Master the Blues Scale on Piano

Kevin Castro  /  Scales and Keys  /  UPDATED Sep 11, 2023

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The blues scale. On the piano, it’s one of the most popular, versatile, and useful tools to make music. If you want to learn how to play licks, riffs, runs, and improvise, you’ve got to learn the blues scale!

Now, there are different types of blues scales, and individual artists may add or omit notes as they see fit. In this lesson, we’ll discuss the most popular minor and major blues scales. And we’ll also share some tips on how to use this scale in your solos.

  1. The Minor Blues Scale
  2. The Major Blues Scale
  3. 3 Essential Blues Riffs
  4. Improvisation Tips

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The Minor Blues Scale on Piano

The minor blues scale is THE most popular blues scale. In fact, most of the time, when people talk about the “blues scale,” they’re referring to the minor blues scale.

The formula for the minor blues scale is:

1, ♭3, 4, ♭5, ♮5, ♭7

In C Minor, here’s what this looks like on the piano keyboard:

Diagram of C Minor blues scale with notes labelled and highlighted in red (C, Eb, F, Gb, G, Bb) and formula (1, b3, 4, b5, 5, b7).

And here is what the blues scale looks like in standard piano notation:

C Minor blues scale on staff with notes labelled in red and formula (numbers) in black.
📜🎹 HISTORY BITE: Most people think the blues scale originated in America during the slavery era at the end of the 1800s, but its history goes way back. For example, a book from 1870 documents a blues-scale-like scale in West Africa, which suggests that the scale developed independently in the region. For an in-depth, Afrocentric discussion of the blues scale’s origins, check out journalist Adam Hudson’s essay on the cultural origins of the scale.

Explaining the Minor Blues Scale Formula

The minor blues scale formula can be confusing because it’s based on the major scale, not the minor scale. So, if you see “E Minor Blues Scale,” consider the formula in the context of the E Major key signature.

Another thing: “flat” in this context is better understood as “lower by a half-step,” not a literal flat sign.

So, let’s take the notes of the E Major scale:

1 = E
2 = F#
3 = G#
4 = A
5 = B
6 = C#
7 = D#

…and by applying the minor blues formula, we’ll get:

1 = E
♭3 = G♮
4 = A
♭5 = B♭
♮5 = B
♭7 = D♮

If you can play the blues, you can do anything.

Ray Charles

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The Major Blues Scale

The major blues scale is less common, but it’s still a good scale to know. Here’s the formula for it:

1, 2, ♭3, ♮3, 5, 6

Here’s what it looks like on the piano keyboard:

Diagram of C Major blues scale with notes labelled and highlighted in red (C, D, Eb, E, G, A) and formula (1, 2, b3, 3, 5, 6).

And here’s what it looks like on the staff:

Explaining the Major Blues Scale Formula

Like the minor blues scale, the formula is based on the major scale. Again, if we use E Major as an example:

1 = E
2 = F#
3 = G#
4 = A
5 = B
6 = C#
7 = D#

…then apply the major blues scale formula, we’ll get:

1 = E
2 = F#
♭3 = G♮
♮3 = G#
5 = B
6 = C#

3 Essential Blues Riffs

Once you’re familiar with the basic building blocks of the blues scale, jumpstart your mastery by learning these three essential riffs. You can download a notated PDF of these riffs and more here.

Riff 1

C Minor blues riff notated.

Riff 2

C Minor blues riff notated.

Riff 3

C Minor blues riff notated.

Our PDF download will include both simpler and more complex versions of these riffs.

2 Pro-Tips:

  • Practice with a backing track. This will get you up to speed and to really internalize that blues rhythm. You can download a backing track for the above riffs here (with click) and here (without click).
  • Swing! To sound really bluesy, you need to swing the rhythm. Don’t be too exact with rhythm. Make things a little syncopated.

Tips on Improvising Using the Blues Scale on Piano

When you first start improvising with the blues scale, it’s tempting to just go up and down the scale. While this is a great way to familiarize yourself with the notes, it can quickly get bland. Here are some ideas to help you take improvisation to the next level:

It’s all about rhythm

Sometimes, we can get anxious about what notes to play and forget about rhythm. But rhythm can be the difference between an okay solo and a fantastic one. So take a look at your solos: are you playing in all quarter notes? Can you add an extra triplet in there, or maybe hold out a whole note? Rhythmic variations keep things interesting!

Pick a small handful of notes

You don’t have to use all the notes in the blue scale. Try limiting yourself to a small area of notes and see what you can create from that small palette. You may be surprised!

Come up with licks you can re-use in all 12 keys

Learning to improvise is all about building vocabulary. If you find a lick that works, practice it in all 12 keys so that you can throw it into any song. Then, keep expanding your vocabulary!

Think in short, narrative phrases

Thinking, “I need to come up with a solo that lasts dozens of bars!” can feel overwhelming. Instead, think in short, small chunks that are only a few measures long.

Practice with a backing track

Practicing with a backing track will help you stay in tempo and let you focus on improvising melodic lines without worrying too much about comping. You can find backing tracks downloadable online and on YouTube.

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