Breaking Down the Blues, Pt 4: The Minor Blues Progression

Warren Haynes

This is the fourth part in my ‘Breaking Down the Blues’ series. In the previous parts, I covered the 12 bar blues progression, the extended box pattern of the blues scale, and I demonstrated some blues licks. Here are links to the previous parts:

In part four, I’ll talk about the second most common chord progression in the blues: the minor blues progression. In comparison with the progression I had covered in part one (which I’ll now refer to as the major blues progression), the minor blues progression has a darker, smoother sound to it.

There are a number of similarities between the minor blues progression and the major blues progression:

  • They both are 12 bars long.
  • Both feature the I, IV and V chords (although the numerals are lower case in the minor blues progression).
  • The blues scale can be used to solo over both progressions.

There are also a few differences, which I’ll talk about below. I’ll also demonstrate how to put the progression together in a couple different keys, and go over some blues tunes that use this progression.

Form 1

There are actually quite a few variations of the minor blues progression out there. Most of these variations are slight deviations from two common forms of the progression, both of which I’ll cover in this lesson. I’ll start by going over the form that is the most similar to the major blues progression. This form of the minor blues progression uses 4 chords: the i chord, the iv chord, the v chord, and the V chord.

The i, iv, and v chords will all be minor 7th chords, and are therefore indicated by lower case roman numerals. The V chord will be a dominant 7th chord, which is the same type of chord used for all the chords in the major blues progression. The key of the the chord progression will determine exactly which chords will be used.

I’ll start by showing the progression in the key of A minor:

A minor blues progression form 1

In the key of A minor, the A minor 7 chord (Am7) is the i chord. The D minor 7 chord (Dm7) is the iv chord, Em7 is v, and E7 is V. As you can see, from a roman numeral standpoint the progression is the same as the major blues progression. Here’s a chart showing this progression in roman numerals instead of chords:

Form 1 of minor blues progression roman numerals

You can go about figuring out the chords for the key you are playing in using the same method that I outlined in my article about the major blues progression. To do so, you’ll just need to know the notes on the 6th and 5th strings of the guitar, and a few movable chord shapes. In case you don’t know the notes on the 6th and 5th strings, here’s a diagram showing them:

The notes on the 6th and 5th strings

To locate the i, iv and v/V chords in any key, start by finding the root note of the i chord on the 6th string. The root note of iv will then be on the same fret but on the 5th string, and the root of v and V will be two frets higher than iv. Here’s a diagram of what I describe, with the root notes of i, iv and v/V in the key of A minor:

i iv and v on the fretboard in A minor

Then, just build the chords you need off those root notes using some movable chord shapes. There are many ways you could do these chords, but here are some movable chords I like to use in this type of situation:

Minor Blues Movable Chord Shapes

You just need to position these chords so that their root notes (indicated by the circle with an R in it) are on the notes I diagrammed above. To do these chords specifically as Am7, Dm7, Em7 and E7, they would be like this:

Am7 Dm7 Em7 E7 Chord Diagrams

For an example of doing this in another key, lets put together the progression in G minor. First, let’s find the root notes of our chords:

Fretboard root notes for i iv V Gm

Our root notes are G for I, C for iv, and D for v/V. So, our chords would be Gm7, Cm7, Dm7, and D7. Here’s how you could do them using the movable chord shapes:

Gm7 Cm7 Dm7 D7 chord diagrams

Let’s plug them in to our 12 bar progression:

Chart for G minor blues progression Form 1

And there you have it, the G minor blues progression.

Form 2

Now let’s go over another form of the minor blues progression. This one is equally, if not more, common than form 1 of the progression. It’s very similar to form 1 in that it will still feature the i, iv and V chords. It will also feature the VI chord, and the 12 bar progression will be slightly different than form 1. First, let’s look at the roman numerals of the 12 bar progression:

Chart minor blues progression Form 2 roman numerals

The progression is exactly the same as form 1 except for the 9th and 10th bars, where we now have the VI chord going to V. Locating the VI chord is easy: its root note will just be a half step above V. Here’s a diagram showing where it would be if we were in the key of A minor:

Fretboard with root notes for i iv V VI in A minor

The VI chord will be a dominant 7th chord, just like V. If we are in the key of A minor, the VI chord would be an F7, making all our chords for the progression Am7 (i), Dm7 (iv), E7 (V), and F7 (VI). So, form 2 of the A minor blues progression would be this:

Chart  for A minor blues progression Form 2

Chord diagrams for Am7 Dm7 E7 F7

If we were to put the progression together in G minor, our VI chord would be Eb7, and therefore our progression and chords would be this:

Chart for G minor blues progression Form 2

Chord diagrams for Gm7 Cm7 D7 Eb7

Scales and Soloing Over the Progression

When it comes to soloing over both forms of the minor blues progression, there are a number of choices available to you. An advanced guitarist taking more of a jazz approach to soloing over this progression might use a handful of modal scales, as well as some usage of the harmonic or melodic minor scale. Regardless of the approach or style that is being used, the blues scale would feature heavily in any guitarist’s scale choice, and it can sound great even if it’s the only scale used.

For both form 1 and 2 of the A minor blues progression, you could use the A blues scale (meaning the A minor pentatonic scale, plus the blues note). For the G minor blues progression, you could use the G blues scale. If you’re unsure of what I mean about this, go ahead and check out part 2 of this series for a broader description.

Minor Blues Songs

To wrap things up, I thought I’d list out some songs that use the minor blues progression. This progression can be found in many styles of music. Obviously it’s often found in blues songs, but you’ll see it at least occasionally in rock, funk, soul, and jazz as well.

Some jazz tunes:

  • Mr. PC by John Coltrane (form 2 in C minor)
  • Equinox by John Coltrane (form 2 in C# minor)
  • Birk’s Works by Dizzy Gillespie (form 2 in F minor)
  • Stolen Moments by Oliver Nelson (form 2 in C minor during the solos)

A couple rock songs that use the progression are:

  • Long Train Running by The Doobie Brothers (form 2 in G minor)
  • Shine On You Crazy Diamond by Pink Floyd (form 2 in G minor only during the keyboard, sax and guitar solos)

Some blues tunes you’ll hear it in:

  • The Thrill is Gone by B.B. King (form 2 in B minor)
  • As The Years Go Passing By by Albert King (a slightly modified form 2 in B minor)
  • Life is Hard by Johnny Winter (a slightly modified form 1 in C minor)

Warren Haynes photo credit: iaintright / CC BY-NC-SA

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