How to Play Blues Piano: Beginner’s Guide

Kevin Castro  /  Styles  /  UPDATED Sep 11, 2023

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Why learn how to play blues piano? Well, other than it being really, really fun, you can learn a lot from practicing the blues. The blues can be a great exercise in hand independence. You can learn so much from practicing the blues, including swing rhythm, improvisation, blues scales, and a chord progression that works across many songs. In this lesson, we’ll dig into the history of the blues, show you some exercises, and give you some blues classics to explore and play.

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What is the blues?

The blues is a musical style developed by Black American descendants of enslaved people. Elements of the blues include the 12-bar song structure, the blues scale, swing rhythm, improvisation, and “blue” notes.

While blues music isn’t exactly mainstream today, it is an ancestor to many of today’s most popular music genres including jazz, RnB, rock, country, and soul. We wouldn’t have the radio music we enjoy today without the blues!

A Brief History of the Blues

The blues as a musical style has its roots in the 1860s, around the time slavery was outlawed in the United States (the 13th Amendment was passed in December, 1865). While many people associate the blues with slavery, it is actually more reflective of the freed descendants of slaves and their experience. Themes in early blues music ranged from farming woes to stories about folk heroes standing up to discrimination.

How to play blues piano. Man in suit and black sunglasses playing keyboard on stage.
Ray Charles is an iconic blues piano player. Image: Victor Diaz Lamich, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Today, major piano players associated with the blues include Fats Domino, Ray Charles, and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Why learn how to play blues piano?

The blues is a great genre to learn even if you don’t plan on becoming a blues player! Even classical players can learn a lot from practicing the blues. Here are a few reasons why this is such a great genre for beginners of all styles:

  • Relatively easy to sound good. With a consistent and simple chord progression, you don’t need to know complicated chords to sound great playing the blues.
  • Consistent and standard. The 12-bar blues structure and chord progression is a standard, which means once you learn it, you can join spontaneous jam sessions. A great example of this is the scene from Back to the Future when Marty McFly calls a song. His backing band plays “Johnny B. Goode” even though they’ve never heard of it!
  • Hand independence. The blues is an excellent exercise in hand independence, one of the trickiest and most important skills for new piano players. Check out our lesson on how to use blues rhythm to practice your hand independence.
  • Fun! While we associate “the blues” with sadness, a lot of blues music is actually cheerful and fun.

All right, listen, this is a blues riff in B. Watch me for the changes and try to keep up, okay?

Marty McFly from Back to the Future

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Elements of Blues Music

So what makes the blues, the blues? Well, there are several characteristics that most blues songs have in common.

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You can download our sheet music resources for this lesson for free. If you want the G major backing track to practice along with, plus the ability to slow down your tempo with our Practice-Along feature, try a 7-day free trial of Pianote.


12-Bar Blues Structure

One of the most important elements of blues music is the 12-bar blues structure. The basic form of this structure is quite consistent, though different artists may throw their own variations into it.

Here’s the general chord progression expressed in the number system:

12 bar blues structure in Roman numerals: I I I I IV IV I I V IV I I or V

In G major, these would be the chords:

12 bar blues structure in G major chords: G G G G C C G G D C G G or D.

Sometimes, the last chord will be a V chord and serve as a turnaround to repeat the form from the beginning.

> Check out: Play 12-Bar Blues Like Ray Charles

How to Play Blues Rhythm

An essential component of blues music is rhythm. In blues, we swing our rhythm, which means we linger just a tad longer on beats. So, instead of counting “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and,” you can think of it as counting “1…and 2….and 3…and 4…and.”

Standard notation of right hand broken G chord in eighth notes.

You can also pair your blues progression with a rock shuffle. Keeping a swinging rock shuffle going in your left hand while your right plays riffs and runs can be challenging. Which is what makes the blues such an excellent practice tool that’s also fun to play.

How to Play Blues Scales

To add some melody to your 12-bar blues, you can experiment with notes from the major and minor blues scales.

The major blues scale has the following major scale degrees: 1, 2, ♭3,♮3, 5, 6. The flat notes are sometimes called the “blue notes.” Here’s the major blues scale in G:

Keyboard diagram of major blues piano scale with keys highlighted in red and labelled.

