Instructor
Jonny May
Quick Tip
Beginner
Intermediate
19:32

Learning Focus
  • Chords
Music Style
  • Blues
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Do you want to learn how to play authentic blues piano chords but don’t know where to start? Well, in today’s Quick Tip, Blues Chords for Piano: The Complete Guide, Jonny May provides an in-depth and easy-to-follow roadmap for how to quickly achieve that coveted blues piano sound. You’ll learn:

If you are a beginner pianist, this lesson will get you playing sweet blues piano chords right away. On the other hand, if you are a more experienced student, then you will learn how to elevate your blues piano sound with professional tips and tricks.

Intro to Blues Piano Chords

For many piano students, the blues serves as a sort of pedagogical gateway into a more improvisational manner of playing. In fact, as a musical genre, the blues is perfectly suited toward that end. For example, after learning just 3 chords and 1 scale, students can begin to easily navigate the traditional blues form and dip their toe into the waters of spontaneous improvisation.

However, there is a downside to the proliferation of beginner blues piano lessons and tutorials in the field of music education. Sometimes, essential blues concepts are presented in an oversimplified way. As a result, students often acquire a sanitized blues piano sound that isn’t all that bluesy! Therefore, the aim of today’s lesson is to help students discover (or rediscover) blues piano chords in a way that is both simple and authentic.

If you’re a PWJ member, the lesson sheet PDF and backing track for this lesson are included with your membership. These downloadable resources appear at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. Moreover, you can easily transpose this lesson to any key using our Smart Sheet Music. When you are logged in, you’ll find the Smart Sheet Music link in the blue bar at the top of this page.

Constructing Blues Chords: 3 Easy Steps for Beginners

One of the essential characteristics of the blues piano sound is a 4-note chord type called a dominant 7th chord. In this section, we’ll present a user-friendly approach that will enable beginner piano students to quickly construct these chords. If you are already familiar with dominant 7th chords and the 12-bar blues form, then feel free to skip to the next section on signature blues rhythms.

Step 1: The 3 Core Chords

If you’re a beginner piano student, then you are probably most comfortable with playing 3-note chords, or triads. Therefore, that’s where we’ll begin. We build triads by stacking every other note from a parent scale. For example, a C major triad (C–E–G) contains the first, third and fifth tones of the C major scale (C–D–E–F–G–A–B).

To begin, let’s play the 3 core chords for a blues progression in C, except as triads for now, instead of dominant 7th chords. These 3 triads are C major, F major and G major. In addition, we’ll identify these chords according to their relationship to the key of C. For example, C major is the 1-chord, F major is the 4-chord and G major is the 5-chord.

3 Core Chords in C – Triads

Blues Piano Chords for Beginners - Step 1

The illustration below demonstrates how these 3 core chords (aka primary chords) in C major come from the 1st, 4th and 5th degrees of the C major scale. That’s why we refer to them as the 1-chord, 4-chord and 5-chord. (Notice that the notes within each core chord also come from the C major scale.)

Primary Chords: 1, 4 and 5
The “3 Core Chords” (aka primary chords) in any key are derived from the 1st, 4th and 5th scale degrees.

Often times, chords are expressed with Roman numerals in music theory. Therefore, you’ll want to be comfortable recognizing Ⅰ, Ⅳ and Ⅴ as another means of labeling a 1-chord, 4-chord and 5-chord. However, for today’s lesson, we’ll stick to regular numbers, which conforms to the Nashville Number System.

Step 2: Add Another 3rd

Once you can play the 1-chord, 4-chord and 5-chord in C major as triads, the next step is to learn how to convert these triads into dominant 7th chords by adding one more note. In fact, this additional note is needed to give your chords that bluesy character.

Initially, for the beginner student, it can be tricky to figure out exactly which note the additional note should be. For instance, in the example below, we see that the additional note for the C chord  is a B♭. Similarly, the additional note for the F chord is an E♭. However, when it comes to the G chord, the added note is an F♮.

3 Core Chords in C – Dominant 7ths

Blues Piano Chords for Beginners - Step 2

Without a solid grasp on all the major scales and key signatures, no explanation will ultimately clarify for you why the extra note in a dominant 7th chord is sometimes a black key and sometimes a white key. However, there is an easy way to get it right every time, even without a bunch music theory knowledge. The trick is to add the note that is a whole step below the root. Incidentally, a whole step is equal to two half steps, and a half step is defined as the smallest distance you can move on the piano. Therefore, in order to convert a C major chord into a C dominant 7 chord, the additional note is B♭ because the note B♭ is a whole step below the note C.

