In the language of the blues, the term turnaround refers to a musical figure played over the I and V chords in the last two bars, setting up the form to repeat. Many classic blues turnarounds are built on a simple phrase that descends chromatically (i.e., in half steps) from the minor seventh to the fifth of the I chord. (For that matter, many blues tunes open with a turnaround.)

A Blues Turnarounds
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E Blues Turnarounds   PDF Download


The most common type of blues turnaround riff is one that employs the simple descending line in FIGURE 1. Starting on beat two of this lick’s opening bar (which, of course, is measure 11 in the 12-bar cycle), this chromatic descent drops you from the 7 to the 5 (D to B, here in the key of E), leading you straight to the V chord (B7).

Tip: Most blues turnarounds (this one included) work equally well as intros, which is why you so often hear them used as two­ bar pickups at the beginning of blues tunes. They also work as song endings, in which case the final chord is usually changed from the V to the I (for example, B7 becomes E7, in the key of E).

“This little descending line is so universal, it transcends the blues. Once you begin studying music seriously, you start recognizing it everywhere, in great songs from every genre.”


While FIGURE 1’s line is eternally useful, it is a bit bare-bones. It’s more a bass part than it is a blues guitar lick. With so many strings at your disposal, why not flesh things out with some high-E jangle, as in FIGURE 2  While playing this phrase, let the high E continue ringing each time you pick it (or pluck it, if you’re employing a fingerstyle or hybrid pick-and-fingers attack), and it will a generate compelling Billy Gibbons­–style quarter-note cross-rhythm against the 12/8 bass part below.


Another approach to dressing up FIGURE 1’s classic blues descent is simply to add par­allel harmony, as in FIGURE 3, where our fifth­ string walk-down is harmonized with a parallel melody on the third string, while ringing open strings cheer us on.


Also, know that your b7-to-5 descent doesn’t have to be on a low string, as in FIGURE 4, which transplants the b7-to-5 line up to the second string.


There are countless ways to play this blues descent. FIGURE 5. Here, you see the line on the fourth string.”


The interesting thing is that sometimes, even if you start your descent on a chord tone other than the b7, you can still imply the 7-5 drop, as we do in FIGURE 6. Here, we have parallel four-note descents-one on the second string (starting on the 3, B) and one on the fourth string (starting on the 5, G)—while the open third string adds chime throughout. Tip: This lick sounds extra saucy if your bass player does descend from the b7 (F).

The other line you hear all time in blues turnarounds is the one that rises chromatically from the 3 to the 5. In the key of E, this line (which again starts on the lick’s second beat) carries you from G# up to B, as in FIGURE 7.


Transplant this classic blues ascent up an octave and add a little melodic sequence pattern, and you have FIGURE 8, which evokes the famous turnaround in “Tell Me,” by Howlin’ Wolf.


Bump it up yet another octave so it occurs on the second string, add parallel harmony on the fourth string, and things start to sound fuller, as in FIGURE 9.


For a more sophisticated approach to the blues ascent, move to the key of G and take a spin through FIGURE 10, a tasty, slow 12/8 closer in the style of Larry Carlton’s final lick on “B.P. Blues,” off his 1986 live album, Last Night. Can you spot the blues ascent in this example? It’s in the chord symbols. You’ll hear it if, starting on beat two of bar 1, you play the lowest note in each symbol (B-C-C#-D), as a bass player reading the chart would. Start this example whisper-quiet, gradually building to a crescendo by the final bII-I (Ab13-G13).