3 Steps to Make a Chord Progression Bluesy
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What do we mean when we say “bluesy?” The specifics might be difficult to describe, but the sound is unmistakable. The blues, as a genre, generally follows a 12-bar structure and uses a specific chord progression. But other musical characteristics also contribute to the unique blues sound. In fact, Dion Brown, director of the The National Blue Museum, calls the blues “the bedrock of all American music.” ¹ What do you suppose he means? In today’s Quick Tip, you’ll learn how to identify these non-structural characteristics of the blues that are infused into many modern music styles. Then, you’ll apply this knowledge to transform a common progression into a bluesy chord progression. You’ll learn:
- Bluesy Characteristics Beyond the 12-Bar Form
- Blues Form vs. Blues Expression—Listening Examples
- 12-Bar Blues Form In Other Genres
- Blues Expression in Other Genres
- Blues Form vs. Blues Expression—Listening Examples
- Incorporating Blues Characteristics on Piano
- Bluesy Piano Scales
- Bluesy Piano Chords
- Bluesy Rhythms
- Transforming the Turnaround into a Bluesy Chord Progression
- Beginner/Intermediate Level
- Advanced Level
If you want to add a soulful sound to your piano playing, then this lesson is for you.
The influence of the blues music on American popular music is hard to overstate. In today’s lesson, we’ll see that at times the formal 12-bar blues structure itself appears in popular music. However, other song examples maintain a bluesy character that is independent from the song form. Author and professor emeritus Earl L. Stewart of the University of California, Santa Barbara describes this stylistic nuance as characteristics of the African American vernacular tradition. ²
“The blues form and specific blues characteristics are quite distinctive. These characteristics, however, are not only heard in classic blues songs. There are few American vernacular styles in which one or more characteristics of the blues are not consistently and noticeably present.”
—Earl L. Stewart, Composer and Author
Let’s take a listen now to some examples of popular songs which bear the influence of the blues tradition.
12-Bar Blues Form In Other Genres
W.C. Handy (1873–1958), known as “the Father of the Blues,” was a composer, early ethnomusicologist and music publisher credited with advancing the blues from a regional style to a popular style. Handy’s “St Louis Blues”(1914) is one of the earliest popular songs bearing the standard 12-bar blues form. However, Handy’s original recording of “St. Louis Blues” more closely resembles ragtime music. The blues also shaped the music of rock n roll pioneers Little Richard (1932–2020) and Chuck Berry (1926–2017). For example, Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” (1954) and Chuck Berry’s “Johnnie B. Goode” (1958) both make direct use of the standard 12-bar form. This form was also adopted by non-black artists such as Bill Haley & His Comets in “Rock Around the Clock” (1952) and Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” (1956).
“St. Louis Blues” (1914)
“Tutti Frutti” (1954)
“Hound Dog” (1956)
Blues Expression in Other Genres
Since the blues is born out of the African American experience, it would be short-sighted to essentialize the blues exclusively with a particular song structure, such as the 12-bar form. Rather, the character of the blues style is more keenly observed in the musical expression of the performers reared in its musical heritage. This expression, in fact, carries over when singing or playing other genres. Therefore, gospel, jazz, r&b and soul genres all share common stylistic and aesthetic features with the blues. The follow recordings demonstrate examples of blues stylization beyond the blues genre.
Ella & Duke
“Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me” (1965)
“Since I Fell For You” (1947)
“At Last” (1961)
First, we have Ella Fitzgerald (1917–1996) and Duke Ellington’s (1899–1974) performance of “Do Nothing ‘Till You Hear From Me” on The Ed Sullivan Show (1965). While Duke and Ella were both masterful jazz musicians, this performance contains such prominent blues characteristics that it could rightly considered a masterclass in blues stylization. In particular, the use of “blue notes” can be heard in Ella’s vocal melismas, in Duke’s piano slides and in the solo trumpet lines. In fact, the interplay between the lyrics and the trumpet function as a call and response, another characteristic of the blues. Notice also that the technique of using a plunger mute on the trumpet gives it an expressive quality that imitates a human voice, at times even depicting the guttural effects common among blues singers.
Next, we have an early rhythm and blues recording of “Since I Fell for You” by Annie Laurie (1924–2006) and the Paul Gayten Trio (1947). This tune is based on a common chord progression called the turnaround. However, Gayten’s approach to this chord progression features bluesy piano fills and altered dominant chords containing blue notes.
Lastly, we have Etta James’ (1938–2012) classic soul recording of “At Last” (1961). James’ vocal extemporizations draw on the blues scale and at times are powerfully propelled by a technique described as “blues shouting.” This tune is also based on the turnaround progression, and features pulsating triplets on piano.
In the next section, we’ll explore piano techniques that contribute to a bluesy sound.
Three basic categories for developing a bluesy piano sound are (1) blues scales, (2) bluesy chords, and (3) blues rhythms.
Bluesy Piano Scales
Blues vocal style commonly features blue notes or bent pitches which provide a strong emotional connection with the lyrics. The most significant “blue note” is the lowered 3rd scale tone. We call this the “flat 3” or “♭3.” In addition, the #4 and the ♭7 are also blue notes. The major blues scale and the minor blues scale are both essential scales for capturing this melodic character. The major blues scale features only one blue note, the ♭3. On the other hand, the minor blues scale contains all three blue notes. The example below shows the C Major Blues Scale and the C Minor Blues Scale side-by-side.
