3 Steps to Play Minor Blues Piano
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If you are like many aspiring jazz pianists, then you’ve probably had an early introduction to blues piano. That’s because the blues often serves as the educational gateway by which music students explore the world of improvisation. In fact, the traditional 12 bar blues form allows beginner students the opportunity to jump right into playing their first solo after learning just 1 scale and 3 chords. Unfortunately, sometimes that is the extent of the blues training that a student receives. For example, did you know that there is more than one type of blues form? In today’s Quick Tip, John Proulx presents 3 Steps to Play Minor Blues Piano. You’ll learn:
- Intro to Minor Blues
- 3 Steps to Play Minor Blues on Piano
Understanding the minor blues is an essential skill for taking your blues piano playing to the next level.
To understand the minor blues, we need to examine its quintessential form and listen to some examples. Then, we can compare the minor blues form to the more common major blues form to discover basic similarities and differences.
A minor blues is a common song form used in blues and jazz standards that possesses a somber and gritty sonic character. The most common minor blues form contains 12 bars and features a total of four chords: Ⅰm7, Ⅳm7, Ⅴ7 and♭Ⅵ7. For example, in a C minor blues, the chords are Cm7, Fm7, G7 and A♭7. The chords are arranged in three 4-bar phrases as follows: (1) Ⅰm7 for 4 measures, (2) Ⅳm7 for 2 measures followed by Ⅰm7 for 2 measures, (3) ♭Ⅵ7 for 1 measure, Ⅴ7 for 1 measure, Ⅰm7 for 1 measure and V7 to return back to the top of the form.
Popular songs that use the standard minor blues form are “The Thrill Is Gone” by B.B. King and “Equinox” by John Coltrane. Lee’s Morgan’s “Party Time” is also based on the standard minor blues form shown above; however, it contains additional passing chords in bars 1–8.
“The Thrill Is Gone” (1969)
“Party Time” (1967)
Of course, not all minor blues tunes follow the exact same chord changes shown above. For example, it is especially common to find some variation in the final four measures of the 12-bar form. Listening to the following examples will give you a broader perspective on minor blues possibilities:
- “Birk’s Works” by Dizzy Gillespie
- “Footprints” by Wayne Shorter
- “Mr. P.C.” by John Coltrane
- “Señor Blues” by Horace Silver
- “St. James Infirmary” by Joe Primrose
Next, let’s consider how the standard minor blues form differs from the traditional major blues form.
Both the standard blues form and the minor blues form are usually based on a 12-bar structure. In fact, the essential chords in each form include the Ⅰ, Ⅳ and Ⅴ chords. Moreover, the chord changes in each form occur in the same measures. However, the standard blues form uses dominant 7th chords throughout. By contrast, a minor blues uses minor 7th chords for the tonic (Ⅰ) and subdominant (Ⅳ) chords. In addition, the minor blues form also employs the ♭Ⅵ7 chord. The diagrams below illustrate these similarities and differences.
Now that you know how a minor blues differs from a standard blues, you’re ready to start playing the minor blues form in the next section. For a deep dive on the standard blues form, check out our course on The 10-Lesson Blues Challenge (Int, Adv).
Piano students of all levels can learn to play minor blues in just 3 steps. First, you need to learn the basic chords for the minor blues. Next, you’ll need an accompaniment pattern. Finally, you’ll need an improv scale to use when soloing.
The following three sections will help you tackle each step with bite-sized musical examples. All of the examples are taken from today’s lesson sheet PDF. In fact, you can download the complete lesson sheet PDF and backing track from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also easily transpose these materials to any key using our Smart Sheet Music.
Alright, let’s get started with Step 1.
The following minor blues examples are in the key of A minor. This key has no sharps or flats in the key signature. However, we will encounter several accidentals to obtain the correct chord qualities, so be sure to keep an eye out for that.
First, we need to determine the specific four chords needed to play a minor blues in this key. As we mentioned earlier, these chords are the Ⅰm7, Ⅳm7, Ⅴ7 and♭Ⅵ7 chords. Therefore, our specific chords are Am7, Dm7, E7 and F7. The following diagrams illustrates these chords in their most basic, root position form.
For theory nerds only: When we say ♭Ⅵ7, the “♭” symbol in front of the Ⅵ indicates that we are taking about a chord built on the note that is a minor 6th above the tonic. In A minor, the ♭Ⅵ7 is F7. This presents a clear distinction from another type of 6-chord often used in minor keys, the Ⅵø7 (half-diminished), which is built on the note that is a major 6th above the tonic. In A minor, the Ⅵø7 is F#ø7. Sometimes, you’ll find both the ♭Ⅵ7 and the Ⅵø7 in a minor blues, as in our advanced level Traditional Minor Blues 3 course.
The next step is to simply take the chords above and plug them into the 12-bar form. Here’s what we get…
A Minor Blues – Root Position 7th Chords
These root position chords provide enough of a start to where we can begin to heard the overall form. However, the example above is not performance ready just yet. It needs to be arranged into an accompaniment pattern that provides a stronger sense of rhythm. In addition, we can also spread out the notes of the chords a bit better so they don’t sound as muddy. We’ll address all of these considerations in the next section.
Sometimes, beginner students play the blues with root position chords in whole notes like we saw in the previous section. Usually, this is for no other reason except that they have not been shown another way. The good news is that it’s not necessarily harder to play a more interesting accompaniment. You just need to understand a bit about arranging for piano.
