Blues Piano Tritone Riffs for Maximum Crunch
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Have you ever wondered how to play blues riffs like Oscar Peterson, Beegie Adiar or Monty Alexander? Well, in today’s Quick Tip, Yannick Lambrecht demonstrates how to draw on the tritone to play blues piano riffs tailored for maximum crunch! This lesson includes:
- Intro to Blues Piano Tritone Riffs
- Bb Blues Scales
- Traditional 12 Bar Blues Form in Bb
- Blues Piano Riffs: Right Hand
- What is a tritone?
- Blues Scales and the Tritone
- Tritones with Bluesy Slides
- Blues Piano Harmonized Lines
- Blues Piano Riffs: Left Hand
- Dominant 7th Chords in Root Position
- Rootless Voicings
- Two Handed Blues Piano Tritone Riffs
These bluesy riffs are an absolute must-have for comping with a professional piano sound.
Today’s Quick Tip provides intermediate level students with essential blues piano vocabulary for a professional sound. This lesson builds on a basic knowledge the dominant 7th chords found in a traditional B♭ blues. The lesson sheet and backing tracks are downloadable at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also easily transpose this material to any key using our Smart Sheet Music. We’ll begin by reviewing the two primary blues scales and the 12 bar blues form in the key of B♭.
Bb Blues Scales
First, let’s examine two common blues scales—the B♭ Minor Blues Scale and the B♭ Major Blues Scale. Both scales are essential for jazz and blues improvisation, and each scale presents a distinct blues sound. The minor blues scale uses the notes 1–♭3–4–♯4–5–♭7 (as compared to the major scale). On the other hand, the major blues scale uses the notes 1–2–♯2–3–5–6. The following example presents a side-by-side comparison of both scales.
In the next section, we’ll look at little closer at the intervals in each of these scales. However, to learn more about both of these blues scales, including how to combine them in improvisation, check out Essential Blues Piano Scales: Major & Minor Blues Scale.
Traditional 12 Bar Blues Form in Bb
Next, let’s review the traditional 12 bar blues form. While there are several variations of the blues form, the following example presents a fairly unembellished standard form in B♭.
An important aspect of learning to play the blues includes being able to “hear the changes.” In essence, this means being able to press play on a blues recording anywhere after the beginning and recognize which measure of the form you’re hearing based on the chords. In fact, you can practice this with the video above.
“Having ‘good ears’ means having the ability to hear the roots to the various chords or scales that are being played; having the ability to hear the quality of the chord or scale…”
—Jamie Aebersold, jazz educator and saxophonist
Dissonance (conflicting harmonic sounds) is a key characteristic of the blues style. In fact, certain notes of the blues scale will often create a sense of “rub” or “clash” with the harmony. When used melodically, this sound is often described as “soulful” or “earthy.” Likewise, chords containing balanced used of dissonance are commonly called “crunchy.” However, it is possible to overuse the dissonances in the blues scale. Therefore, the blues piano tritone riffs we’ll learn in today’s lesson carefully balance consonant (agreeing harmonic sounds) and dissonant intervals.
Now, let’s discover the secret to that crunchy blues piano sound! In fact, it’s all about the tritone.
A tritone is the common name for an interval spanning three whole steps. It can be written on the staff as an augmented 4th (ie: E to A♯) or a diminished 5th (E to B♭). This interval has several unique characteristics. First, it is generally considered one of the most dissonant sounding intervals. Secondly, since an octave includes twelve ½ steps and a tritone includes six ½ steps, it divides an octave perfectly in half. Thirdly, a tritone is the only interval which results in an interval of the same exact size when inverted. Finally, a tritone occurs naturally in a dominant 7th chord between the 3rd & 7th of the chord. In fact, a dominant 7(sus4) chord serves to delay or remove this dissonance.
Blues Scales and the Tritone
Our first order of business in preparing to play blues piano riffs with maximum crunch is to recognize where the tritone occurs in each blues scale. In the minor blues scale, there is a tritone between the ♯4 and the 1. The major blues scale also has a tritone between the ♯2 and the 6. This is illustrated in the following diagram.
In today’s Quick Tip video, Yannick points out a helpful hint for quickly finding both of the tritones shown above in any key. If you build a fully diminished 7th chord on the ♭3 of the key (or #2 enharmonically), this chord contains the tritones from both blues scales.
