Why learn blues piano?
Learning the Blues is an integral part of modern music making. The power and influence of the style can be felt in most forms of contemporary popular music and the music carries historical lessons and legacies that are vitally important. A particular scale has emerged out of the music called the Blues scale. Understanding the Blues scale is an important access point to playing the music on the piano!
Skoove has a great lesson module all about playing Blues music on the piano! You can check it out below. Don’t forget that you can always try a seven day free trial if you want to explore Skoove before enrolling! Remember that Skoove features over 400 lessons, monthly updates, one on one support from Skoove piano instructors, access to special courses, and an artificial intelligence engine that listens and helps you to improve as you play.
What is the blues scale?
The Blues scale is a six note scale that has emerged out of Blues music. It has a powerful, soulful, and often melancholic timbre. It is used across many styles of music including traditional twelve-bar Blues, Boogie-Woogie, Soul, RnB, Jazz, and Funk to name a few.
The Blues scale is a variation on the Minor Pentatonic scale with an added flat fifth scale degree. Here is a little review if you are unfamiliar with the Minor Pentatonic scale. The Minor Pentatonic scale is a five note scale. It is a common piano scale that is found in many music cultures across the world. If you randomly ask someone on the street to sing a five note scale, chances are they will sing the Minor Pentatonic scale. Seriously, try it! It is somehow ingrained in the human subconscious, especially the first minor third interval.
The Minor Pentatonic scale follows the formula 1 – ♭3 – 4 – 5 – ♭7. To play the Minor Pentatonic scale from C on the piano, follow the diagram below. The finger numbers are notated beneath the notes.
To transform the Minor Pentatonic scale into the Blues Scale, all you need to do is add in the flat fifth scale degree. In the key of C Minor, that means you will add the note G♭. Check out the diagram below to see this new scale notated:
The formula for this new Blues scale is 1 – ♭3 – 4 – ♭5 – ♮5 – ♭7. In vocal styles, the pitch of the flat fifth scale degree is bent up and down for added inflection, expressive power, and emotional impact. However, in tempered pitched instruments with unbending intonation, the flat fifth scale degree cannot be manipulated in the same ways.
Playing the minor blues scale in multiple positions
Can you use the formula and finger pattern you just learned to move the Blues scale around the piano? Try to use your knowledge to build the Blues scale from D, F, G, and A. Remember the formula is 1 – ♭3 – 4 – ♭5 – ♮5 – ♭7.
From D, the scale is spelled D – F – G – A♭ – A♮ – C. Check out the diagram below to see it notated:
From F, the scale is spelled F – A♭ – B♭ – C♭ – C♮ – E♭. Check out the diagram below to see it notated:
Notice the change in finger pattern here. Instead of your first finger on the third note, you continue with your fourth finger and land with your first finger on C♭. Practice this different finger pattern until you feel comfortable. Remember, practicing with proper technique and fingering means greater technique, control, and creativity down the road!
From G, the Blues scale is spelled G – B♭ – C – D♭ – D♮ – F. Check out the diagram below for the finger pattern:
The finger pattern for the G Blues scale is the same as it was for C and D. This is a common finger pattern for the Blues scale and you will see it again!
From A, the Blues scale is spelled A – C – D – E♭ – E♮ – G. Check out the diagram below for the finger pattern, you will find it familiar:
Ok! Now that you have played through five different positions of the Blues scale (C, D, F, G, A) you are ready for some exercises! First, play through all five patterns in a row, beginning with C, followed by D, F, G, then A and returning to C again one octave higher. When you feel comfortable with this, add a chord underneath the scale as notated below:
You can also incorporate other exercises into your practice such as sequences. Check out a three note sequence in the C Blues Scale below:
This sequence pattern is a great exercise to practice to gain dexterity and flexibility with the Blues scale. You can apply this pattern to the four other positions you have learned. You can also apply this pattern to any other scales like the chromatic scale you are practicing!
Related: Running and jumping – scales and arpeggios
The twelve bar blues form
Now that you have five positions of the Blues scale under your fingers, it is time to learn a basic twelve bar Blues form. As the name suggests, the twelve bar Blues is twelve measures in length and consists of three chords: I, IV and V. Check out the form below:
If you need a refresher on seventh chords, check out this:
Related: Seventh chords explained
The twelve bar Blues form begins with the I chord, C7 in this example, for four measures, moves to the IV chord, F7 in this example, for two measures, back to the I chord for two more measures and then moves to the V chord, G7 in this example, for one measure, F7 for one measure, and then finally back to the I chord for two measures. Measures 9 and 10 are known as the turnaround. There are many, many variations on this form.
