Originating in the 1860’s by the African American community in the south of the United States, blues music generally has roots from the songs and spiritual singings of African American workers. The blues are full of soul, syncopation, and heart. It can be difficult to learn how to play blues piano thanks to its uncommon rhythms and stylistic choices like improv, but it is a great way to enhance any players’ piano skills.
The blues aren’t only for advanced piano players. Learning how to play blues piano for beginners can be a great start to learning piano thanks to its versatility of style being laid back and easy to pick up. Not to mention that while playing the blues is definitely its own style within and of itself, it can make any player smile.
However, the blues can simultaneously be a difficult style to pick up. It is quite different from classical piano training and requires very different techniques and styles to sound like a pro. That does not mean that no one can pick up the blues, rather it means every should pick up the blues. It helps students become well-rounded players and dabbling in another style can always help to enhance student’s main skills. That being said, we’ve gathered a list of 7 easy steps to help students start learning how to play piano blues.
Steps to Learn to Play Blues Piano
Let’s begin with my first step that I believe will aid your learning of the blues.
1) Dive into the History
This first step requires no piano skills whatsoever. It doesn’t even require a piano. The blues are such a rich style of instrumental playing that students need to engage with the history and learn about its foundations and founding before they can grasp the style itself. The unique past and reasoning behind why the blues were created adds and enhances the stylistic playing choice.
Without the past knowledge, students will not be able to engage with authentic blues playing. Listening to originals, professional players and understanding their music is essential. Blues is all about the heart, it rarely requires sheet music because most of it is improvisation and similar scale patterns. By learning from these compositions, students can learn the theories behind blues composition and foundations needed to sound authentic.
Blues composition is unlike any other because of its building blocks of the past. Players and professionals build on each other and continue to add more and more to the style each and every time they play. By learning these additions, students can begin to develop their own style of blues playing and be able to add to the industry as blues players themselves.
2) Learn the Chords
Blues is such a full, heartful style that its most important feature isn’t even the melody, but the background chords. It is a style that many students don’t even need to know how to read sheet music to learn how to play because of its basic structure and improvisation influence.
That being said, the chords are the most important part of playing the blues. The two most important chords that a student should learn if they want to learn how to play the blues are Cm7 and F7. These chords are the simplest base chords to blues songs because their base notes (C & F) are right next to black keys. They create the positive dissonance within the music that is still pleasing to the ear while not being normally harmonic.
If students learn those two chords, they will be playing the blues in no time. Eventually they can also learn about the common tones within the blues style, most notably C and Eb. These tones are going to be constant throughout a certain chord progression, in the case of the blues Cm7 and F7. They can function as an anchor for a student’s hands so they can look less at their fingers, and also provide great bases for improvisation once students reach that stage.
3) Get the Scale Down
After learning the basics of the chords within the blues style, the next step is to learn the blues scales. The scales within the blues style of playing are not necessarily harmonious or in the major or minor key like many pianists are classically trained in. Rather, they have a pleasing dissonant sound to them, just like their chord structure.
The good news about the blues scales is that they are not an octave long like the classic piano skills. They only have 6 notes in them, but they do have both major and minor versions. While offered in every key, the blues pentatonic (regular) scales can be a bit tricky to memorize thanks to their uncommon interval pattern.
However, each scale follows the same pattern: 1.5 step, whole step, half step, half step, 1.5 step, whole step. The trickiest part for beginners is learning the thumb-crossover that allows students to play 6 notes with 5 fingers.
Similar to the chords of blues, these scales are a great stepping point for the eventual learning of improvisation. Since these scales are pentatonic, as long as students stay within the notes of one scale for the entirety of their improvisation, almost anything they play will sound good.
4) Get Rhythms into the Fingers
The blues rhythms constitute of two main parts that students must learn if they want to play blues on the piano. The first rhythm is the 8th note. Unlike normal 8th note rhythms, the blues (similar to jazz) swing their 8th notes. This means that the first 8th note in the beat is longer than the second. It isn’t by much, but it’s enough that it sounds more groovy than just straight 8th notes.
A similar rhythm is applied to the second most common note patterns found in the blues: triplets. There are two types of triplets, squared triplets where each note is given the same length of time within the single beat, and swung triplets which are essentially like the 8th note patterns described above.
Swung triplets (the type mainly used in blues playing) have the middle note being the longest, again not entirely noticeable but it does change the song to sound more groovy.
These rhythms are important to know because they are spread throughout all blues music. One cannot play blues without encountering these rhythms within the first line of music. It’s also important to note that most of the time these rhythms do not have a special notation. If students are used to reading sheet music as is, this could be a difficult mentality to adopt. Rather, students must take note of the songs they are playing, if they are blues songs these rhythms are most likely implied.
5) Learn the Licks
Licks, in blues terminology, simply means a section of music, in the blues style this usually is about 12 measures long. These licks are the highlight of any blues song. They are the part of the melody that creates the interest and the fun within the music.
The good news is that these licks are already written out. Students do not have to improvise when practicing these amazing little snippets. However, they can be quite difficult to nail down. Obviously with practice these parts can become great.
A great strategy for practicing licks includes playing the hands separately. While this may seem like a waste of time because the left hand is solely chords, it can help to really nail down those chord progressions and transitions before moving on to the complicated right hand. This way, the left hand becomes second nature and all of the student’s brain energy and focus can be on nailing the right-hand melodies.
6) Learn How to Improv
One of the most telling parts of a blues piano piece is the improvisation of the player. Improvisation shows off skill, creativity, and fun within the playing of blues. If students want to know how to play the blues on piano and sound authentic then they need to learn how to do blues-style improv.