Tritones with Bluesy Slides
When soloing and comping, professional pianists will often ornament the tritones found in the blues scales. By using a technique called harmonized slides, pianist can mimic the sound of a guitarist sliding on the fretboard or bending a note. To create this effect on piano, we simply approach the bottom note of the tritone from a ½ step below. In fact, many pianists will play this gesture by literally sliding their index finger from a black key up to the adjacent white key. Other pianists, however, play slides with two fingers. Regardless of which method you prefer, slides from white keys up to black keys can only be played by using two fingers. Here are examples of each tritone played with a harmonized slide. Notice that in notation, the slide appears as a grace note. However, the “grace note” is actually played concurrently with the top note.
Blues Piano Harmonized Lines
Now that we’ve learned how to combine each tritone with a harmonized slide, let’s incorporate these piano techniques into some blues riffs. To do this, we’ll play a harmonized line by walking the bottom note down the corresponding blues scale while re-striking the top note. Try playing the following examples.
We’ll use each of these harmonized lines later in this lesson as the foundation for our crunchy blue comping. But first, let’s turn our attention to the left hand.
In this section, we’ll cover three left hand voicings that work great over a B♭ blues. While the voicing constructions involve some jazz theory that is a bit advanced for some students, the voicings themselves are not difficult to play. Therefore, students should not allow the theory get in the way of the enjoyment that comes from playing these jazzy chords. It is certainly okay to learn and memorize these voicings by rote learning.
Dominant 7th Chords in Root Position
First, let’s examine the chords for B♭ blues in their most basic form. The three dominant 7th chords required to play a standard blues are the 1-chord, 4-chord and 5-chord. In the key of B♭ , these chords are B♭7, E♭7 and F7. [Click or tap on each chord below to hear its sound.👆🖱🎹🔊]
Now, let’s explore some more tasty sounds using a jazz piano technique called rootless voicings. These voicings are especially well-suited for ensemble playing in which a bass player is covering the roots of each chord. This frees you up as a pianist to add additional chord colors. Rootless voicings typically include the 3rd and 7th of the chord and one or two additional chord extensions. Chord extensions are the 9th, 11th and 13th above the root. This is where a bit of jazz theory comes in. However, it may help to think of these notes as the 2nd, 4th and 6th. Either way, you get the same notes. For a deep dive on chord extensions, check out our full-length course on Piano Chord Extensions (Level 2).
The following rootless voicings containt just three notes and sound fantastic on a blues. These three-note voicings are built from the bottom up using the construction 3-7-9 or 7-3-13. [Click or tap on each voicing below to hear its sound.👆🖱🎹🔊]
Did you notice that each of these rootless voicings also contains a tritone between the 3rd and 7th tones? When we combine these voicings with the tritones from the blues scales in our right hand, we wind up with a chord sound that is contains maximum crunch! In fact, that’s what were going to cover in the next section. However, if you want to explore rootless voicings further, be sure to check out our lesson on Rootless Voicings—Chord Types & 2-5-1 Application (Level 3).
Now that we have learned some harmonized lines with tritones in our right hand and some tasty rootless voicings in our left hand, it’s time to put it all together. In fact, you can play the harmonized line from either blues scale over any of the rootless voicings in the previous section. For example, in the first 4 bars of the blues form, you can comp with the following minor blues riff.
Wow, what and incredible sound! In the next 4 bars, let’s switch it up and play a riff using our harmonized line from the major blues scale.
Well done! Finally, let’s return back to our minor blues harmonized line the our final 4 bars of the form.
Fantastic job! As you are beginning to see, it’s really not too hard to get a professional sound using these techniques.
The examples in the previous section are representative rather than exhaustive. Therefore, see if you can come up with some bluesy riffs of your own using the same raw materials. In addition, be sure to check out the final page of the lesson sheet which covers how to incorporate these concepts on blues forms with additional passing chords.
If you enjoyed this lesson, then you will love the following courses:
- Jazzy Blues Comping (Level 2, Level 3)
- Jazz Swing Accompaniment (Level 2, Level 3)
- The Bible of Blues Riffs (Level 2, Level 3)
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.
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Aebersold, Jamey. Jazz Handbook. , 2013.
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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