In music notation, we use the chord symbol “C7” as a more efficient means of expressing “C Dominant 7.” Here, the number “7” indicates that the additional note is the seventh scale tone above the root. Of course, you might have been expecting B♮ instead of B♭. That’s where it gets a bit tricky for entry level students. The truth is that a C7 chord does not come from a C major scale. It actually comes from a C Mixolydian scale (C–D–E–F–G–A–B♭). In the C Mixolydian scale, B♭ is in fact the 7th note above C. However, to keep things simple, just remember to follow the trick we’ve already outlinedto convert a triad into a dominant 7th chord, add the note that is a whole step below the root.

Step 3: Learn the 12-Bar Blues Form

Once you can play the 1-chord, 4-chord and 5-chord in C as dominant 7th chords (C7, F7 and G7), you’re ready to plug these chords into the traditional 12-bar blues form. This historical song form is the most commonly occurring compositional structure used to undergird blues music.

The traditional 12-bar blues form is comprised of 3 phrases, each of which are 4 measures long. Often, this appears in music notation as 3 systems (lines of music) with 4 bars each. However, even if the publisher prints the 12-bars in more or fewer systems, from a conceptual standpoint, you should still think of the blues structure as 3 four-bar units.

The Instant 12-Bar Blues Formula

On today’s lesson sheet, Jonny includes The Instant 12-Bar Formula to help you visualize the 12-bar blues form. This handy little chart shows you exactly how to plug in the 3 core chords into the blues form to achieve the correct chord progression.

Now, let’s examine how a 12-bar blues in C is structured when we follow The Instant 12-Bar Formula. Keep in mind, the example below isn’t exactly how we would perform these chords on an actual blues gig. Later, we’ll learn how to redistribute the notes in these chords to capture a more authentic blues piano sound. Instead, think of the example below as a mental outline.

12-Bar Blues Progression in C

12 Bar Blues Form for Beginners

Before we continue, we should include a quick disclaimer. There is not one “universal blues form.” Instead, you will often find some variations on the form shown above. For example, sometimes a blues song may not switch to the 4-chord in measure 2. Also, when a blues song comes to the end, measure 12 will feature the 1-chord instead of the 5-chord.

Once you feel comfortable with the blues form as we’ve presented it here, then you’re ready to move on to the next section. However, if you had trouble following Step 3, no worries. You can watch Jonny break down the blues form in even further detail in Lesson 1 of The 10-Lesson Blues Challenge (Int, Adv). This comprehensive course is also packed with blues piano grooves, licks, runs and additional improv techniques.

3 Signature Blues Rhythms

In additional to blues chords, it’s also imperative for us to examine some staple blues rhythms. Therefore, this section explores 3 signature rhythms that are common in blues music. All of these rhythms should be played with a “swung 8th note” feel. By combining these rhythms in different ways, you’ll keep your playing sounding natural and free, rather than stiff and contrived.

Rhythm 1: The Charleston

The first rhythm we’ll examine is known as “The Charleston” rhythm because it was featured prominently in James P. Johnson’s 1923 mega hit “The Charleston.” This syncopated rhythm features two chords per measure. The first chord is played short while the second chord is played long. In addition, the first chord lands on beat 1 whereas the second chord is placed on the “and of 2,” (between beats 2 and 3). Since the first chord is played on the beat and the second chord is played off the beat, another term for the Charleston rhythm is on-off chords. Let’s take a listen…

Blues Rhythm 1

Signature Blues Rhythm 1 - The Charleston

Rhythm 2: On, On, Off

In some ways, our next rhythm is similar to “The Charleston” rhythm, except that now we’ve inserted an extra quarter-note-length chord in front of Johnson’s Charleston groove. In other words, the Charleston rhythm has been displaced later in the measure by one beat. Now, we have three chords that are placed on, on, off—on beat 1, on beat 2, and off beat 3. Let’s take a listen…

Blues Rhythm 2

Signature Blues Rhythm 2 - On, On, Off

Rhythm 3: Off, On, On

Finally, our third signature blues rhythm follows a pattern of off, on, on. That is, off beat 1, on beat 3, and on beat 4. Let’s take a listen…

Blues Rhythm 3

Signature Blues Rhythm 3 - Off, On, On

If these rhythms are unfamiliar or uncomfortable to you, spend some time practicing along with the demonstrations above or with a metronome. For reference, the demonstrations above have been recorded at 100 BPM.

So far, we’ve covered how to build dominant 7th chords, the 12-bar blues form, and typical blues rhythms. For the remainder of this lesson, we’ll  discuss how to play blues piano chords with a more professional sound.

