3 Exercises to Master Slow Blues Piano Improv

Instructor
Jonny May
Quick Tip
Level 1
Level 2
Level 3
12:29

Learning Focus
  • Chords
  • Exercises
  • Improvisation
  • Scales
Music Style
  • Blues

Want to learn how slow blues piano improv? In today’s piano lesson, you’re going to learn 3 essential slow blues piano improv exercises that will help you improvise more interesting piano solos.

Whether you are a beginner, intermediate, or advanced pianist, you’ll find these exercises to be extremely helpful.

Let’s dive in.

Why You Need Blues Exercises

Before I teach you the 3 slow blues exercises, it’s essential to understand why we need to learn blues exercises to begin with.  I mean, can’t you just start improvising blues once you have a chord progression and a scale?

Well, yes, but this is where students usually run into trouble.

They start improvising, and then they get frustrated because all their lines sound the same!

The problem is that they aren’t practicing exercises to help them master the most essential slow blues improv techniques.

With the 3 exercises that you will learn today, your lines will not only become more interesting, but you’ll feel far more comfortable soloing and improvising slow blues piano.

So let’s dive into step #1 of the exercises, which is the Minor Blues Walkdown Progression.

The Minor Blues Walkdown Progression

If you are new to improvising slow blues piano, it is essential to start with a simple and repetitive chord progression.  This is where many beginner blues students go wrong… they try improvising over a song that has 10 or 20 chords… BAD idea.  You’ll get frustrated and confused trying to remember all the chords.

So what chord progressions work the best for improvising in a slow blues piano style?

It’s best to use a chord progression that fits these 3 criteria:

  1. Use a maximum of 4 chords
  2. Use a chord progression that repeats naturally
  3. Use a chord progression that requires minimal movement

Now, there are many chord progressions that fit this criteria, but none sound as good as the Minor Blues Walkdown progression.  Check it out!

Minor Blues Walkdown Progression in the key of A minor on piano
Minor Blues Walkdown Progression in the key of A minor on piano

Notice that you are starting on an A minor 7 chord in 3rd inversion… it sounds AWESOME! Don’t you love the sound of that G and A cluster at the bottom of the chord?

Next, you drop your left hand pinkie down a half step and you have a F# half diminished chord.  The the reason this chord sounds so good as the second chord is because it shares 3 common notes with the A Minor 7 chord before it, so it feels like both chords are harmonically “connected”.

It’s also incredibly easy to play because you only need to change one note between chords. Remember what we said earlier – we want minimal movement between chords so that you can focus on your right hand improv.

Next you have an F Major 7 chord, and this chord also shares 3 common notes with the chord before it.  So once again, it sounds good because it’s a related chord, and it’s easy to play because it’s only one note away.

Finally, you have a normal A minor chord.  While this chord doesn’t sound amazing on it’s own, in the context of this progression, it sounds really good because of the resolution of the bass note from the F to the root note A.

Now, if these 7th chords look unfamiliar to you, then I highly recommend that you go through our 7th chord courses (Major 7, Minor 7, and Dominant 7 Courses), where you learn all of your 7th chords and how to apply them to songs, and our Major 7, Minor 7, & Dominant 7 Exercises courses that teach you how to play them quickly and effortlessly.

Now that you have this chord progression in your fingers, it’s time to learn the scale you will improvise with, the A Minor Blues Scale.

A Minor Blues Scale

If you are going to improvise over a slow minor blues on piano, the best scale to use is a minor blues scale, and because we are playing an A minor blues, it’s best to use the A minor blues scale.

What are the notes of an A minor blues scale?

The notes are A C D D# E and G.

Here are the notes in the lesson sheet music:

A minor blues scale on piano with fingering
A minor blues scale on piano with fingering

Notice that this is a 2-finger scale – you can play the whole thing using only the thumb and middle finger. I encourage you to master this scale by playing it 3 octaves up and down the piano. Work toward speed and fluidity.

By the way, you can master all 12 major and minor scales in our Level 1 Foundations Learning Track.

Once you have the scale down, it’s time to master the essential blues improv techniques, starting with technique #1, 8th notes.

Slow Blues Piano Improv Technique #1: 8th Notes

If you analyze most blues pianists, you’ll find that the primary note value that they play are 8th notes.

Therefore, if you want to improvise sweet slow blues piano lines, then it is essential to have 8th notes solid in your playing.

Don’t play runs.

Don’t play big, fancy chords.

Just 8th notes (you’ll get to the fancy stuff later – but for now, keep it simple and master the basics).

Here is the 8th note exercise that I recommend practicing over this chord progression:

8th Note Exercise in 2 octaves for slow blues piano improv practice
8th Note Exercise in 2 octaves for slow blues piano improv practice

Notice that we are covering 2 octaves in our playing.  This is great! A good blues piano player is someone who uses the full range of the keyboard.

