3 Slow Blues Piano Improv Techniques

Instructor
Jonny May
Quick Tip
Level 2
Level 3
13:33

Learning Focus
  • Accompanying
  • Chords
  • Exercises
  • Improvisation
  • Riffs
  • Songs
Music Style
  • Blues

Do you want to learn essential techniques to play slow blues piano improv? In today’s piano lesson, you are going to learn how to improvise in the slow blues style.  You’ll learn:

  • The 3 chords you need to play slow blues piano
  • The 12-bar blues chord progression for slow blues piano
  • The C Blues Scale on piano
  • The harmonized C Blues Scale
  • Harmonized 8th Note Exercise
  • Harmonized Triplet Exercise
  • Harmonized Slide Exercise
  • How to develop awesome slow blues piano lines

Whether you are beginner, intermediate, or advanced pianist, this lesson is for you. Let’s dive in.

Step 1: Slow Blues Chords

If you want to learn slow blues piano improv techniques, the first step is to make sure you know your blues chords.

What are blues chords?

Your blues chords in the key of C are C7, F7, and G7.  That’s it! You only need to learn 3 chords to get started playing the blues, which is why it’s the first style I recommend that students learn if they want to improvise or play jazz.

Now there are many ways to play these chords.  You could play them in root position like this:

Blues chords in root position in the key of C on piano - C7 F7 G7
Blues chords in root position in the key of C on piano – C7 F7 G7

But this approach requires that you jump to each chord position. A much easier approach is to use inversions so that you don’t have to jump quite so far between chords. Here’s how to play your blues chords with inversions:

Blues chords using inversions in the key of C on piano - C7 F7 G7
Blues chords using inversions in the key of C on piano – C7 F7 G7

It’s crucial that you memorize these chord positions. Why? Because later on in this lesson you’ll learn how to improvise in the right hand, and it’s very important that you don’t have to think too much about your left hand chords so that you can focus on your improvisation.

Now, if these chords look unfamiliar to you, then I highly recommend that you watch these courses where you master your dominant 7 chords (Dominant 7 Chord Theory & Application, Dominant 7 Chord Exercises).

Now that you have your chords, it’s time to learn your 12-Bar Blues.

Step 2: 12-Bar Blues Chord Progression

You’ve made a great start to learning slow blues piano improv techniques. You’ve learned your chords, so now what? You need to know the order of chords.  This called the 12-Bar Blues Form, or the 12-Bar Blues Chord Progression.

What is the 12-Bar Blues?

The 12-Bar Blues is a chord progression that follows this sequence: C7 for 1 bar, F7 for 1 bar, C7 for 2 bars, F7 for 2 bars, C7 for 2 bars, G7 for 1 bar, F7 for 1 bar, C7 for 1 bar, G7 for one bar.

Sound a little confusing? Don’t worry.  We’ve put together this chord sheet music for you to learn it:

12 bar blues chord progression; 12 bar blues form chord sheet
12 bar blues chord progression; 12 bar blues form chord sheet

By the way, the lesson sheet music for this lesson is downloadable and printable on this page after logging into your membership. You can also practice this lesson in any key with the click of one button with our Smart Sheet Music.

Now that you’ve learned the order of chords, you’ll want to practice your left hand accompaniment.

Step 3: 4-On-The-Floor

When it comes to slow blues piano improv techniques, you’ll want to have a solid left hand accompaniment that your right hand can improvise over.  Now there are MANY different ways you can accompany in the left hand, but if you are new to slow blues piano improv, I recommend that you play a 4-On-The-Floor left hand.

What is 4 On The Floor?

4 On The Floor is a term used in jazz and blues piano where you accompany by playing the chords on every beat.  It is very simple to play and it provides a nice foundation for you to play your blues solo in the right hand.  Here is how to play the C-Blues as a 4-On-The-Floor Pattern on piano:

4 on the floor pattern for the 12-bar blues piano chord progression
4 on the floor pattern for the 12-bar blues piano chord progression

Now, this 4-on-the-floor is very simple to play, but what if you want to take it up a level and do a more advanced 4-on-the-floor? In that case, you can learn 8 beginner/intermediate 4-on-the-floor slow blues patterns in our Slow Blues Left Hand Approaches 1 Course. And you can learn 8 intermediate/advanced slow blues left hand patterns in our Slow Blues Left Hand Approaches 2 Course.

Now that you have a nice left hand accompaniment, let’s get to the really fun stuff… blues improv!

Step 4: The Harmonized Blues Scale

If you want to improvise a sweet slow blues solo on piano, then it is essential that you know the blues scale.

What is the C Blues Scale?

The C Blues Scale is the notes C Eb F F# G and Bb.  Here is the C Blues Scale in sheet music form:

C blues scale for slow blues piano improv
C blues scale for slow blues piano improv

I highly recommend that you practice this scale up and down – you can practice exercises in our 10-Lesson Blues Challenge (Level 2, Level 3) and work on beginner improvisation techniques

Now, the C blues scale is a great scale to get started with blues improv, but for many blues piano students, this is as far as they get.  They can improvise some nice single-note blues lines with notes from the scale scale, but they get bored playing the same blues lines. So how do you take your blues improv to the next level? The key is harmony.

