What is a turnaround? The turnaround functions to literally turn the chord progression around. One place you can almost always find a turnaround is at the last two measures of a 12-bar blues progression. Keep in mind, there are other lengths of blues progressions as well, but for now, we will keep it on the 12-bar progression.
The turnaround in blues
In a 12-bar blues progression, the turnaround has one purpose: to set up a repeat of the 12-bar chorus. When the 5(V) chord appears in measure 12 to signal the resolution to the 1(I) chord, the turnaround turns the chord progression around, back to the 1(I) chord. If the measure stays on the 1(I) chord, the turnaround creates a tension and anticipation to build momentum, motion and drive back to the 1(I) chord for a repeat or for the final resolution at the end of a song. Turnarounds can and do show up anywhere and everywhere in a progression: intros, verses, solos, endings and so on. The turnaround also helps to separate the sections of a song.
In a more songwriter/pop situation, the turnaround functions as a section that follows the chorus and either gets you back to the verse or takes you to the Bridge.
In a basic 12 bar blues progression, the harmonic movement occurs from the 1(I) chord to the 5(V) chord in measures 11-12 of the progression. In a slow blues, the turnaround typically moves from the 1(I) chord to the 4(IV) chord in measure 11 and the from the 1(I) chord to the 5(V) chord in measure 12, with each chord receiving two beats in the measure.
Download this image as a PDF: Turnarounds & 12 Bar Blues
It is a really good idea to know several turnaround licks, in the open position, across the guitar neck and in every key. Guitar players love the keys of G, E, D, A…you know, the guitar keys! Horn players and pianists love the flat keys and you DO NOT want to be stepping on landmines in Ab because you haven’t done your homework!
The turnaround is older than you might think
You may take comfort, or feel more pressure, in knowing that the ending of a verse on the 5(V) chord and resolving to the 1(I) chord is found as far back as the mid 1500s in the Renaissance period (roughly 1400-1600). Harmony and chord progressions/changes weren’t “a thing” yet. Music up to this point was written and experienced as linear, independent lines. This is called polyphony and it consists of several simultaneous melodies.
But if you take a snapshot of some monks or country folks singing these independent lines and look at the end result horizontally (harmonically) instead of in a linear fashion (melodically), the end result is…harmony! Chords!
If you are feeling a bit wild on a Friday night, check out some modal English folk tunes from this period. In these songs you will begin to hear how the direction of the vocal line and musical accompaniment was implying the changes. It’s worth noting that the next musical period, the Baroque, began around 1600 and lasted roughly to 1750. During the Baroque, homophonic music (melody with chordal harmony) along with polyphonic music, was created and performed. Did the 12-bar blues kick off a revolution then too??
Put the turnaround to work
I believe a little music theory goes a long way, usually too long. So, the best way to hear and understand turnarounds is to learn a bunch of them to have in your bag of tricks and licks when needed! To get you started, here are five turnaround licks in five keys. All of these turnarounds are in the open position and we will explore other turnarounds soon!
Five Turnarounds in Five Keys
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