The Ray Charles 12-Bar Blues Piano Lick

Jordan Leibel  /  Styles  /  UPDATED Jan 16, 2023

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Ray Charles was one of the most important piano players in the history of the instrument. He had an enormously influential role on the development of Gospel, R&B, and Rock music. In this lesson, you’ll learn the approach Ray Charles took in the main riff for the song “What I’d Say”.

So there’s a few cool things about this song that are really fun to play and learn. The first thing we’ll take a look at is the bass line in the left hand.

The Bass Line

The bass line in this song is built around a 12 bar blues framework in the key of E. That means that you’ll have three chords to keep in mind, the I chord (E), the IV chord (A), and the V chord (B). The bass line itself is an essential part of this tune, so let’s dive right into the intervals that make up the pattern.  

Those interval notes are 1, 5, 5, 7, 8, regardless of the chord you’re starting on. The pattern spans an entire octave, so it can feel a bit like a stretch to play. If you’re still a beginner it helps to just rock back and forth on the root note and octave to get a feel for the distance between the two notes. It’ll allow patterns like this to eventually become a more instinctive motion.  

Before you even incorporate the right hand, practice this bass pattern motion to a metronome. Try to get to that point where you can play and feel its rhythm without having to consciously think about it. Even if you have to take it painstakingly slow, that’s a great start.  

The Right Hand

Once you have some confidence in your left hand bass line, it’s time to bring in the right. This part can be a little tricky to get, but there’s a few mindset things to focus on that can make it a little less difficult to grasp.  

The main difficulty in this part isn’t the notes played, but the rhythm that they’re played in. For the chords, just bear in mind that you’re working with basic 7th chords off of each note. Once you know the shape of those chords, you can forget for the most part what notes you’re playing and instead focus on those pesky rhythms.

Some of those rhythms between the two hands sync up together and others are offset from each other, creating a sort of push/pull relationship between the two hands. At the start, focus on the moments in the progression where both hands are playing at the same time, and use those as your ‘home-base’ moments in the progression. Once you have those moments set in your head, take a look at the parts of the tune that have the right hand moving slight ahead or slightly behind the bassline. Slow it waaay down to do this a painlessly as possible. Remember, your bass line is your bedrock for this style of song, so whenever you get stuck go back to the bassline.  

The Ending Lick

Now, let’s take a look at the ending lick that caps off the tune. The ending lick is based off an E pentatonic scale and starts on that V chord (B). If you look at the notes of this riff, you’re going to be playing B, D, E, A,G, E, D.  

It’s a simple riff, but where the magic lies is in between the notes above. Notice how the riff slides between the A and B notes, playing the Bb in between as a really quick passing tone. The effect is almost like a guitar player bending a string. It’s an awesome skill to develop this sort of playing and will make your lead lines and solos more expressive overnight.  

Final Thoughts

This isn’t the kind of tune you’ll get in one pass, or even 20. But every time you practice it, you’ll be building some really creative, useful, and expressive skills that you’ll use all throughout your piano journey.

You’ll learn how to see your bass lines as the essential anchor locking everything down, how to prioritize learning polyrhythmic patterns between both hands in the best, least frustrating way. And to cap it all off, you’ll learn some super useful techniques to become an amazing soloist. Have a blast practicing!     

Jordan Leibel is passionate about songwriting, improvisation, and helping you become a creative musician! He’s worked as a composer for film, commercial, and theatre projects as well as a session musician and producer for recording work.

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