Learn 5 Rhythm Exercises for Blues Piano Improv

Instructor
Jonny May
Quick Tip
Level 1
Level 2
13:59

Learning Focus
  • Chords
  • Exercises
  • Improvisation
  • Rhythm
  • Songs
Music Style
  • Blues

Do you struggle to make your blues improvisation sound interesting? Students who feel bored by their own playing oftentimes think that the solution it to learn more scales, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. The real reason students are bored by their improvisation is because they aren’t exploring all of the rhythmic possibilities that they can use with one scale. In today’s lesson, I’m going to teach you 5 rhythm exercises to master blues piano improv. These “Rhythm Templates” are essential blues rhythms that you can use to create awesome lines with the C Blues Scale. In this lesson, we cover:

  • The C Blues Scale
  • The 12-Bar Blues Form and Chords
  • Three 1-measure Rhythm Templates (rhythm exercises)
  • Two 2-measure Rhythm Templates (rhythm exercises)

By going through these 5 exercises, you will start to expand your rhythm possibilities. Best of all, you’ll start to enjoy your playing again. Let’s dive in.

Step 1: The Blues Scale

The first step in creating awesome blues lines is to know the C blues scale!

What is the C blues scale?

The C blues scale is C Eb F F# G and Bb. It is a 6-note scale. You can think of the C Blues scale as a modification of the C Major Scale, where you play the 1 b3 4 #4 5 and b7 of the major scale. Here is the C blues scale:

C blues scale on piano
C blues scale on piano

One of the beautiful qualities of the C blues scale is that you can play the entire scale up and down the keyboard with only 2 fingers. Give it a try! Start with your thumb on C, then your 3rd finger (middle finger) on Eb, then the thumb on F, 3rd finger on F#, thumb on G, 3rd finger on Bb, and thumb on C.

This consistency between the thumb and middle finger makes the C blues scale an ideal scale to solo with if you are more of a beginner blues pianist. If you are more of an intermediate or advanced level pianist, this 1-3 fingering makes it super easy to speed the scale up to blazing fast tempos.

Now, before moving on, I highly recommend that you practice this scale up and down the piano.  (One key to being a great improviser is to be comfortable playing up and down the keyboard in any “register”). You can learn several excellent Blues Scale exercises in our 10-Lesson Blues Challenge (Level 2, Level 3).

Now that you know the C Blues Scale, it’s time to learn the 12-Bar Blues Form.

Step 2: The 12-Bar Blues Form

If you want to learn rhythm exercises to master blues piano improv, you need to first know the 12 Bar Blues Form.

What is the 12 Bar Blues?

The 12 Bar blues is 12 measures consisting of 1 bar of C7, 1 bar of F7, 2 bars of C7, 2 bars of F7, 2 bars of C7, 1 bar of G7, 1 bar of F7, 1 bar of C7, and 1 bar of G7.

Here is the 12-bar blues written in lead sheet style with the left hand chords:

12-bar blues form in the key of C lead sheet style on piano
12-bar blues form in the key of C lead sheet style on piano

If the chords above don’t look familiar to you, don’t worry! These are called Dominant 7 chords and you can do a deep dive on them in our Dominant 7 Chord Theory & Application and Dominant 7 Chord Exercises courses.

As you can see, there are only 3 chords, which makes the blues fairly easy to remember. But how do you remember when the chords change? One very effective trick is to think of the chords as numbers.  Since we are in the key of C, the C7 is a 1 chord. The F7 is a 4 chord (it is built on the 4th note of the C major scale). The G7 is a 5 chord (it is built on the 5th note of the C scale). Thinking of the blues form like this simplifies it a lot to this:

1 4 1 1 4 4 1 1 5 4 1 5

Now, that might still look a little confusing to you since there are 12 numbers to remember. So here is a little trick: break up the above 12 numbers into 3 groupings of 4:

Group 1: 1 4 1 1
Group 2: 4 4 1 1
Group 3: 5 4 1 5

By thinking of these groupings of 4 measures, it allows you to memorize the 12-bar blues form in “chunks”, only focusing on each 4-measure phrase. To master your 12-Bar Blues form (plus learn some sweet bass lines), I encourage you to checkout the Rockin’ Blues Bass Lines course (Level 2, Level 3).

Before moving on, it is very valuable to practice both your blues scale and the 12-bar blues form in other common keys of G and F. You can master both skills in the key of G in our G Blues Improv course.

Now that you know the 12-Bar Blues Form, it’s time to start exploring the 5 rhythm exercises to master blues piano improv.

Step 3: Blues Rhythms (Rhythm Templates)

What separates beginner blues piano improvisers from pro blues piano improvisers is their ability to be creative with a small set of notes. Think about this for a moment: the piano only has 12 distinct pitches contained within one octave.  The blues scale has 6 distinct pitches, which is half of the available notes! The point I am making is that you don’t need more notes than this to create an interesting solo. What you need is understand and practice is a variety of rhythms that you can use to play this scale.

This is where most students become stagnant… they play the same rhythms again and again with these notes without even realizing it.  How do you break this habit? You need to intentionally practice other rhythms to help you break out of those routines.  How do you do this? You need to practice Rhythm Templates.

What is a Rhythm Template?