Blues Piano Chords: 3 Levels of SPICE

While dominant 7th chords provide the harmonic foundation for traditional blues music, there is still an art to getting professional-sounding blues chords on piano. It’s all about how you arrange the chord tones in relationship to one another. In music theory, we call this concept chord voicing. The study of voicings in jazz theory is comparable to the study of dialects in acting. You need the right sound to make your performance believable. In this section, we’ll make sure that the chords you play actually sound like the blues!

We’ve broken this section down into 3 levels of SPICE:

Before we dive into Level 1, it’s important to stress that all of the chord voicings in each level constitute a professional blues piano sound. Even though the Level 3 voicings are more difficult and advanced than the Level 1 voicings, that doesn’t mean that professional blues pianists never use Level 1 voicings. It’s all a matter of what the music calls for at any given moment. Therefore, students should give serious attention to the voicings in each level that their current ability enables them to undertake.

Level 1: Spread Chords

If you already understand dominant 7th chords and the 12-bar blues progression, but your blues piano chords still seem to be missing something, it’s probably because you haven’t learned how to play spread voicings or open position chords.

Spread voicings use the same essential chord tones as root position dominant 7th chords, except that the notes are spaced or arranged differently. Instead of playing all the notes as close together as possible in one hand, spread voicings literally spread the notes out beyond one octave. Let’s take a listen…

Spread Voicings for C Blues

Blues Piano Chords Level 1 - Spread Chords

Let’s start by examining the C7 voicing. Perhaps you noticed that the 5th of the chord (the note G) has been omitted from this voicing. Omitting the 5th is a common practice in jazz and blues arranging. Therefore, from the bottom-up, the chord tones in this C7 voicing are R–♭7–3–R.

In addition, the C7 above features a slide into the 3rd from a half step below. This  note is written as a ♯2, or D♯, because it resolves upward. However, most musicians tend to think of the sound of this note as the ♭3 (or minor 3rd) because it is the antithesis of the ♮3 (or major 3rd). In fact, the duality created by simultaneously juxtaposing the minor 3rd with the major 3rd strongly embodies the essence of the blues sound.

Next, let’s consider the F7 voicing. The chord tones from the bottom-up are R–3–♭7–5. Similarly, the G7 voicing also uses an R–3–♭7–5 construction. What’s important to notice is that, with the exception of the bass note, all of the chord tones transition smoothly from one chord to the next.

Now let’s hear these Level 1 blues piano chords in the context of the traditional 12-bar blues progression. We’ve notated the entire form for you below using whole notes. However, the performance demonstration uses the 3 signature blues rhythms outlined earlier in this lesson in the following sequence: #1, #3, #1, #2. Let’s take a listen…

12-Bar Blues with Spread Voicings

12-Bar Blues with Open Position Voicings

Once you have learned these spread voicings and feel comfortable playing them with different blues rhythms, you’re ready to add some embellishments.

Level 1 Embellishments

Even though these spread voicings sound good, there is still one element that’s lacking. Professional keyboard players like to include a melodic aspect to their playing, even when they are functioning primarily in a harmonic role. The following embellishments will allow you to add a melodic dimension to your accompaniment so that you’re not playing exclusively from a vertical perspective, which can sound kind of “chunky.”

First, we have “The Middle-Move Trick.” This technique will allow you to add the bluesy inner voice movements that you’ve likely heard on recordings or in live blues performances. Let’s take a listen…

The Middle-Move Trick

Blues Piano Chords - Level 1 Embellishments (The Middle-Move Trick)

The figures above are only representative. In fact, you should practice playing each inner voice motif forward and backward, with and without the slides. Jonny demonstrates several of these possibilities in today’s featured lesson video beginning at around 9:36 in the playback timeline.

Next, we have “The Sidestep Trick.” Sidestepping is a harmonic ornamentation technique in which a target chord is approached from above or below by sliding into it chromatically. In the following examples, the primary chord is played first. Then, another chord is played which is a half-step lower than the primary chord. Finally, the second chord seems to slide back into the primary chord as it is replayed. If you are familiar with how lower neighbors work from a melodic perspective, this is a parallel concept from a harmonic perspective.

The Sidestep Trick

Blues Piano Chords - Level 1 Embellishments (The Sidestep Trick)

Jonny also uses sidestepping from a half step above the primary chord in some of his playing demonstrations in today’s featured lesson video. Some players even sidestep chromatically several times to approach a target chord from a whole step or minor 3rd below or above. There are plenty of possibilities—just try not to overdo it.

Level 2: Extended Chords

While the blues piano chords in Level 1 were all dominant 7th chords, in Level 2, our dominant chord voicings now include chord extensionsFor dominant chords, we can add the 9th and/or the 13th to get a brighter, more jazzy sound.

