bar or two of the progression and will substitute chords or a specific lick.

By understanding some of these terms, you can anticipate what the bandleader wants and can get a feel for the song with a few simple words. Therefore, even if you don’t know the tunes, you can play as if you know them and you can fit in with the band as if you’ve played with them before. Communication is the name of the game and whether you’re playing with someone that you play with all of the time, or you’re stepping into a jam situation, be sure to keep your eyes and ears open. If you’re attitude is “it’s just a blues gig, I play the same thing all night” then you’re probably not going to have the gig for long. If you think “I need to have my head in the game and my playing is essential to the band” then you’ll probably have a more rewarding experience and you’ll make the other players happy that you’re there.e.

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!

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  1. hoz

    At a jam I once had a visiting musician say “let’s do a chunka chunka”. WTF is a chunka chunka? Turned out to be along the lines of Chuck Berrys “Mabeline”. She said, “Everyone in Chicago calls it chunka chunka.” REALLY?

    Sometimes you just got to go with the flow…

  2. hmmmmm….. box shuffle….. i’ve been playing blues for 40 years and have never heard that term. i did a lil’ research and now fully understand how that term applies to a bass line. it just goes 2 show ya, even and old dog can learn new tricks from younger players. thanks Mad Ry!!!!


  3. jim

    ” If you’re attitude is “it’s just a blues gig, I play the same thing all night” then you’re probably not going to have the gig for long “………….

    so true. I’ve been going to open Jams for years, and inevitably it takes me untill one third way through the song to figure out what I’m REALLY supposed to be doing because I didnt know these things when the guitarist rattled off some quick mumbo jumbo.

    • JohnP/Warwick Corvette

      Same experience here, Jim! First 12 are usually Roots, then the patter emerges, if I’m not familiar with the tune.