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Unlocking the Secrets of Blues Piano for New Players

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Practice Actions:

C Blues & Pentatonic Scales
Easy Accompaniment
Five Rhythms
Five Blues Licks
Advanced Accompaniment with Licks

Content:

How To Play Blues Piano for
Absolute Beginners on Jazz Piano

I'm going to show you how to play blues piano in this mini lesson. We'll break everything down into eight simple steps, covering chords, rhythms, licks, accompaniments, and more. By the end of this lesson, you'll be able to play a blues head note for note. Let's begin!

Step 1: Basic Blues Chords

First, let's start with chords. In the key of C, we'll use three dominant seventh chords: C7, F7, and G7. These chords are our foundation for the blues. Instead of playing these chords in a block style, we'll use chord shells, which means we'll leave out the fifth note to open up the sound.

  • C7 Chord Shell: Root, third, and seventh.
  • F7 Chord Shell: Root, third, and seventh (or just root and seventh if it sounds too muddy).
  • G7 Chord Shell: Root, third, and seventh.

Step 2: Rhythm of the Blues

Blues music often uses a swung rhythm. This means the eighth notes are played in a triplet feel rather than straight. For example, instead of playing "1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and," in blues piano you would usually use a swung eighth-note feel.

The underlying rhythm is triplet based:

We then leave out the middle triplet to create a swung feel.

Reading swung eighth notes like this is not very natural. Instead, we normally write the rhythm as simple eighth notes that we swing:

We use a rhythmic vocalization method to make it easier to feel the swing rhythm. This vocalization is covered in detail in our Rhythm Essentials series of lessons.

Rhythm is the backbone of music, providing structure and a sense of timing. In blues piano, mastering rhythm is crucial because it helps to convey the groove and emotional depth characteristic of the genre. Without a solid understanding of rhythm, even the most technically proficient players can sound disjointed or unconvincing.

Step 3: Blues Piano Scales

Two important scales to know are the blues scale and the minor pentatonic scale. For the C blues scale, the notes are C, E♭, F, F♯, G, B♭, and C. The minor pentatonic scale is similar but without the F♯.

C Blues Scale

The C blues scale is fundamental in blues piano playing. It adds a unique character and emotional depth to music. Here's an in-depth look at the C blues scale and its role in blues piano:

Structure of the C Blues Scale

The C blues scale consists of the following notes:

  • C, E♭, F, F♯, G, B♭, C

The notes are derived from the C minor pentatonic scale with an added "blues note" (F♯). The blue note gives the scale its distinctive sound, often evoking feelings of melancholy or soulful expression.

Fingering for the C Blues Scale

A common fingering for the C blues scale is:

  • Ascending: 1 (C), 2 (E♭), 3 (F), 4 (F♯), 1 (G), 2 (B♭), 3 (C)
  • Descending: 3 (C), 2 (B♭), 1 (G), 4 (F♯), 3 (F), 2 (E♭), 1 (C)

Practicing this fingering helps in smooth transitions and fluidity when playing scales or improvising.

Role in Blues Piano

The C blues scale is widely used in blues improvisation and melody creation. Here’s why it’s so effective:

  1. Expressive Melodies: The scale’s unique intervals allow for expressive and emotive melodies that define the blues genre.
  2. Improvisation: It provides a solid foundation for improvisation. Pianists can create solos that sound authentic and engaging by using the scale's notes.
  3. Riffs and Licks: Many classic blues riffs and licks are based on the blues scale. Learning these can help players understand the vocabulary of blues music and improve their improvisational skills.

C Minor Pentatonic Scale

The C minor pentatonic scale is another essential tool for blues pianists. It shares many notes with the C blues scale and offers versatility in playing.

Structure of the C Minor Pentatonic Scale

The C minor pentatonic scale consists of the following notes:

  • C, E♭, F, G, B♭, C

Fingering for the C Minor Pentatonic Scale

A common fingering for the C minor pentatonic scale is:

  • Ascending: 1 (C), 2 (E♭), 3 (F), 1 (G), 2 (B♭), 3 (C)
  • Descending: 3 (C), 2 (B♭), 1 (G), 3 (F), 2 (E♭), 1 (C)

This scale is simpler compared to the blues scale, making it easier for beginners to master.

Role in Blues Piano

The C minor pentatonic scale is versatile and widely used in various musical styles, including blues, jazz, and rock. Here’s why it’s important:

  1. Foundation for Blues Scale: The minor pentatonic scale is essentially the blues scale without the blue note (F♯). Understanding this scale provides a foundation for more complex blues improvisation.
  2. Melodic Simplicity: The simplicity of the scale allows for clean, melodic lines that are easy to play and recognize.
  3. Improvisation: Just like the blues scale, the minor pentatonic scale is excellent for improvisation. It’s often used to create solos and melodies that fit well within the blues framework.

Combining Both Scales in Blues Piano

Blues pianists often switch between the blues scale and the minor pentatonic scale while improvising. This combination allows for more variety and expression in solos. For example, starting a solo with the minor pentatonic scale and then adding the blue note can create a dynamic and engaging performance.

Step 4: The Blues Form

The basic blues form is a 12-bar structure using our three chords. It goes like this:

  • C7 for 4 bars (or the alternate form is C7 for 1 bar, then F7 for 1 bar - see example below)
  • F7 for 2 bars
  • C7 for 2 bars
  • G7 for 1 bar
  • F7 for 1 bar
  • C7 for 1 bar
  • G7 for 1 bar

Alternate blues form (the form we are using):

  • C7 for 1 bar
  • F7 for 1 bar
  • C7 for 2 bars
  • F7 for 2 bars
  • G7 for 1 bar
  • F7 for 1 bar
  • C7 for 1 bar
  • G7 for 1 bar

Step 5: Simple Accompaniment

Let's practice a simple accompaniment. Play a short eighth note on beat 1 and another on beat 3. It sounds like this: "da da, da da."