Chord extensions such as the 9th and the 13th refer to compound intervals above the root. By definition, a compound interval has a span that is greater than one octave. However, it can be helpful to think of chord extensions by their simple interval equivalents. To convert a compound interval into a simple interval, simply subtract the number 7 from the compound interval. For example, 13 – 7 = 6. Therefore, the 13th is the same chord tone as the 6th. Similarly, 9 – 7 = 2; thus, the 9th is the same chord tone as the 2nd.

Let’s take a listen to these extended blues piano voicings…

Extended Voicings for C Blues

Blues Piano Chords Level 2 - Extended Chords

That sounds fantastic! Notice that we’ve added a chromatic slide up to the 3rd in each voicing. These slides are not part of the voicing formula, but they add a nice bluesy inflection.

Let’s analyze the chord tones that make up these voicings. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll won’t consider the root in the bass clef as part of the voicing.  Instead, we’ll just consider the 3 right-hand notes. For C9, from the bottom-up, we have 3–♭7–9. Then, for F13 and G13 we have ♭7–3–13. These voicings can also be played in the left hand when you want to improvise a blues solo in your right hand.

To learn more about how to understand, practice and apply chord extensions in your playing, check out our Mid Intermediate Piano Foundations—Level 5 Learning Track.

Now, let’s play the 12-bar blues with these Level 2 blue piano chords. Once again, we’ve notated the voicings with whole notes; however, the performance demonstration models the 3 signature blues rhythms from earlier in this lesson in the following sequence: #1, #3, #1, #2.

12-Bar Blues with Extended Voicings

12-Bar Blues with Extended Voicings

Once you feel comfortable with these voicings, try incorporating some of the following embellishments.

Level 2 Embellishments

Just like we demonstrated in Level 1, we can also apply The Middle-Move Trick in Level 2. Here are some possibilities…

The Middle-Move Trick

Blues Piano Chords - Level 2 Embellishments (The Middle-Move Trick)

Now, let’s apply The Sidestep Trick. Of course, you can apply the chromatic sidestep movement to all the notes like we did in Level 1. However, another option is to allow the root to remain fixed while you sidestep with the right hand only, as in the example below. Let’s take a listen…

The Sidestep Trick

Blues Piano Chords - Level 2 Embellishments (The Sidestep Trick)

In this case, in isn’t necessary to include the chord symbol in the notation for the lower neighbor chord. However, the right-hand voicings shown are C9→B9→C9, F13→E13→F13 and G13→F♯13→G13.

Level 3: Mega Spread Chords

Sometimes, professional pianists want play blues piano chords with an intense, piercing piano sound. These Level 3 mega spread chord voicings are perfect for ensuring that the piano is heard through a large ensemble. On the other hand, pro pianists also use these voicings in smaller combo situations to imitate the sound of a large big band. Let’s take a listen…

Mega Spread Voicings for C Blues

Blues Piano Chords Level 3 - Mega Spread Voicings

Other names for these mega spread voicings include big band voicings, shout chorus voicings and Red Garland voicings. Here is a breakdown of the voicing formula for each chord… (shown in the format L.H. | R.H.)

C13: 3–13–♭7–9 | 5–9–5

F13: ♭7–9–3–13 | 9–5–9

G13: ♭7–9–3–13 | R–5–R

By the way, the left-hand chord shapes in these mega spread voicings are called rootless voicings. You can learn how to construct, practice and apply rootless voicings in our Late Intermediate Piano Foundations—Level 6 Learning Track.

Let’s hear how these mega spread voicings sound in the context of the 12-bar blues progression. Once again, the performance demonstration below uses the 3 signature blues rhythms in the following sequence: #1, #3, #1, #2.

12-Bar Blues with Mega Spread Voicings

12-Bar Blues with Mega Spread Piano Voicings

That sounds great! To learn more about how to accompany with really big piano chords like we’ve covered here, check out the following PWJ Course:

🔎 5 Jazz Comping Approaches 2 (Adv)

Next, let’s examine some Level 3 embellishments.

Level 3 Embellishments

Just like in the previous levels, we can add a “middle-move trick” to our Level 3 mega spread voicings. Check it out…

The Middle-Move Trick

Blues Piano Chords - Level 3 Embellishments (The Middle-Move Trick)

In addition, we can also add The Sidestep Trick to our Level 3 mega spread voicings. Unlike Level 2 in which we moved the right hand independently, here it is necessary to move both hands in parallel motion. Check it out…

The Sidestep Trick

Blues Piano Chords - Level 3 Embellishments (The Sidestep Trick)

Conclusion

Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson on Blues Chords for Piano: The Complete Guide. With the pro tips and tricks that you’ve learned in today’s lesson, you’ll definitely be gig ready when you get the call!

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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Writer
Michael LaDisa

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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