Play 12 Bar Blues Piano Like Ray Charles

Sam Vesely  /  Styles  /  UPDATED Apr 5, 2023

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Despite it being “the blues,” blues piano can be very fun to play! This lesson introduces you to three simple ingredients for a killer blues song: a riff, a chord progression, and a rhythm.

Learning how to play the blues on the piano will build your hand coordination and a good sense of rhythm. You’ll also learn a little about blues theory here today.

The Riff

Let’s dive right in by starting with a simple, left-hand riff to introduce the song. The notes you will be playing are F-F#-A-B-D.

We’ll end the riff with a D major triad (D-F#-A). You’ll play this triad on beat one at the same time as the last riff note (D).

This means the riff starts slightly later on an offbeat and the D major triad lands on beat one.

If this sounds confusing, it makes a lot more sense when you hear it! Feel free to rewind the video a few times and play or sing along to get comfortable with the riff.

The Chord Progression

Once you’re familiar with the riff, let’s move on to the chord progression! This 1-4-5 progression is what gives the 12 bar blues its unique, bluesy feel.

The chords we’ll be playing are: D, G, D, A, D

(There’s a little jump between the D and A major chords, so remember to look ahead and get ready for the next chord!)

We’ll play triads of these chords and play each note separately on the downbeat. This will create a running chord progression and bluesy bass line in your left hand.

D major chord: D-F#-A-F#
G major chord: G-B-D-B
D major chord: D-F#-A-F#
A major chord: A-C#-E-C#
D major chord: D-F#-A-F#

The Rhythm

Now that we have an opening riff and a funky bass line, let’s add in some right hand!

The right-hand triads are the same chords as the left hand, and you’ll play the right-hand triads on the offbeat between the left-hand notes.

If you count “one and two and three and four and,” your right-hand triads will sync with the “and.” Play each chord for eight beats.

Again, this makes more sense when you hear it. You can replay the video a few times to get familiar with how it sounds.

Put It All Together

Practice the riff and the chord progression on their own until you’re comfortable, and then put it all together for a Ray Charles style performance!

If you want to take your playing to the next level, here are some improv ideas:


Mix up the order of the notes in your chords by playing inversions. If you’re new to chord theory, learn what are chord inversions right here on the Pianote blog.


Turnarounds are little licks that connect sections together. Even a simple rising or descending scale can be a cool-sounding turnaround.

Get more out of licks by learning the blues scale formula on the piano.


Slides are fun and can be done anywhere on the keyboard! No theory required. Just pick a starting point and gently sweep your fingernail across the keyboard.

Experiment and enjoy yourself; the possibilities are endless. In no time, you’ll be playing blues piano just like Ray Charles.

Sam Vesely is a graduate from MacEwan University's Bachelors of Jazz and Contemporary Pop Music degree with a major in Composition. His extensive knowledge of music styles and music theory is something that Sam is very proud of and he’s excited to share everything that he has learned with all of the students of Pianote.

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