eBook Extract: The Blues

Learn blues piano

Step 1: The basic 12 bar


The Blues runs in the face of logic and yet has infiltrated rock, pop, soul... and, of course, jazz. Although the blues influence is stronger in some jazz players than others, it cannot be considered as a separate entity. If a potential student contacts me requesting to learn just jazz or blues I have to insist that jazz and blues come in the same package or not at all.

The form breaks all the rules. Most song forms last 36 bars and subdivide into groups of 8. However, a blues sequence usually runs to 12 bars.

(There are other lengths, such as the 8 bar blues but we will be focusing on 12.)

The chord structure also abides by its own rules. In most western music, V leads to I. If you see a G7, the likelihood is that it will resolve to a C major or minor chord. In the blues, 7th chords just lead to more 7ths. I wonder what Bach would have made of this odd beast.

Here is a basic 12 bar blues sequence in F.

Fig 27 - Blues in F

Basic 12 bar blues in F

In a basic 12 bar blues, only 3 chords are used: I, IV and V. They are all 7ths.

Bars 1 - 4

Bars 5 & 6

Bars 7 & 8

I

IV

I

Bar 9

Bar 10

Bars 11 & 12

V

IV

I

Simple left-hand options

There are many alternatives but for now we’ll work with just three options. Options 1 and 2 work best for solo piano while option 3 (shells) is appropriate when working with a bass player or to a backing track.
This bass line simply plays 1, 3, 5, and 6 of each chord in quarter notes. The right hand holds three-note chords. Note that the Bb7 and C7 are inversions.

Fig 28

Left hand options blues base line 

Watch the video

A boogie feel is created with two-note chords that alternate between 1 + 5 and 1 + 6 of each chord.

Fig 29

Left hand options blues base line - shells

Watch the video

Shells are 2-note chords played with the left hand. They consist of either 1 + 7 or 1 + 3 of each 7th chord. Ensure that you don’t play these shells too low. Shells are mainly used when you are either playing with a bass player or to a backing track. The idea is to leave space for the bass. 

(Note that in the following example bar 2 is a IV chord. This is a common variation.)

Fig 30

Left hand options blues base line - shells

Watch the video

The blues scale

In the example above I have written out an improvisation based on the blues scale. This scale is simple to use as it fits all three chords. The F blues scale does not need to switch to the Bb blues scale when the chord changes to Bb7. This is known as horizontal improvisation. I have intentionally used the same four-bar phrase three times to show that one fits all.

Horizontal improvisation: chords change, scale doesn’t.
Vertical improvisation: chords change, scale changes.

The blues scale consists of six notes: 1, 3, 4, 5, 5, 7. Note that it doesn’t contain the major 3rd. Here is the F blues scale.

Fig 31

The blues scale in F

Watch the video