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This post is part of a series called An In-depth Look at Playing Guitar (Premium).
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In this guitar tutorial I'll show you some of the many ways you can play turnarounds in Blues. The examples are based more around something you might do when filling in a rhythm guitar part as opposed to a lead approach. We'll look at some simple ascending and descending ideas as well as the I-VI-II-V turnaround which is also common in Blues.


While these examples only cover the tip of the iceberg this tutorial should give you a few ideas of how to play and expand some common Blues turnarounds. The ideas are mostly played over a slow Blues although they can be adapted to any style from Shuffles to Blues Rock. This is aimed at the beginner but contains some more taxing theory towards the end for the more Intermediate player, mainly concerning Tritone Substitutions. It's not important to understand the theory as you can just follow the music.

What Is a Turnaround?

In Blues the turnaround happens in the last two bars of a 12 Bar format. This chord progression has been used in countless songs both in Blues, Jazz and Pop music. Despite being incredibly simple in theory it is actually harmonically quite complex allowing the musician to create an endless amount of variations in melody over the top of it. This is mostly down to the fact that the Blues form of the progression is composed of Dominant 7 chords which creates parallel Major and Minor keys as one chord moves to another. The I and IV chord being a prime example. This shift in harmony is very interesting to the ear!

The Turnaround itself contains a very strong cadence ending with the V chord which naturally wants to resolve back to the I chord. It's kind of how the progression regenerates itself, taking you back to the start.

There are many variations on this 12 bar format which has been experimented with over the years. Jazz players have taken the harmony even further by messing with Dominant 7 chord theory to produce more complex harmonies using Altered 7 chords and Melodic Minor modes. I'll cover some ways you can apply this at the end.

The deciding factor in what kind of turnaround you can do is largely dependent on which way the Bass moves from the I chord in Bar 11 to the the V chord in Bar 12. You mostly have a descending bass line, like this.

Or an ascending bass line like this.

The following examples are based on descending and ascending runs. Saying that you can have ideas that use both, as the two together create a perfect counterpoint line. So let's start with some descending ideas. In most of the examples I'll give you a way you can resolve back to the I chord using some common phrases. All the examples are in A but they are easily transposed to any key. Again, all the examples correspond to the last two Bars of the 12 Bar format. Bar 1 is the I chord and Bar 2 is the V chord with the last bar being the start of a new round.


Ex 1

This is probably the most common and basic blues turnarounds. The lower note follows the descending bass line while the root note of the key is pedaled in the higher register. The V chord is approached from a semitone above in Bar 2 and the resolve at the end approaches the I chord from a semitone below. The notes I'm using at the end for the approach are the Flat 7 and Major 3rd of an Ab Dominant chord. These are the strongest notes of the chord (a Tritone (b5) apart) and don't even need the Root to spell the chord out.

Ex 2

This is a more rhythmic variation on the example above and very common. The phrase at the end uses a very common move where the Major 3rd of the Dominant triad is approached from the Minor 3rd.

Ex 3

Again, another variation on the example above with a more complex harmony. This should be a very familiar sound. There are a number of ways to play this lick but I've chosen the Root note on the B string as it's easy to transpose as a shape. The phrase at the end is a cut down version of the previous example.

Ex 4

This is the same phrase as the example above but I've just moved the lowest note of the descending run an octave higher. The Root pedal is moved to the 5th fret to accommodate the phrase. This gives a more dense cluster of notes that sound pretty cool. At the end I approach the I chord (A13) from above using the same Dominant 13th voicing for a Jazzier sound! Bar 2 has a nice Bluesy double stop idea to get to the V chord. The final I chord is now approached chromatically from a tone below, another common trick!

Ex 5

No surprise this is the same phrase harmonically than Ex 3 but this time the whole descending double stop is transposed an octave (not just the lower note). This goes to prove there's a lot of mileage in the same notes!! It's a completely different sound yet exactly the same!


So here are some ascending ideas.

Ex 6

Here's a very simple ascending idea. Much the same as Ex 2 but using the rising bass line.

Ex 7

Here's a very simple double stop idea that creates a nice 13th interval from the rising line. Shouldn't really work but it does! Finishes of with a nice Major blues feel.