But when people talk about the blues scale, most of the time they mean the minor blues scale. You can think of the minor blues scale as being built on the following minor scale degrees: 1, 3, 4, ♭5, 5, 7. That’s just the same thing as the minor pentatonic scale with an added ♭5. You can also think of the minor blues as being built on the following major scale degrees: 1, ♭3, 4, ♭5, 5, ♭7. Here is the minor blues in G:

Keyboard diagram of minor blues piano scale with keys highlighted in red and labelled.

You can play either the G major or minor blues scales on top of the G major progression we introduced above. They both work! Experiment with different combinations of major and minor scale notes to come up with blues riffs of your own.

> Master the Blues Scale on Piano

Basic Blues Techniques

A few simple licks can make your playing even bluesier. Watch this 10-minute lesson or keep reading for some examples in G major.

The Boogie Pattern

Let’s add a touch of boogie-woogie to the progression. This is super easy: just shift the top two notes of your triad over one key. Alternating your triads like this makes for a more interesting comping pattern.

The Slide

It’s so subtle, but adding a slide to your blues riffs makes it sound way more bluesy! Here, we’re slipping in from the black key a half step down from our triad third. This is similar to grace notes in classical music, but in blues and jazz, we typically play the “grace note” with the same finger as the note we’re sliding into.

Important: Don’t slide all the time. I know it sounds cool, but it can be overdone. Keep it sparse—that’ll ensure the slide retains its coolness!

Riff 1

Now let’s start learning riffs! For this first riff, use the first inversion of a G major triad as a starting position. We’ll base a riff off this position. You can do a similar thing on the first inversion of the C major triad.

Try these riffs in different octaves of the keyboard. Explore the piano’s full range!

Riff 2

This next riff contains only three notes: D♭ (or C#), D, and G. If you play it in fast triplets, it sounds even cooler!

Why do these riffs sound so bluesy? They’re based on the blue notes of the blues scale:

  • The B♭ in the Riff 1 pattern is the flat third of G major
  • The E♭ in the Riff 1 pattern is the flat third of C major
  • The D♭ in the Riff 2 pattern is the flat fifth of G major

Triplet Pattern

Finally, we can use that same rapid triplet pattern in Riff 2 to play bluesy fourths. Here’s what it looks like with an extra slide.

Now that you have your blues ingredients, it’s time to put your own spin on things. Play as many variations as you can think of! Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Play in different octaves
  • Make up some rhythms
  • Try syncopation
  • Mix and match different rhythms—a whole note chord once in a while sounds good too!

Blues Piano Songs to Learn Next

Now that you have the blues basics down, try learning a few classics.

Hound Dog – Leiber and Stoller (1953)

Ultimate Guitar Chord Chart

Most of us know “Hound Dog” as a 1956 Elvis Presley hit, complete with his signature dance moves. But the song, written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, was first recorded by Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton in 1953. And while Elvis sold millions of records, Big Mama only received a $500 check for her work.

Tutti Frutti – Little Richard (1955)

Ultimate Guitar Chord Chart

Queen guitarist Brian May once remarked that the first rock stars weren’t guitarists, but pianists, like Little Richard and Jay Lee Lewis. “Tutti Frutti” is a truly fun song, bound to get everyone in the room up and moving. A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-lop-bam-boom!

What’d I Say – Ray Charles (1959)

Ultimate Guitar Chord Chart

Ray Charles is one of the most famous artists associated with the blues. But his most famous song, “Hit the Road Jack,” doesn’t follow the 12-bar blues format (it follows the Andalusian cadence). “What I’d Say,” however, is a total blues song through and through.

Can’t Buy Me Love – The Beatles (1964)

Ultimate Guitar Chord Chart

The Beatles’ catchy hit “Can’t Buy Me Love” has a verse section that follows a slightly modified blues progression. The last line of the verse after the break goes G7 – F7 – G7 – F7 – C.

Black Magic Woman – Fleetwood Mac (1968)

Ultimate Guitar Chord Chart

Before the arrival of Stevie Nicks, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac was a blues band. And while “Black Magic Woman” is closely associated with Carlos Santana, Peter Green was the original songwriter. The song follows a modified minor blues structure.

More blues piano lessons:

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Kevin Castro is a graduate of the prestigious MacEwan University with a degree in Jazz and Contemporary Popular Music, and is the Musical Director and touring pianist for JUNO-winning Canadian pop star, JESSIA. As your instructor at Pianote, Kevin is able to break down seemingly complex and intimidating musical concepts into understandable and approachable skills that you can not only learn, but start applying in your own playing. Learn more about Kevin here.

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