A Rhythm Template is a rhythm that you practice by filling in whatever notes you want of a given scale. For example, a very simple rhythmic template is this:

Example rhythm template
Example rhythm template

Now, if we fill with the first 5 notes of the C blues scale, we could have something like this:

Example of how to fill in a rhythm template with the C blues scale on piano
Example of how to fill in a rhythm template with the C blues scale on piano

Do you see how it is possible to come up with many melodies using this one rhythmic idea? This is exactly what we will do moving forward as we focus on 5 Rhythm Templates to help you break free and start creating cool, fresh lines.

Blues Rhythm Template 1

In this section, you’ll learn the first of 5 rhythm exercises to master blues piano improv. In the first Rhythm Template, we will explore a relatively simple rhythm:

Blues rhythm template 1
Blues rhythm template 1

As you can see we are going to play notes on beats 1 & 2 &. The best way to practice this is to first clap the rhythm and count aloud.  Once you’ve done this for a number of measures, then try playing just two notes, like C and Eb, with this rhythm over the chords for the 12-bar blues form:

Blues rhythm template 1 with C and Eb
Blues rhythm template 1 with C and Eb

Once you’d done this, play the bottom 5 notes of the C blues scale (C Eb F F# G) with this rhythm over the 12-bar blues form. Feel free to go up or down as you practice this:

Blues rhythm template 1 with bottom 5 notes of C blues scale
Blues rhythm template 1 with bottom 5 notes of C blues scale

At this point, you’re ready to improvise with this rhythm. Go ahead and play the blues form in your left hand, and now you can use any notes of the C Blues scale in any octave on the keyboard. Here is an example of how you might improvise using the above Rhythm Template:

Blues rhythm template 1 with an improvised solo
Blues rhythm template 1 with an improvised solo

Remember, the key is to follow the exact rhythm above. This will force you to be creative with your note choices and explore the whole range of the keyboard.

I highly encourage you to practice with the backing track (you can download it on this page by logging into your membership).

Now that you have this rhythm, let’s take it to the next level.

Blues Rhythm Template 2

Next is our second rhythm template of 5 rhythm exercises to master blues piano improv. This rhythm is a little trickier because it starts on beat 2:

Blues rhythm template 2
Blues rhythm template 2

First, clap the rhythm and count aloud “1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &“. Make sure you are clapping on the beats in bold. Once you are able to do this, go ahead and play the C and Eb in the right hand over the left hand 12-bar blues form. Then play the bottom 5 notes of the C blues scale over the left hand. Once you can do this, you’re ready to improvise! You can pick any notes of the C blues scale, but the key is follow the exact rhythm above! Remember that being a great improviser is about working within constraints.  You want to be creative with a limited set of notes.

As you practice this, I encourage you to explore other keys. You practice this entire lesson in any key with the click of one button with our Smart Sheet Music here.

It’s time to take it to the next level with our next Blues Rhythm Template.

Blues Rhythm Template 3

Next is our third rhythm exercises to master blues piano improv. This rhythm rhythm template is a little more interesting because it uses triplets:

Example of how to fill in a rhythm template with the C blues scale on piano
Example of how to fill in a rhythm template with the C blues scale on piano

For this rhythm, I encourage you to follow the same practice routine that you have been doing above.  First clap it and count aloud. Then play with the left hand with the notes C and Eb. Then use the bottom of the blues scale.  Finally, try improvising with any notes from the blues scale. Remember to follow the rhythm laid out. Don’t make any exceptions to play other rhythms. Remember, this is an exercise designed to help you break out from the same rhythms you have been playing and practice new ones.

Now it’s time to move onto our more challenging rhythms, 2-measure rhythm templates!

Blues Rhythm Template 4

Next is our 4th rhythm exercises to master blues piano improv. This rhythm spans 2 measures. Check it out!

Blues rhythm template 4
Blues rhythm template 4

As you can see, we start on beat 2 with 8th notes and conclude the rhythm on the second measure. I encourage you to clap this and speak the counts aloud.  Then practice with 2 right hand notes, 5 right hand notes, and then the full blues scale. Really push yourself to use the full upper range of the keyboard (don’t forget that high C!).

Blues Rhythm Template 5

In our final rhythm exercises to master blues piano improv, we will explore 2-measures with triplets.  Check it out:

Blues rhythm template 5
Blues rhythm template 5

As you can see, this is a combination of 8th notes and triplets.  Again, practice this by first clapping and speaking the counts aloud. Then use the C and Eb in the right hand.  Then use the first 5 notes of the blues scale.  Then start soloing.  Because this is a harder rhythm with many triplets, I recommend that you start by staying in a limited range… perhaps only solo with 5 notes.  Then expand to 1 octave.  When you are comfortable, move onto multiple octaves.

Final Steps

Congratulations! After going through these exercises, you should be much more comfortable executing different rhythmic combinations when soloing on the blues. Now, if you want to do even more interesting things with your improvisation, including slides, turns, rolls, smash licks, ostinatos, licks, riffs, runs, and harmonized techniques, checkout our 10-Lesson Blues Challenge (over 18-hours of in-depth blues improvisation) – Level 2, and Level 3 courses..

To learn other blues styles, checkout the Slow Bernie’s Blues course, the Jazzy Blues course, and the Burlesque Blues course.

Finally, for more inspiration on how to use these blues rhythms in your solo, checkout my Slow & Soulful Blues improvisation.

Thanks for learning!

Your teacher,

Jonny May

 

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