These examples fuse both the Ascending and Descending lines together. They work as a really nice counterpoint to each other creating some nice chord movement.

Ex 8

Here's a great example of the two lines moving against each other. This is going on on the D and B strings in Bar 1. If you find it a handful you can omit the high A on the top string for the first bar, it will work just as well. In Bar 2 I'm approaching the top part of an E9 chord from two frets above. The phrase finishes with a common lick that moves into a partial A9 chord from two frets above. The root for this chord would be on the E string, 5th fret. You can use this move over any Dom 7 chord.

Ex 9

Another simple double stop idea. The ascending line is played in the lower register while the line descends in the higher register. On beats 3 and 4 of Bar 1 I kept the F# on the B string for some different harmony. Bar 2 is an E9(sus4) an then a moody E7(#9) rounded off with a variation on the previous example.

Ex 10

This example demonstrates the actual chords generated by the previous example. This is similar to how a piano player might approach this, so good to know if there isn't one around! It starts on an A7 and moves to the second inversion of A7 (with the 3rd in the bass). On beat 3 we have a D7 (IV chord) then into an Eb diminished chord on beat 4. The V chord is an E7(sus4) which has a softer sound and is great for playing either Major or Minor Blues licks over. These changes are very 'Gospel'.

Ex 11

Same again but this time I'm voicing it so the harmony rises more. Notice how I play on the symmetrical nature of the the diminished chord to move the harmony up. The V chord is an E7(#9), an Altered Dominant chord. The chord that follows is a Bb13, it's Tritone substitution! Notice the top of the chord is the same but the bass note is moved a b5 away to Bb. All altered Dominant 7 chords have a Tritone Substitution, more on this later!

The I-VI-II-V Turnaround

The I-VI-II-V turnaround is quite common in Blues and has migrated in from Jazz which funnily is influenced by Blues! This is a popular replacement for the I-V turnaround we've seen previously. Here's some examples.

Ex 12

In a Blues context the I-VI-II-V is played using all Dominant 7 chords. In trad Jazz or Pop this may be done using the diatonic chords I-vi-ii-V (the lowercase numerals being minor chords). Here's the basic turnaround using stock Dominant 7 chords.

Ex 13

The above example isn't that exciting. We can make this a bit more convincing by Altering a couple of the chords. In Jazz the only chord that is technically Altered is a Dominant chord as opposed to say classical theory where alterations are waved about willy nilly. An Altered chord (to me) is any Dominant 7 that has it's 5th or 9th raised or lowered a semitone. Hence all the b9, #9, b5 and #5 chords you see in Jazz. You could have E7(#5/b9). This can all get pretty complex especially when it comes to the scales that go over these chords! This would be a much hipper way of voicing these chords using Altered Dominants.

Ex 14

Here's a typical approach to this scenario. Notice our Tritone substitution at the end! This adds more movement to the chords and creates a more 'leading' sound.

Ex 15

So I guess this is the ultimate example of how you would use Tritone Substitution to add movement to all the chords. Starting on beat 3 of Bar 1 each Altered Dom 7 chord is followed by another Dom 7 chord which is created by moving the preceding chords root note a b5 away! Phew! You might notice that the (#9) chords create a 13 chord and the (#5) creates a 9 chord. You might also notice that the substitutions all sit a half step above the chord they're leading into, which is nice!! Don't worry if you don't quite get this, just enjoy the sound!

Ex 16

The last example uses the same idea but this time just moves down chromatically using the substituted voicings. We have the I chord which is a 13 chord (1-3-7-9-13 as you can't fully voice this on a guitar without three hands). The next chord on beat 3 is a C13 which we are substituting for the VI chord (F#7(#9)). On beat 1 of Bar 2 we have an unaltered II chord, just a straight B13 and the a Bb13 substituting for the V chord (E#7(#9)). This creates a nice alternative to the I-VI-II-V, which it technically is. You'll hear this a lot in Big Band turnarounds. Brian Setzer uses this a lot!

To thin this out a bit so it's not too clashy with the bass just omit the low E string.


So that's it folks. There's loads more I could do but I'm out of time. All these ideas can be modified, transposed and played with. Next time you hear a turnaround try working it out and adding it to your library. like I said these sorts of things are for use in comping and rhythm guitar but can be added to solos as well. Enjoy!

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