3 Essential Blues Piano Licks

Instructor
Jonny May
Quick Tip
Level 2
Level 3
12:40

Learning Focus
  • Improvisation
  • Riffs
Music Style
  • Blues
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Do you want to learn how to play better blues on the piano? The blues is one of the most fun styles to play and it is very expressive and soulful. It also happens to be one of the easiest styles to learn! Why is that? Because most of it is based on very distinct and catchy riffs/licks based on the blues scale, which works over many of the blues chords. That’s why in this tutorial we will be learning 3 essential blues piano licks.

Many start out learning the blues scale and get the hang of it pretty quickly. The problem is that it’s all too easy to just run the scale up and down without shaping your solo into distinct and organized phrases that sound like the real blues. Listen to cats like Oscar Peterson and Otis Span, and you’ll see that they are doing things far more interesting than running scales: they’re playing with patterns!

In this lesson, you’ll learn:

  • The 2 blues chords and accompaniment rhythm for the left hand we’ll be using
  • The 3 essential blues piano licks for the right hand, an easy, intermediate, and advanced lick.
  • Blues soloing principles, tips, and tricks
  • Sheet music PDF and backing track for practicing included

Let’s dive in!

Getting Ready: Learn The Left Hand Blues Chords

So to accompany the awesome licks we’ll be learning today, we’re are going to learn a simple left-hand part. These include the chords C7 and F7, both dominant 7th chords (blues is known for its mostly dominant 7th chord sound).  Check it out:

Blues chords C and F dominant 7th and accompaniment rhythm for left hand piano
Blues chords C and F dominant 7th and accompaniment rhythm for left-hand piano

As you can see the C7 is in root position, and the F7 is inverted so that our notes aren’t moving very much from chord to chord, a goal we often try to achieve when playing chords.

Try playing the chords in your left hand and get down the particular rhythm played out here too. Rhythm is just as important, if not more important than the notes we play.

If you want to learn more about building and playing chords then check out the Intermediate Piano Foundations (Part 1/Part 2).

Essential Blues Piano Lick #1: Slidin’ 6ths

Essential blues riff for piano #1, uses blues slides on C dominant 7th that resolve to a 6th interval
Essential blues riff for piano #1, uses blues slides on C dominant 7th that resolve to a 6th interval

Now, this riff utilizes slides, a super fun technique commonly used in blues piano. On our C7 chord, we slide from the D# to the E and keep a C (harmony note) on top, which you should keep your 5 finger on. This happens to create a 6th interval.

When we combine this with the C and F notes in the measure, we are “enclosing” the E:

The F and D# enclose or surround the note E which creates a strong pull in the essential riff for blues piano 1
The F and D# enclose or surround the note E which creates a strong pull in the essential riff for blues piano 1

When we get to the F7, we’ll keep the Eb(D#) and take out the slide since the E note doesn’t harmonize well with F7.

Most people think of the minor blues scale when soloing (see next section), but this one actually more closely resembles the Major Blues Scale (Gospel Scale). 

Essential Blues Piano Lick #2: 6th Degree Harmonization

Check out our next riff:

Essential blues lick for piano #2 harmonizes a basic blues scale melody with the 6th scale degree from C major to create a nice colorful blues sound
Essential blues lick for piano #2 harmonizes a basic blues scale melody with the 6th scale degree from C major to create a nice colorful blues sound

If you ignore all the A’s on top of the notes, we have a pretty standard riff straight out of the minor blues scale:

The basic blues melody underneath without any harmonization
The basic blues melody underneath without any harmonization

The C minor blues scale
The C minor blues scale

Of course, adding in the A’s makes it a far more interesting sounding. A is the 6th degree of the C major scale(the overall key that we are in). We can call it a harmonization note since it’s played together with the bottom notes and thickening the sound.

Blues Melody Harmonizations

What’s cool about harmonizing with the 6th degree is it’s far more crunchy and colorful than harmonizing melodies with the tonic note or the b7 note, which are also common for harmonization. Compare the 3 below and decide for yourself:

Harmonizing using C, the tonic note of C major
Harmonizing using C, the tonic note of C major

Harmonizing melody using b7 degree from blues scale
Using b7 degree from the blues scale

Harmonizing using the 6th degree (as in the main lick #2)
Harmonizing using the 6th degree (as in the main lick #2)

Essential Blues Piano Lick #3: Blues Rolls

We can’t forget about the lovely, rough n’ tumble sound of blues rolls. This one uses a roll straight out of the minor blues scale. Be sure to notice the accent we put on the Eb, on the “+ of 2” that creates a nice rhythmic “pop” :

Essential blues lick for piano #3, using blues rolls from the blues scale and pops
Essential blues lick for piano #3, using blues rolls from the blues scale and pops

This riff is cool because like #2, it’s just as usable on the F7 as it is on the C7. This is the case with many blues riffs that revolve around the minor blues scale and it creates a good environment for those just starting out in improvising.

TIP: You can delay the start of the roll in this lick a bit, and roll faster after the delay. This increases that rough n’ tumble feeling of the blues feel instead of a more even and “classical” sound:

Essential blues lick for piano #3 using a delayed roll (notated as heard in triplet subdivision)
Essential blues lick for piano #3 using a delayed roll (notated as heard in triplet subdivision)

If you want to step up your blues soloing game, then be sure to check out the full course to where these licks came from in The Bible of Blues Riffs (Beginner/Intermediate, Intermediate/Advanced).  There you’ll find 60 of the best licks and riffs for beginner, intermediate, and advanced piano!

Summing It All Up

I hope you enjoyed these 3 essential blues riffs for piano. Be sure to practice each one slowly and with separate hands first. Remember: Blues shouldn’t be played too fast! Otherwise, you might call it rock and roll. Hanging around the tempo of 100 BPM is a pretty good blues feel.

The art of blues soloing is really a matter of absorbing many licks and riffs that are out there, and then combining them and using them in your own way. Musicians are like scientists, always experimenting and trying to come up with a new formula. So don’t be afraid to take risks and play what you feel inside.

At the bottom of the page, there’s a PDF of all the riffs we’ve learned and a backing track that you can practice with. Be sure to take full advantage of them! If you’re a PWJ Member you can download our smart sheet music (which transposes the music into any key) and get complete access to our dozens of online courses.

If you want an even deeper dive into this and related piano topics, then check out some of the following courses:

Thanks for checking out this Quick Tip. See you in the next one!

Blog written by Daine Jordan/Quick Tip by Jonny May

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