Once you feel comfortable playing through the form, try this exercise with the chords in your left hand and Blues scale in your right hand:
Get comfortable playing through the Blues form in quarter notes. Practicing this will build your fluidity with these shapes and help develop your ears. There are a few points of tension and release that you should become comfortable with. The first is the transition in and out of the IV chord in measures 5-7 and the second is the turnaround, the V-IV-I progression in measures 9-12. These points act as springboards in the form. You can use these points to build up tension in your improvisation or as release or resolution points.
Once you feel comfortable with the form in C, modulate the progression to D, F, G, and A. In the key of D, the I, IV, and V chords are D, G, and A. In the key of F, the I, IV, and V chords are F, B♭, and C. In the key of G, the I, IV, and V chords are G, C, and D. And in the key of A, the I, IV, and V chords are A, D, and E.
Some basic riffs and melodies with the blues scale
Now that you have an understanding of the Blues Scale and form, it is important to learn some basic riffs and melodies in the scale. A common melodic structure in the Blues scale is the call and response. The call and response is essentially an AAB form. A musical phrase is sung or performed on an instrument, with a sort of open ending similar to a question mark. The same phrase is repeated again. Then, a second phrase different from the first two answers the question posed by the first phrase. This is an extremely common and effective phrasing structure and you will hear this influence across many genres of contemporary music. Check out an example of this structure below:
This example is a basic, four measure call and response. The first phrase, G-B♭-C, is repeated twice, followed by the phrase G-B♭-C-B♭-G. You might also see this phrase structure called antecedent-consequent in other realms of music theory.
Now check out this same four measure phrase placed in the context of the Blues form:
When the progression moves to the IV chord, modulate the melody up to match the chord. In this case, the melody begins in the G Blues scale and modulates up to the C Blues scale to match the IV chord. Since the IV chord only happens for two measures, you need to resolve the melody in measures 7-8 with the G Blues scale again to match the I chord. Then, modulate the scale up to match the V chord, in this case D, and then down the match the IV chord again, and then resolve the melody in measures 11-12 with the G Blues scale again to match the I chord. It is not rocket science. It should be fun, not an intellectual exercise. The more you practice it and let the creativity flow, the more connected you will feel to the music!
You can develop this technique infinitely. The Blues has been played for at least 100 years and will hopefully be learned and played for hundreds more. Here is another example of a call and response:
Can you identify which Blues scale this melody is from? Can you build the Blues form to match? Can you insert this melody into the Blues scale and modulate and modify it to fit the other chords? Practice this technique until these concepts feel easy and normal to you!
Further listening and research
The Blues is a hugely influential style. There is a direct link from Rock n Roll, RnB, Gospel, Jazz, Funk, Soul, and many other genres to the Blues. The Blues scale and form is at the root of all of this. What research can you do for yourself to better understand this style, context, and history? Here are some ideas:
- Otis Spann was one of the greatest postwar Chicago Blues pianists. Chicago Blues is a particular style of Blues originally influenced by the urban environment of Chicago in the 1940s and 50s. Because of a handful of record labels including Chess, Paramount, and RCA Victor, Chicago Blues was able to gain commercial notoriety and helped spark the British Blues movement in the 1960s. Check out this video of Otis Spann’s piano Blues
- Ray Charles is one of the most famous musicians of any genre of the last century. His playing and performance style is deeply rooted in the Blues. Check out this video of him performing a slow Blues:
- Fats Domino was one of the original Rock ‘n Rollers. His rhythm piano style is highly influential. Can you hear the influence of the twelve bar blues form in this performance of his tune “Blue Monday”?
- Oscar Peterson was one of the greatest pianists in the history of the piano. If you are not already familiar with his recordings and style, I highly suggest you dive in! Like the pianists mentioned above, his style is deeply rooted in the Blues scale. However, Peterson combined his Blues roots with the harmonic advancements of modern jazz music to create some of the most compelling music ever. Check out this performance of his tune “C Jam Blues” with his famous trio of bassist Ray Brown and drummer Ed Thigpen.
Author of this blog post
Eddie Bond is a multi-instrumentalist performer, composer, and music instructor currently based in Seattle, Washington USA. He has performed extensively in the US, Canada, Argentina, and China, released over 40 albums, and has over a decade experience working with music students of all ages and ability levels.