The 12 bar blues song structure is one of the genre’s signature styles, but it also finds a home in most rock music. Early contributions from legends like Robert Johnson put the standard on the map, and modern greats like Buddy Guy perfected it.
Featuring 12 measures per progression, the structure uses three chords and repeating lines in verses to tell stories of heartache, love, hard times, and dramatic triumphs. Here are the best 12 bar blues songs that are prime examples of this style.
Johnny B. Goode – Chuck Berry
A key figure in the early rock and roll movement of the ’50s, Chuck Berry, released ‘Johnny B. Goode’ as an autobiographical tale. The song tells the story of a young boy gifted with some serious guitar skills who grows up to become a famous musician. While the single is considered one of rock’s historic musical pieces, Berry relied on classic blues solos, riffs, and rhythm for the instrumentation.
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Rock and Roll – Led Zeppelin
Most of rock and roll, including its most popular hits, has roots in the 12 bar blues structure, including Led Zeppelin’s track ‘Rock and Roll.’ Bandmate and lyricist Robert Plant used the song as an opportunity to respond to critics suggesting that their recent releases of the day weren’t really rock music.
Hound Dog – Elvis Presley
In-demand 1950s songwriting duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller penned this sassy track for Big Mama Thornton, who recorded it in 1952. The lyrics highlight a woman who’s confessing she’s had enough of her no-good man. Four years after Thornton, Elvis Presley released his popular, rocked-out version of the hit song in ’56.
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The Thrill is Gone – B.B. King
Musician Roy Hawkins originally wrote this love-gone-wrong track in 1951. At the time, B.B. King was a radio DJ. He loved Hawkins’ work and played ‘The Thrill is Gone’ on his on-air show. He eventually recorded it, becoming one of the blues’ most enduring tunes. Many artists have covered it, including Eric Clapton and Tracy Chapman.
Related: Here are the most popular blues songs.
Can’t Buy Me Love – The Beatles
Listing several ways money can’t buy someone love even though it can buy them countless material possessions, ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ was songwriter Paul McCartney’s first run at writing a traditional 12 bar blues song. It also marked the first time a Beatles hit featured a single singer.
Related: This song features on our playlist of songs with love in them.
Crossroads – Eric Clapton
Every blues musician has tried their hand at some point with ‘Crossroads,’ early delta musician Robert Johnson’s legendary number. The tune features a classic blues structure with its signature “turn around” at the end of the 12 bar blues progression invented by Johnson himself. Clapton recorded his version while with his band Cream. Their rendition is a mashup of two Johnson songs: ‘Crossroads’ and ‘Traveling Riverside Blues.’
Ball and Biscuit – The White Stripes
Behind The White Stripes’ evasive modern tune ‘Ball and Biscuit’ is a mythical story rooted in southern blues folklore known as “The Seventh Son.’ This tale postulates the seventh son born to a seventh son will be endowed with supernatural powers. Early prominent blues writers like Willie Dixon also covered the myth in their own works.
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Pride and Joy – Stevie Ray Vaughan
This Texas blues rocker ignited Stevie Ray Vaughan’s career, who was a little-known musician at the time. He released it on his seminal album, Texas Flood, as the first single. ‘Pride and Joy’ features Vaughan professing his love to his woman in between cleanly delivered blistering blues solos.
Tush – ZZ Top
VH1 named ZZ Tops’ ‘Tush’ one of the best hard rock songs ever recorded. Despite this accolade, this energetic single from the “little band from Texas” is pure blues gold. Though guitarist Billy Gibbons often takes on lead vocals, for this hit, late bassist Dusty Hill commanded the mic. Full of swagger, ‘Tush’ finds the band heading downtown looking for a good time.
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Tutti Frutti – Little Richard
In the small town of Macon, Georgia, in 1955, Richard Penniman worked as a dishwasher at a restaurant. While he worked, he also wrote songs in his head. That same year he’d become known as Little Richard and released his debut album featuring ‘Tutti Frutti,’ one of the songs he wrote while working in the service industry. It contains his signature catchphrase: “Awap bop a lup bop a wop bam boom!”
