6 Steps to Play Beginner Blues Piano
One of the greatest joys of studying music happens when you develop the ability to play music that sounds good—really good! However, too often students spend countless hours in practice without enjoying their output. If you can relate to this, then this Quick Tip is for you. In today’s lesson, you will learn 6 steps that you can use right now to play beginner blues piano improv that sounds really good! It literally won’t be long before you are able to apply these 6 steps to play pro sounding blues piano licks. In fact, you’ll only need the following ingredients:
- 2 left hand chords
- 4 right hand notes
That’s right, with just these few ingredients, you will be able to play beginner blues piano licks that will take you back to the reason we all started studying piano in the first place—to play! And if you are reading this and you haven’t formally started playing piano yet, today’s lesson is the perfect place to begin.
Let’s get started…
Beginner Blues Piano Approach
Today’s lesson covers three essential concepts for playing blues piano: chords, scales, and improvisation. For many students, improvisation seems so intimidating that they feel the need to run from it. In actuality, we encourage you to run to it! That’s right, the sooner you start improvising, the more natural it will become for you. The basic chords and scale presented in this lesson are limited in scope so that you begin to explore improvisation immediately.
Step One: 2 Blues Piano Chords
As a beginner, you can get started playing blues piano with only 2 chords. You don’t even need to read music. The chords you will need to get started are Cm7 and F7:
Over time, the ability to read music serves students very well, but a balanced approach should encourage students to explore playing sounds that are beyond their current ability to read. In fact, speaking always precedes reading in language learning. So don’t worry right now if you cannot read both treble and bass clef. To start out, you just need to be able to memorize these two chords by their shape and sound. (We have included notation with alpha-noteheads for these chords as a reference and to recommend specific fingerings, but if you are continually referring to the notation, you are likely to miss the point. Everything in today’s lesson can be learned by imitation.)
This groove is known as a “4 On The Floor” groove, and it is common to blues and jazz piano styles. To make quick progress, watch the video deliberately to grasp how to transition between each chord. For example, did you notice that the notes C and E♭ are common tones in Cm7 and F7?
What is a common tone?
A common tone is a note that is shared by consecutive chords in a chord progression. Not all consecutive chords in a chord progression contain a common tone. However, it is not unusual for some chord progressions to contain two or more common tones between consecutive chords.
Becoming aware of common tones reduces the frequency with which a pianist must look at their hands. The common tones function like tactile anchors for your fingers. You can more easily navigate the notes that move from chord to chord without looking by keeping your fingers in contact with the notes that do not move. Try playing the progression above again using the fingerings indicated in the left hand. Can you switch between Cm7 and F7 without looking at your hand? Setting this groove on autopilot in your left hand will free you up to improvise bluesy piano licks in your right hand.
To prepare to improv, try playing the left hand “4 On The Floor” groove with the backing track included with this lesson. You can access the backing track and lesson sheet from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also transpose this lesson into any key using our Smart Sheet Music.
Step Two: Beginner Blues Scale for Piano
Nearly all blues methods teach blues scales as a point of entry for improvisation. However, for the absolute beginner, a full blues scale can pose a challenge because it contains 6 notes to be played by 5 fingers. Inevitably, this requires additional skills such as crossing the thumb under the when ascending and crossing the 3rd finger over when descending. For this reason, today’s lesson uses a 4 note blues scale called a “Beginner Blues Scale.”
These four notes can be played from a single hand position using the fingering indicated above. As you’ll see in the next section, you can create some truly classic blues lines using only these four notes!
Step Three: 8th Note Blues Exercise
Next, we want to prepare you to improvise with the Beginner Blues Scale. The most common note value used in blues piano improv is 8th notes. Since your left hand is playing quarter notes, that means you will need to play 2 notes in the right hand for every 1 chord played in the left hand. Try playing the 8th note exercise below.
Once you feel comfortable playing this exercise with the backing track, you are ready to try some improvised 8th note lines. As you begin to improvise, there are some important considerations to keep in mind. Firstly, try playing lines in different directions. There are two general types of lines—uplines and downlines. It is important to have variety in your improv or it will sound like a scale exercise. Secondly, remember that you can repeat a note several times before going up or down. Thirdly, be sure to leave gaps between your lines. You can do this by adding rests, but also by adding longer notes such as half notes.
Step Four: Triplet Blues Exercise
Our next exercise focus specifically on mastering triplets, which is the 2nd most common duration in blues soloing. Triplets are great for adding energy, excitement and variety to your lines. In this exercise below, you will play 3 notes in the right hand for every 1 chord in the left hand.
Great job! You can also play this exercise by beginning on the G♭ and then descending down to C and back up. Afterward, you’ll be ready to try improvising your own triplet lines.
Step Five: Finger Slide Blues Exercise
If you really want to capture an authentic blues piano sound, then you will want to add finger slides (“slides” for short). Slides are a blues ornament that adds flavor to your sound. To play a slide, you will literally slide your finger from a black key to a white key. Both notes should be played with the same finger. For example, in the exercise below, you will use the middle finger to play G♭ and then slide the middle finger down to F.
What a cool sound! This immediately takes your sound to the next level. You can add slides to both 8th note and triplet lines. This technique also sounds great in the upper register of the piano.
If you are enjoying this lesson, you will certainly love our 10 Day Blues Challenge. In this absolutely free program you will receive 5 free videos via email in which you will learn even more hallmark blues piano techniques including how to improvise in lower position and upper position, a left hand blues shuffle, the 12-bar blues form and more.
Step Six: Improvisation
The final step is to combine the techniques mentioned so far as you begin to improvise freely. Remember, at this stage it is not recommended or even helpful to evaluate your improvisation anymore than it would be to critique a baby’s first words. The goal is simply to engage in the creative language acquisition process through improvisation. Here are some examples for you to try.
As you can see, there is a lot you can do with just 2 chords and 4 notes that sounds very good! With just a little trial and error, you can be improvising beginner blues piano in no time. Afterward, you can choose one of our Learning Tracks according to your current playing level and musical interests to build up your foundation.
If you enjoyed today’s lesson, you may also enjoy the following courses:
- 4-On-The-Floor Blues (Level 2, Level 3)
- St Louis Blues Challenge (Levels 2 & 3)
- Amazing Grace Piano Hymn–Slow Gospel Blues (Level 2, Level 3)
- How to Create a Blues Solo (Levels 2 & 3)
- 10 Essential Jazz & Blues Endings (Level 2, Level 3)
Thanks for learning with us today. We’ll see you next time!
Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by Jonny May
Get free weekly lessons to your inbox!
More Free Lessons
Learn to master the stride piano techniques that dominated early solo jazz piano styles for nearly half-a-century with this #1 stride piano exercise.
Discover the techniques used by composer Joshua Foy to improvise various moods used in film music on the piano.
Piano students of all levels will learn to improvise effortless and musical lines with the major scale in the contemporary style using these 3 techniques.
Looking for downloads?
Subscribe to a membership plan for full access to this Quick Tip's sheet music and backing tracks!
The Piano With Jonny Membership
Guided Learning Tracks
View guided learning tracks for all music styles and skill levels
Complete lessons and courses as you track your learning progress
Download Sheet Music and Backing Tracks
Engage with other PWJ members in our member-only community forums
Become a better piano player today. Try us out completely free for 14 days!