It’s not entirely difficult. As we’ve talked about in the previous steps there are multiple strategies and techniques that can help students easily do improv and sound like a professional. From using pentatonic scales to just grooving with the similar chord progressions and common tones, these are all great for beginner improvisation.
However, there are more techniques than just those, and knowing the theory behind blues playing can be extremely beneficial to those wanting to learn how to play blues piano. Using a rhythm template, for example, can be a really easy way of establishing improv licks.
Essentially, they take simple rhythms and players can put whatever notes they want in them within the same blues scale. It helps to take some of the pressure of improv of the shoulders of the player.
The last technique we offer for students is to listen to blues singers and riff off of their own melodies and rhythms. Obviously don’t just steal their creative melodies and call them improv but using their ideas to inspire and improve others can be great! That’s the great thing about music, it’s a collaborative industry always looking for new and improved ideas!
7) The Finger Slide
In basic terms finger slides are when a player slides from a black key to a white key on a piano. They create a bit of flavor and fun times within the melodies and base chords of blues pieces. Slides are also a signifying trait of that blues style. They create a fun sound and an almost-dissonance that enhances music.
Finger slides sound great on the middle and upper registers of the piano. The lower ones tend to resonate for too long for finger slides to be effective in creating the intended sound. Slides can also be used with almost any note rhythms. 8th notes work great as do triplets, however depending on the tempo and note choice students may need to have quick hands.
It is important to make sure the finger slides from the black key to the immediate descending white key. Without that distinction the finger slide will not work because the keys are too far away to actually slide. Students should also avoid trying to slide from a white key to a white key because the piano will simply not allow it. By pressing down the white key there becomes a wall to the one next door and the slide will be physically impossible without sounding extremely clunky.
Blues Piano Lessons Online
One of the best ways to learn blues piano, just like all piano, is to find a teacher. It can be in-person, or otherwise there are many really great choices of online videos and lessons. These all include step-by-step instructions and go over the essential techniques and foundations needed to succeed as a blues piano player.
As a final resource, we’ve put together a list of some of our favorite choices for online piano lessons.
The Piano for All course provides you with 9 amazing interactive eBooks that will help you learn how to play the piano properly. And luckily, two of these eBooks are specifically about helping you learn the blues.
One of them is called Blues & Rock n’ Roll, while the other one is about Advanced Blues piano learning.
Bill Hilton has a wide inventory of tutorials and piano teaching videos on YouTube. From jazz to improvisation tutorials, Bill has years of experience and is constantly updating his videos to improve.
His blues tutorial, while limited, is easy to follow for all beginners and covers much of the technique and stylistic choices needed to learn how to play blues piano. The benefit of these videos is students can rewind and pause as needed helping them be able to go at their own pace.
Obviously since this is on YouTube it is a free service, and the benefit is that the rest of his videos may help to supplement the blues videos. Blues especially has a neat quirk of improvisation, of which Bill has videos to learn as well. He addresses the scariness of improvising while giving tips to help make it easier and more manageable.
His videos on jazz can also be quite helpful while learning the blues. Since jazz and blues are very similar and related in style, learning these styles together can be beneficial for students to enhance their learning and specialize in stylistic playing.
Piano groove offers a vast variety of piano blues lessons super helpful for beginners and new students to all blues styles. Their free trial allows students to test out their lessons and decide whether or not they fit what the student is looking for. After a few free lessons students are required to buy the courses, but for those looking to really dive into the learnings of the blues it may be a worthwhile investment.
What makes piano groove special is their specifications of blues styles. Because the blues were conceived within the African American workers around the south of the United States, there are different regional styles; similar to regional accents when speaking. They’ve got an introduction to Chicago style blues as well as New Orleans and even as general as simple blues minor progressions. Piano groove also offers an improvisational course as well since that is so central to many of the blues styles and songs.
Each course starts with the basics like blues form, shuffle patterns and chord voicings before progressing to more complicated things like improvisation and other difficult theories. These step-by-step instructional tutorials can help students go at their pace and dive deeper into the theory and history behind blues piano playing.
Created by Martin Carline Learn Blues is a European blues course that contains 58 videos, modular formant and popular songs to keep the fun alive. The videos and modular format especially allow students to progress at their own pace learning the blues and the boogie woogie. The lessons are specifically designed for beginners who have never touched a piano before, or took years off to pursue other interests.
The Learn Blues lesson series teaches students how to break down hard sections, separate the hands, and even begin improvising. However, the Lean Blues series does not do much deep dive into theories or fundamentals, rather it does more of teaching students to read blues sheet music and practice. However, if that’s what students are looking for this might be the exact thing they are looking for.
While Learn Blues does require a monetary investment, their no quibble money back garuntee allows students to feel comfortable trying out their lessons and seeing if they are a right fit. With 25 years of experience, Martin Carline is sure that he can help students achieve their blues dreams, whatever they are.
Final Tips and Reminders
The blues is a great industry built on collaboration, improvisation and the need to make work more fun. Especially for students who may be transferring over from classical piano training, remember the blues is meant to be a laid back style of playing.
It’s meant to be a fun and groovy time for players and listeners, so don’t stress! The more technique and thought players put into their own blues playing, the less free-spirited it feels and the harder it is to listen to. When playing let the music take over and vibe with it.
Some blues players may even advise students to develop their own “stank face”. Essentially students who learn to play blues piano should get so into the music that their whole body, including their face is involuntarily grooving and integrated into the music. What we are trying to say is relax and just let the music take you away!
- If you’re still interested in learning how to play piano or keyboard, get your copy of Piano for All today, which features 10 eBooks, 200 video piano lessons and 500 audio piano lessons!
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