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I Got You – James Brown
Funky soul meets the blues with James Brown’s 1964 hit, ‘I Got You.’ With grooving brasswork and catchy, easy-to-remember lyrics like “I feel good, I knew that I would now,’ Brown’s soulful voice and high-energy performance make this single one of his most popular recordings.
Related: If you need to cheer up, you’ll love our list of the best uplifting songs.
All Your Love – John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers
In 1966, John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers paired up with guitarist Eric Clapton for their collaborative album. Featured on the project is the high-energy track ‘All Your Love.’ The amped-up scorcher draws heavily from the blues revival happening at the time in London.
Rock Around the Clock – Bill Haley & His Comets
First written in 1952 by Max C. Freedman and James E. Myers, ‘Rock Around the Clock’ is often in competition with Hank William’s ‘Move It on Over’ as the first rock single title. In 1954, Billy Haley and His Comets released a recording of the song, and it became a wildly successful hit. It would become the theme song to the popular TV show Happy Days.
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Blue and Lonesome – The Rolling Stones
When The Stones hit a metaphorical brick wall after days of recording in London, guitarist Keith Richards suggested they have an impromptu jam session to regain inspiration. Their producer kept the tape rolling, and they sprung into Memphis Slim’s 1949 melancholy tune ‘Blue and Lonesome.’ The band loved the recording so much that they included it on their 2016 album, named after the blues standard.
Give Me One Reason – Tracy Chapman
Though aspiring musician Tracy Chapman wrote ‘Give Me One Reason’ in the ’80s, it wouldn’t be released until ’96. The hit single won a Grammy for Best Rock Song, but it’s best categorized as a modern blues classic. With her deep, gentle vocals, Chapman effortlessly combines genres like folk, blues, and rock to tell relatable stories. This combination leads critics to classify her style as “folk revival.”
Red House – Jimi Hendrix
Soft-spoken guitarist Jimi Hendrix invented a new genre all his own he described as an “experience.” While he constructed many tunes easily categorized as rock and roll, he always chased writing the elusive original blues standard. ‘Red House,’ written before he reached international fame, was the first original he felt captured the 12 bar blues structure. With a tortured romance at its core, the original recording runs about 13 minutes.
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Boom Boom – John Lee Hooker, Jr.
While Hooker’s song ‘Boogie Chillen” sold more than 1 million units, his tune ‘Boom Boom’ would go on to become his trademark track. He wrote it in 1948 when he had a standing gig at a Detroit bar. He usually showed up late, and every time he did, the bartender would jokingly say, “Boom, boom. You’re late again.” Hooker loved the term and wrote it into his song after he couldn’t get it out of his head.
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Call Me the Breeze – Lynyrd Skynyrd
“Call me the breeze. I keep blowin’ down the road.” Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd covered this popular J.J. Cale blues track in ’74, two years after Cale first released the song. In typical Skynyrd fashion, the song follows a traveling man who can’t be tied down to one particular woman.
Folsom Prison Blues – Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash’s original recording of ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ is technically considered an 11 bar blues song by guitar aficionados. Chances are, if you’ve played the hit single yourself or heard Cash’s subsequent live versions, you’re probably following a 12 bar blues structure. This outlaw-themed track features a convict dreaming about the nightly train that goes by his cell and how it represents freedom and imprisonment.
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Have You Ever Loved a Woman – Derek and the Dominos
Eric Clapton added Freddie King’s ‘Have You Ever Loved a Woman’ to his long list of treasured blues covers while playing with Derek and the Dominos in 1975. Penned by songwriter Billy Myles, King was the first to record this languid blues ballad in 1960.
Hoochie Coochie Man – Muddy Waters
Songwriter Willie Dixon is responsible for many blues classics, including ‘Hoochie Coochie Man.’ When Muddy Waters decided he wanted to record Dixon’s track, the songwriter advised Waters from a creative perspective to get the styling right. When Waters stepped into the studio to record the track, Dixon played bass. The song is based loosely on fabled stories about magic cultures like Voodoo.
