Jazz up your Blues

Wes Montgomery

I thought about calling this post ”Introduction to Non-diatonic (Chromatic) Chord Substitution by Adding root movement”, but ”Jazz up you blues” sounded so much sexier. So today’s jazzing up is all about transforming a simple 12 bar blues. Make no mistake, jazz is born of the blues, so the common ground exists.
So what are we up to here? Well, the unwritten rule of jazz musicians is, ”If it ain’t broke, fix it anyway.” In other words we love to add chords and create complex harmonic situations. One way of doing this is to take advantage of the natural gravity of music (cycle of 5ths) and cadences. In the following chart, I have a dozen sets of blues changes. As you move down the variations, I add more and more substitutions and movement.

Some things to think about.

  • Mix and match the progressions. Create your own variations by using bits and pieces of the 12 listed.
  • When comping over jazz-blues, it is common practice to add in some of these sounds regardless of what changes the band is playing. In other words, if the bass player is playing: | C7 | C7 | F7 | , it sounds perfectly ok to comp | C7 | Gm7 C7 | F7 |. Experiment and find the sounds you like.
  • Blues soloing is primarly blues scale (minor pentatonic) based while most jazz solos are more harmonically specific, targeting chord tones. So to sound more jazzy… target chord tones(especially 3rds and 7ths) of the substitute changes. Better yet, approach the chord tones chromatically (with half-steps). Oh boy, this is a huge topic. I better shut-up
  • A lot of these chord changes are ii-V (ex: Dm7, G7) and ii-V-I (ex. Dm7, G7, Cmaj7) based. Have a look at my post on [cref 180 comping 251 voicings] for some ideas.
  • Practice in all keys and use a metronome or some backing tracks.
  • Pick a set of changes and write a blues tune over it. (Jazzy Blues, Riff blues, Call and Response, doesn’t matter what type..just write)
  • The “Parker” version comes from Charlie Parker’s song ”Blues for Alice” and the “Extreme” example is derived from the John Coltrane Giant Steps matrix.

The Raw Material

12 Bar Blues Variations

12 Bar Blues Variations

Backing Tracks

Here are a few backing tracks you can jam with and audition a few of the variations.
C Blues: Swing 140bpm Variation 2
C Blues:Shuffle 110bpm Variation 7
C Blues: Rock 100bpm Variation 10

Learn More:

Jazzin’ the Blues: A Complete Guide to Learning Jazz-Blues Guitar (Book & CD) : You have it all here. Jam packed with great information. ie. seventh chord structures, ii-V-I progressions, extended ii-V-I progressions, secondary dominant chords, flat-five substitution, minor blues harmony, major & minor chord substitutions, and on and on…

Mel Bay’s Modern Blues Private Lessons Series: This is a cool book! Lots of work with 4th voicings. Great ideas to get new colors into your playing. Highly recommended!


Here are some recordings that I own and that might be considered on the bluesy side of jazz. Perhaps a good starting place for blues musicians getting into jazz. This is only a tiny sampling of what is out there. If I hear a jazz recording I like, I check to see who is playing on it. I then explore those musicians, and so on.

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4 Responses to Jazz up your Blues

  1. carl larson says:

    can you tell me what software you use to make fretboard diagrams.

  2. John says:

    You have put together an incredible site here that is generous and comprehensive beyond belief. Do you have any idea how hard it is to find a clear explanation of anything to do with jazz: let me tell you, it’s a daunting task that I have yet to accomplish. This is the type of material I ‘ve been looking for, for years, without much luck. You have a solid, logical approach to presenting and teaching the material. You must be a great in-person teacher. I’ve gone back to your earliest posts to see where you started, and you start right where I want to begin . . . with the blues. Your efforts are much appreciated. Pleae don’t stop now.

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