Bluesy Piano Chords
Dominant 7th chords, which contain a tritone interval between the 3rd and 7th, are the most common chord type found in blues music. Converting all of the chords in a turnaround progression into dominant 7th chords gives it a more bluesy sound. Notice in the example below how several of these dominant chords also contain “blue notes” found in the C minor blues scale. In addition, many blues piano chords contain extensions (9th, 13th) and alterations (♭9, ♯9,♭13) which add extra crunch.
Popular blues tunes such as “10 Long Years” (1956) by B.B. King and “My Time After A While” (1997) by Buddy Guy feature a compound meter. In other words, each count is subdivided into 3 smaller units rather than 2. This feel is frequently expressed as a 12/8 groove, although it can also be written in 4/4 time using triplets. Compare the groove below to step 3 in the next section to hear how aspects of this groove can be adopted by pianists to created a bluesy piano feel.
Now that we have identified key characteristics of a bluesy piano sound, let’s play a bluesy turnaround chord progression like we heard in “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me,” “Since I Fell For You” and “At Last.”
The follow examples are excerpted from the lesson sheet PDF that is included with this lesson. In fact, you can download the complete lesson sheet from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also easily transpose this lesson to any key using our Smart Sheet Music.
Today’s lesson materials are presented in two levels. First, an entry level version for beginner and intermediate students. However, if you are a more experienced player, you may choose to skip to the advanced examples.
Let’s begin by playing a diatonic turnaround progression in C. The word diatonic simply means that we’ll only uses notes and chords that are derived from the C major scale. If you are not familiar with the standard turnaround progression, this progression follows the sequence I▵7-VIm7-IIm7-V7. Another way of stating this is that the turnaround progression use diatonic 7th chords on the 1st, 6th, 2nd and 5th tones of the C major scale. However, in measure 3, the 3-chord substitutes for the 1-chord to add a little variety. The example below places the root of each chord in the left hand while the right hand plays the 3rd and 7th, which are also called the guide tones. In some cases, the 3rd is written above the 7th, as in the opening chord.
Step 1: Basic Diatonic 1-6-2-5 Chord Progression
For a deep dive on how to play chord progressions with the guide tone voicing technique, check out Chord Shell & Guide Tone Exercises (Level 2).
Step 2: Convert to Dominant 7th Chords
The next step is to convert all of the chords from the previous example into dominant 7th chords. Dominant 7th chords feature a major 3rd and a minor 7th. If you need a refresher on how to build dominant 7th chords, then be sure to check out Dominant 7th Chord Exercises (Level 2).
Step 3: Add Top Harmony and Bass Line
We can further stylize this progression by adding a C “pedal note” or “top harmony” to each of the chords in the previous example. Note, this will force us to modify the V7 chord to a V7(sus4) instead. In other words, we should not play both B and C in a G7 chord because these notes played together would clash. We will also add a rhythmic bass line in this step by approaching the root of each chord from a ½ step above. Note, the rhythm of this bass line matches the bass drum part of the 12/8 groove in the previous section. Finally, instead of half notes in the right hand, the following example features quarter notes. Stylistically, these quarter notes should be played with a slight emphasis on beats 2 and 4.
Another option in step 3 is to play triplets on each beat with the right hand.
Great job! Next, we’ll examine a how to play a bluesy chord progression with more advanced chord voicings and a more syncopated bass line.
You may notice right away that this version contains 4-note voicings in the right hand as compared to 2 notes in the previous section. These chord voicings include chord extensions, resulting in a more colorful and dense sound. Chord extensions are additional notes besides the root, 3rd, 5th and 7th that blend well with a chord.
Step 1: Diatonic 1-6-2-5 Progression with Rootless Voicings
Begin by playing a 1-6-2-5 turnaround progression using rootless voicings in your right hand. If you haven’t studied rootless voicings yet, check out our course on 251 Rootless Voicings–Right Hand Chords (Levels 2 & 3). (Note, the IIIm9 chord requires an accidental of F#).
Step 2: Convert to Dominant Chords with Extensions
Next, to get a more bluesy sound, we’ll convert each of these chords into a dominant chord.
Step 3: Add Top Harmony and Bass Line
Finally, we’ll stylize this progression by adding a C “pedal note” or “top harmony” to each of the chords in the previous example. Note that the first chord is a supper jazzy C13 voicing requiring a fairly large spread in the right hand. If necessary, you can take the B♭ up an octave. Also, be sure to modify the V9(add13) of the previous example to a V9(sus4) instead.
This example is more rhythmically syncopated. The right hand chords now enter on the “offbeats.” In the left hand, we’ve added an additional chromatic approach tone in the bass line on our way toward each root.
Did you notice that the C pedal note has become a chord alteration in a few of these chords? Specifically, the note C is the ♯9 in A+7(#9). It is also the ♯5 in E+7(#9).
Another option to play triplets in the right hand, as in the following example.
Congratulations, you’ve complete this lesson on 3 Steps to Make a Chord Progression Bluesy. If enjoyed today’s lesson, then you will also love the following resources:
- St Louis Blues Challenge (Levels 1–3)
- Rootless Voicings–Chord Types and 2-5-1 Application (Level 3)
- 6 Jazz Ballad Harmonic Approaches (Level 2, Level 3)
- The Major Blues Scale/Gospel Scale (Level 2, Level 3)
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.
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¹ Watts, Paul. Liner notes. From the Beginning: Vol. 1. National Blues Museum. Acrobat Licensing Ltd., 2017. CD.
² Stewart, Earl L. African American Music: An Introduction. New York: Schirmer Books, 1998.
Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...
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