Blues accompaniments are foundational in piano playing, providing the harmonic and rhythmic support that defines the blues genre. Learning these accompaniments is crucial for any pianist looking to master blues music. Here’s an in-depth look at what blues accompaniments are and why they are important.

Below is an example of a simple blues accompaniment that we are using in this mini lesson. I call this an "Easy" accompaniment because all of the rhythms fall on either beats 1 or 3 which should make this accompaniment relatively easy for most students to perform:

Step 6: Syncopated Accompaniment

For a bit more complexity, try a syncopated accompaniment. Here, the second chord hits a bit earlier, on the "and" of 2: "da da, da da."

Syncopation involves shifting the usual accent or emphasis in a musical phrase to a weak beat or an offbeat. In simple terms, it’s when the expected rhythm is interrupted, creating an interesting and unexpected twist in the music. This technique is a hallmark of many genres, including jazz, funk, and especially blues.

Why Syncopation is Important in Blues Piano

1. Creates Groove and Swing

Groove: Syncopation helps create the groove that is essential to blues music. By emphasizing offbeats or unexpected beats, syncopation adds a rhythmic complexity that makes the music more engaging and danceable.

Swing: In blues, the use of swung eighth notes is a form of syncopation. This “swing” feel is crucial in blues, giving the music its characteristic laid-back and fluid motion.

2. Enhances Emotional Expression

Dynamic Tension: Syncopation introduces dynamic tension and release in music, which is essential for conveying the deep emotions often found in blues. The unpredictable accents can mimic the spontaneity and expressiveness of human speech, adding to the emotional impact.

Expressive Rhythms: By playing around with the rhythmic placement, pianists can express sadness, joy, or excitement more effectively. Syncopation allows for a more expressive performance, as it breaks the monotony and keeps the listener engaged.

3. Improves Musical Interaction

Call and Response: Syncopation is often used in call-and-response patterns, a common feature in blues. This interaction between the lead instrument and accompaniment creates a conversation-like dynamic, making the music feel more alive and interactive.

Band Synchronization: In a band setting, syncopation helps musicians interact more fluidly. It allows for better communication and synchronization, as each player responds to the others’ rhythmic cues, enhancing the overall cohesion of the performance.

4. Develops Technical Skill

Rhythmic Precision: Practicing syncopation improves a pianist’s rhythmic precision and timing. It requires careful attention to detail and control over the timing of notes, which can enhance overall technical proficiency.

Coordination: Syncopation often involves playing different rhythms with each hand, improving hand coordination and independence. This skill is particularly useful for complex piano pieces across various genres.

5. Adds Musical Interest

Variety: Syncopation adds variety to a piece of music. Without it, rhythms can become monotonous and predictable. Syncopation keeps the listener’s interest by introducing unexpected twists and turns in the music.

Complexity: It brings a layer of complexity that enriches the musical texture. This complexity makes the music more intriguing and satisfying to listen to.

Here is the syncopated accompaniment we are using in this blues piano mini lesson:

Step 7: Advanced Accompaniment

In the advanced accompaniment, we'll add more chords and variations. This includes tritone substitutions, where you replace a chord with another one a tritone away. For example, replace C7 with G♭7.

Tritone substitutions are a common harmonic technique used in jazz and blues to add harmonic interest and complexity. A tritone substitution involves replacing a dominant seventh chord with another dominant seventh chord that is a tritone (three whole steps) away. For instance, in the key of C, the dominant seventh chord is G7 (G-B-D-F).

The tritone substitution for G7 is D♭7 (D♭-F-A♭-C♭), as the root notes G and D♭ are a tritone apart. This substitution works because the tritone interval between the third and seventh of G7 (B and F) is the same interval found between the third and seventh of D♭7 (F and C♭), albeit inverted.

Tritone substitutions make chord progressions smoother and more intriguing, giving them a sophisticated sound. They also add chromatic movement, which builds tension and resolution, enhancing the music’s expression.

For instance, in a common ii-V-I progression (D minor 7 to G7 to C major 7), replacing G7 with D♭7 creates a smooth, descending chromatic bass line from D to D♭ to C. Jazz musicians often use this technique to add a unique and contemporary feel to standard progressions.

Here is our advanced blues piano accompaniment using tritone substitutions:

Step 8: Improvisation and Licks

Finally, let's talk about improvisation. We'll start with some rhythms and apply our scales to create licks.

Here are a few simple rhythms to get you started:

Next, we apply the notes of our C blues scale or C minor pentatonic to the rhythms above to create licks. Here are a few simple licks to get you started:

Putting It All Together

Now that we've covered the basics, let's put it all together. Start with a simple blues head (melody), then try improvising using the licks and accompaniments you've learned.

Here are some of our blues piano licks along with the Advanced Accompaniment pattern:

Practice and Play

Remember, practice is key. Play along with backing tracks, experiment with different rhythms and licks, and most importantly, have fun!

For more lessons and resources, check out JazzEdge Academy. Happy playing!


I hope this guide makes learning blues piano fun and easy. Feel free to share your progress by commenting below and let me know if you have any questions. Keep practicing and enjoy your musical journey!


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