As you practice this exercise, there are a couple things to keep in mind.

First, try playing this exercise starting an octave higher (that is, on A5, or the 3rd A from the top of your keyboard).  That way you will reach the very high end of the piano.

Second, once you play this exercise starting on A, I recommend that you play the same exercise starting on different notes of the blues scale.

So play the exercise starting on C like this:

8th Note Exercise starting on C
8th Note Exercise starting on C

Then play it on D like this:

8th Note Exercise starting on D
8th Note Exercise starting on D

Make sense? Eventually, you will have started the exercise on every note from the blues scale.

One of the characteristics of an excellent improviser is someone who can start their lines on any note of a given scale, so doing this will help you achieve this freedom on your playing.

Now, it’s time to start creating your own blues lines.  Practice playing short musical phrases (lines) using 8th notes over this progression.  Leave little gap or “breath” in between your lines so that the listener can appreciate each line.

As you create lines, explore the full range of the keyboard.  Do you find yourself playing a lot of the same lines? If so, follow these three line building tips to play more interesting lines.

3 Blues Line Building Tips

  1. Start on a different note
  2. Start on a different beat
  3. Start in a different direction

For a deep dive on how to create amazing blues lines, including how to connect you lines, create long phrases, and build an amazing solo, checkout the Blues Improvisation Course.

Now that you are improvising using 8th notes, it’s time to pickup the energy with triplets.

Slow Blues Piano Improv Technique #2: Triplets

The second most common note value blues pianists play are triplets, and they are full of energy! They also help you move up and down the piano quickly.

Here is the Slow Blues Triplet Exercise over the Minor Blues Walkdown Progression:

Triplet Exercise in 3 octaves for slow blues piano improv practice
Triplet Exercise in 3 octaves for slow blues piano improv practice

As you can see, we are playing 3 notes per beat.  Unlike the 8th note exercise where we only travel 2 octaves, the triplet exercise allows us to travel 3 octaves, so we cover a huge range of the keyboard!

Now that you have this exercise down, it’s time to improvise some blues lines with triplets.

This time, you can combine triplets with 8th notes, but try to use primarily triplets.

Now, this lesson comes with a backing track, and I encourage you to practice with it (to download the backing track, log into your membership and scroll to the end of this lesson).

Now that you have 8th notes and triplets, it’s time to learn your final slow blues piano technique, slides!

Slow Blues Piano Improv Technique #2: Slides

If you want to make any piece of music sound bluesy, there is one technique that will accomplish this all the time… slides!

Slides are one of the most essential blues techniques, and you can use them on any blues tune, whether is slow blues, the blues shuffle, burlesque blues, or jazzy blues.

What is a blues slide?

A blues slide is when you slide up or down to a note from the blues scale.  The most common blues slides are an up-slide to the 5th, and a down-slide to the 4th.

Here is an up-slide to the 5th note of the A minor blues scale:

Blues piano up-slide on the 5th note E
Blues piano up-slide on the 5th note E

And here is a down-slide to the 4th of the A minor blues scale:

Blues piano down-slide on the 4th note D
Blues piano down-slide on the 4th note D

Now, I recommend practicing these slides up and down the piano on all of the E’s and all of the D’s.

Once you have the slides down, it’s time to create an exercise that practices them on the Minor Blues Walkdown Progression.  Here is the full exercise:

Slide Exercise for slow blues piano improv practice
Slide Exercise for slow blues piano improv practice

Now that you are playing slides, it’s time to use them in your improvisation.  As you work through your piano improv, trying sliding the E and D as often as you can.  Lastly, mix your slides in with 8th notes and triplets.

Now, I also recommend that you try these exercises in other keys, like G, F, D, and A (all common blues keys). A great resource is our smart lesson sheet music, which allows you to change the key of this lesson sheet with the click of one button.

Putting It All Together

Now that you have the primary 3 techniques, what else can you do with the blues scale? Well, there are A LOT of additional techniques you could use, like:

  • Double Slides
  • Turns
  • Harmonized 8ths
  • Harmonized Triplets
  • Harmonized Slides
  • Harmonized Turns
  • Rolls
  • Smash Licks
  • Fire Licks
  • Ostinatos

If you want to learn how to use all of these techniques, you can in the 10-Lesson Blues Challenge courses (Level 2 & Level 3).

Want even more resources on blues? You can master slow blues in the Bernie’s Blues Slow Blues course.

You can master blues licks in the Bible of Blues Riffs – 120 Licks.

You can master blues bass lines in the Rockin’ Blues Bass Lines course.

Thanks for learning, and see you in the next Quick Tip!

Jonny May

 

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