How do you harmonize the C blues scale?

There is a very simple trick where you can harmonize the bottom 5 notes of the C blues scale (C Eb F F# G) with a C on top, and it sounds amazing! Virtually all of the blues masters like Oscar Peterson, Dr. John, and James Booker used this technique, and it will really make your blues shine.  Here are the harmonized notes of the C blues scale for you to practice:

C harmonized blues scale for slow blues piano improv
C harmonized blues scale for slow blues piano improv

I highly recommend that you practice the notes up and down. Make sure that you are using good fingering.  Next, let’s talk about how to create sweet blues lines with this harmonized technique.

Step 5: Harmonized 8th Note Blues Lines

The first step in improvising harmonized lines with the blues scale is to pick a simple note value! What is the simplest note value when it comes to improv? Well, you could play half notes or quarter notes, but those are just too slow. My recommendation is to start with 8th notes. They are simple to play, yet they move fast enough to keep the listener engaged.

Here is an excellent exercise to practice your harmonized 8th notes in the slow blues genre:

8th note harmonized blues scale exercise for slow blues piano improv
8th note harmonized blues scale exercise for slow blues piano improv

As you can see, were are practicing going up and down the harmonized blues scale and leaving a little gap at the end of the measure. This gap is key if you want to be a great improviser! You see, when you are improvising, you want to play short “lines” or “phrases”, leaving little gaps in between. You can think of a line as a musical sentence, where the gap is like period between sentences.

Now, I highly recommend that you practice the harmonized 8th note exercise with the provided backing track, which can be downloaded on this page by logging into your membership. Try adding the 4-on-the-floor left hand.  Doesn’t it sound great?!

Now that you have practice harmonized 8th notes, it’s time to try improvising (or soloing) in the slow blues piano style.  How do you do this? It’s actually very simple. You can play any of the harmonized positions that you learned in Step 4, and you can play them in any order over the blues chords.  The cool thing is that you can’t play a wrong note.  The only rule is to leave little gaps between your lines – in other words, don’t play run-on sentences!

Now, if you are struggling to create lines or if you’re struggling with timing, don’t worry. This is very normal. We address this issue in our 10-Lesson Blues Challenge, where you can master your timing, groove, and phrasing.

Now that you can play 8th notes, let’s look at our next note value: triplets.

Step 6: Harmonized Triplet Blues Lines

If you want to really sound like a pro slow blues piano improviser, then it is essential that you can play harmonized triplets. Harmonized triplet blues lines move faster than 8th note lines and really sparkle on the keyboard. Here is an excellent harmonized triplet exercise for you to practice:

Triplet note harmonized blues scale exercise for slow blues piano improv
Triplet note harmonized blues scale exercise for slow blues piano improv

Just as we did with the last exercise, I recommend that you practice this with the backing track.  Also try adding in the left hand chords and work on your groove and feel.  Remember, we have 3 notes per beat (not 2 as we did with 8th notes).

Once you feel good with the exercise, work on improvising lines. You can play any notes you want – the key is to leave little gaps in your playing.  (For a deep dive on how to use triplets in your improvisation, including more exercises and tools for improv, checkout the 10-Lesson Blues Challenge (Level 2, Level 3).

The final technique for improvising slow blues piano is slides.

Step 7: Harmonized Blues Slides

To really master slow blues piano improv techniques, you must be able to play blues slides. Nothing says “blues piano” more than a blues slide, and today you are going to learn 2 slides that are essential to blues.  Here they are:

Harmonized blues piano slides in the key of C for slow blues improv
Harmonized blues piano slides in the key of C for slow blues improv

As you can see, we are harmonizing an up-slide to G (from the F#), and we are harmonizing a down-slide to F (from the Gb). These are 2 of the most important slides in blues (to learn all 4 slides, checkout the 10-Lesson Blues Challenge).

How do you practice slow blues harmonized slides?

Here is an excellent exercise to practice your slow blues harmonized slides:

Harmonized slide exercise for slow blues piano improv
Harmonized slide exercise for slow blues piano improv

As you can see, we are combining both the up-slide and the down-slide in one exercise. I recommend that you play this with the backing track, and try practicing it other common blues keys like F and G with our Smart Sheet Music.

Finally, go ahead and try improvising with these slides.  The key is to mix them up in an interesting way. Try starting on different notes each time you play a new line. Try starting on a new beat. The key here is variety!

To see how I combine all of these techniques in my slow blues improvisation, checkout my Slow & Soulful Blues Improvisation.

Step 8: Putting It All Together

The final step in slow blues piano improv technique is to put all of the pieces together. Ultimately, you want your slow blues solo to contain a nice balance of 8th notes, triplets, and slides. I highly recommend that you record yourself improvising and then listen back. Did you use all of the techniques? Be analytical of your playing and try making improvements each time you play.

Now if you enjoyed this lesson and you want to learn more blues piano, I highly recommend these courses, where you can do a deep dive on different blues topics:

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

Your teacher,

Jonny May

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