Move It on Over – George Thorogood
Often considered rock and roll’s first single, country singer Hank Williams first recorded ‘Move It on Over’ in 1947. The song tells the story of a man who was not allowed in his home by his wife because he stayed out too late again partying with friends. Blues musician George Thorogood and his band The Delaware Destroyers released a cover of the humorous track, and their version became a huge hit.
Kansas City – Wilbert Harrison
Written by the songwriting duo of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, ‘Kansas City’ was a popular track throughout the 1950s, with several different artists recording the blues standard. The song’s title pays tribute to famed musicians Count Basie and Charlie Parker, who often recorded their music in Kansas City. Wilbert Harrison contributed a popular rendition of the tune in 1959.
Mustang Sally – Buddy Guy
One of the blues’ most covered songs, ‘Mustang Sally’ features a fast-moving woman who doesn’t pay much attention to her sugar daddy. Buddy Guy’s long career has allowed him to play with many of his fellow blues greats. Because he’s one of the remaining pioneers, he often covers their songs to keep their legacies alive. Along with ‘Mustang Sally,’ he’s covered classics like ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ and ‘Ain’t No Sunshine.’
Related: This song is on our roster of songs with a woman’s name.
Directly from My Heart to You – Frank Zappa
Five minutes of swampy blues-rock is executed by Frank Zappa and his band The Mothers of Invention with Little Richard’s track ‘Directly from my Heart to You.’ This enigmatic tune is a Zappa fan-favorite featuring haunting, howling vocals and wailing electric violin by Don “Sugarcane” Harris.
Viola Lee Blues – Grateful Dead
An early set-list favorite for the Grateful Dead, ‘Viola Lee Blues’ was one of the band’s first dynamic jam tracks. They borrowed the tune from the late 1920s when Gus Cannon’s Jug Band first recorded it. The Dead added their psychedelic, multi-dimensional sound when they covered it with dark harmonies, moody chords, and a killer groove.
Rave On – Buddy Holly
A fast-timed blues shuffle backs Buddy Holly’s early rock party anthem, ‘Rave On.’ The late ’50s tune was written by songwriting trio Sonny West, Bill Tilghman, and Norman Petty. The musicians were inspired by the use of Carl Perkins’ phrase “rave on” in his song ‘Dixie Fred.’
I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For – U2
Radio-friendly rock-pop at its finest, listeners might not realize U2’s hit ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ fits the 12 bar blues category. Guitarist The Edge worked out the melody while Bono wrote up the lyrics. The song’s theme deals with the push and pulls between “doubt and faith.”
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Rock Me Baby – Johnny Winter
Featuring Winter’s blistering licks, his cover of B.B. King’s ‘Rock Me Baby’ appears on his ’73 album Still Alive and Well. The hard-driving tune follows a standard 3-chord progression found in 12 bar blues songs, and Winter’s enticing riffs are delivered using the notes of the popular bluesy A-minor pentatonic scale.
Strange Brew – Cream
Fueled by current cultural events of the time, Cream’s sound, especially when it came to their track ‘Strange Brew,’ was heavily influenced by the counterculture hippie movement. The song was released in ’67, the same year the notorious “Summer of Love” took place in California. The mind-bending tune tells the story of a woman up to no good who’s a bad influence on the men around her.
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Sweet Home Chicago – Robert Johnson
Dating all the way back to 1936, pioneering delta blues artist Robert Johnson recorded his song ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ in San Antonio, Texas. With haunting vocals and an intricate picking pattern on the guitar, Johnson tells the story of a traveler leaving the south to find a better life in Chicago, Illinois.
Related: Head over to our playlist of Chicago songs.
The Jack – AC/DC
Notorious party boys, AC/DC song ‘The Jack’ is about their wild sexual habits. Most of the time, the band was more focused on the musical side of their writing rather than the lyrical. Like most of their others, this tune was penned from a slightly humorous perspective they enjoyed writing in.