If you are accompanying a blues singer all by yourself, you generally want to provide some sort of bass line in the left hand. Then, you can outline the harmony and add rhythmic interest by comping with chords in your right hand. In this section, we’ll examine a beginner/intermediate accompaniment and an intermediate/advanced accompaniment that contain both of these elements.
Beginner & Early Intermediate Accompaniment
The simplest type of bass line in blues and jazz is called a “two-feel” because it is characterized by two pulses per measure. These pulses occur on the strong beats of the measure—beats 1 and 3. Therefore, a two-feel bass line is comprised of half-notes primarily. Of course, more advanced players may ornament a two-feel with additional approach tones and ghost notes. However, for our purposes here, we’ll use half-notes exclusively to create a bass line that is easily accessible for beginners.
The basic formula for a two-feel bass line is to play the root of the chord on beat 1 and the 5th of the chord on beat 3. Keep in mind, the 5th can be played above the root or below the root. Moreover, when a given chord lasts for multiple measures, it is not necessary to play the root and 5th in the same register for each measure. In fact, it’s more common to vary these notes in different octaves (see example below).
In the right hand, we’ll use simple 2-note voicings called guide tones to express the harmony. The guide tones of a 7th chord are its 3rd and 7th. These notes can appear also appear as inverted guide tones, where the 3rd is voiced above the 7th (see measure 5 below for an example of inverted guide tones). When transitioning from one chord to the next, professional pianists place a high priority on selecting voicings that connect the harmony with the closest possible movement. We call this principle voice leading. Once you have worked out your voicings, the last step is to apply a rhythmic pattern that creates a sense of groove, as in the following example.
“Two-Feel” + Guide Tones
Notice that in measure 11, we placed the root of Am7 on beats 1 and 3 in the left hand. This increases the harmonic clarity of our accompaniment by saving the note E for the arrival of the E7 chord in measure 12 (instead of on beat 3 of measure 11).
Late Intermediate & Advanced Accompaniment
There are many different techniques for constructing walking bass lines. However, the basic formula we’ve applied in this lesson is the sequence root-5th-root-5th on beats 1, 2, 3 and 4 respectively. Remember, even though we are alternating between the root and the 5th of the chord, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we are going back and forth between these pitches in the exact same register.
Occasionally, it’s nice to add chromatic notes to a bass line. For example, on beat 4 of measure 4, instead of going to the 5th of Am9, we have the note C♯. This note is a chromatic lower neighbor that is being used to approach the note D on beat 1 of measure 5. In fact, this note implies an A7 chord, which is a secondary dominant—the V7/IV (pronounced “five-seven of four”). In other words, the note C♯ is the leading tone in the key the resolution chord—D minor. Therefore, we’ve labeled the C♯ a secondary leading tone. Other examples of chromatic approach tones are the G♯ in measure 6 and the D♯ in measure 11.
The intermediate/advanced accompaniment below uses 4-note rootless voicings in the right hand for a rich, jazzy sound. These voicings contain the guide tones plus two additional notes. You can learn all about rootless voicings in our Late Intermediate Piano Foundations—Level 6 Learning Track.
By combining a walking bass line with rootless voicings, we get the following minor blues accompaniment…
Walking Bass + Rootless Voicings
Alright, now you’re ready for Step 3 which explores improvisation on a minor blues.
In this section, you’ll learn the most important improv scale for soloing on a minor blues. Then, we’ll go even deeper with this scale by playing some helpful improv exercises.
The minor blues scale is the primary improv scale for soloing over a minor blues. You can construct a minor blues scale from any major scale using the formula 1–♭3–4–♯4–5–♭7. Therefore, the A minor blues scale contains the notes A–C–D–D♯–E–G. (Note, the ♯4 may also be expressed as a ♭5, especially when descending). Let’s play this scale ascending and descending.
A Minor Blues Scale
Nice job! Now, let’s play some exercises that will help you get more comfortable with this scale.
Our first improv exercise explores the A minor blues scale in continuous 8th notes. Notice, the ascending scale goes up to the ♭3. Similarly, the descending scale goes down to the ♭7. This allows you to play an extended 8th note line without interruption. The following demo uses a “swung 8ths” feel.
Scale Exercise #1: 8th Notes
Of course, we can also play the A minor blues scale in triplets. This following exercise ascends and descends in triplets over a span of two octaves.
Scale Exercise #2: Triplets
Many players often use ostinato triplet licks in their solos. For example, if you isolate the ♯4, 5 and♭7 tones of the minor blues scale, you can create the following triplet lick:
Triplet Lick #1: ♯4–5–♭7
A similar lick can be created with the ♮7, 1 and♭3. Even though the ♮7 is not technically a scale tone in the minor blues scale, it still works as the leading tone or chromatic neighbor to the tonic note A.
Triplet Lick #2: ♮7–1–♭3
Now that you’ve played the A minor blues scale in various formats and explored several triplet licks, be sure review the final section of today’s featured Quick Tip video where John Proulx combines all of these tools in a sample solo. Afterward, try improvising your own solo.
Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson on 3 Steps to Play Minor Blues Piano. You now have a strong foundation for understanding and playing minor blues repertoire. For even more professional tips and tricks on this topic, check out our full-length courses for all playing levels on Traditional Minor Blues (Beg, Int, Adv). Inside theses courses, you’ll learn additional form variations, chord voicings, passing chords, accompaniment patterns, improv techniques and more.
If you enjoyed this lesson, then be sure to check out the following PWJ resources:
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.
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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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