This column has examined a wide cross-section of blues styles and players over the past four years, with the one constant element being the 12-bar blues form. This form is ubiquitous in popular music, and certainly within the genre that shares the name, it reigns supreme. But other forms do exist, and this month we’ll take a look at the eight-bar blues.
In its earliest expression, blues music was not bound to any strict number of bars, and the performer would often change chords whenever it felt right. This kind of harmonic freedom was a hallmark of rural styles, but it also shows up in electric blues, most notably via John Lee Hooker. The eight-bar blues form also has roots in the rural tradition, and the two songs being referenced this month—“Trouble in Mind” and “Key to the Highway”—were favorites of acoustic artists like Lightning Hopkins, Big Bill Broonzy, and Mance Lipscomb. But their universal appeal has generated versions from a diverse crop of artists that include Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, James Blood Ulmer, Eric Clapton, and Nina Simone.
Example 1 is the eight-bar form used for “Key to the Highway.” Re-introduced a few years back by Eric Clapton, this tune is still fresh in the ears of blues listeners, and it’s a staple of blues jams worldwide. This example is similar to Freddie King’s 1971 version from his album Getting Ready [Shelter], featuring the steady hands of Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass. This funky, laid-back version is the polar opposite of the raved-up approach King took on subsequent live recordings, but the bass line features a classic pattern that arpeggiates the dominant 7 chord. The recording originates in the key of D (D Mixolydian, actually) but modulates to G Mixolydian for the guitar solo and final verses.
Example 2 is the eight-bar form that “Trouble in Mind” follows—the version referenced is a 1957 Big Joe Turner recording, backed by Choker Campbell and His Orchestra on Atlantic Records. This track is a classic example of an arpeggiated triad line with a 12/8 feel (think Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill”), but the one piece out of place is the slightly awkward handling of the turnaround in bar 8. The final cadence in bars 7 and 8 is typically treated with a I– IV–I–V movement (two beats per chord), but the bassist (unknown) plays the I–IV in bar 7, followed by a scale line that ends on the tonic (G) on beat four of bar 8—only to repeat that note immediately on beat one at the top of the next chorus. Listening through the track, I hoped he might come up with something more functional in the second or third chorus, but no such luck. During my research for this column, I found several progressions used for “Trouble in Mind,” ranging from a bare bones I–IV–V to full-blown jazz re-harmonizations with extra II–V’s—all fulfilling the harmonic function, albeit differently. This example follows a I–III7–IV–IVm–I–V progression with the last two bars being the final cadence discussed above.
Other notable tunes with eight-bar blues forms are “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” “Staggerlee,” “Sitting on Top of the World,” “Walking by Myself,” “Worried Life Blues,” and “Heartbreak Hotel,” to name a few. While the 12-bar form still accounts for the vast majority of the blues repertoire, an informed bassist knows which tunes vary from the norm and is ready to play them in any key, with any feel, and with any possible harmonic variation.
Ed Friedland plays, writes, and teaches out of his bass base in Austin, Texas.