Jonny May
Quick Tip

Learning Focus
  • Improvisation
  • Riffs
Music Style
  • Blues
  • Boogie
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In this piano lesson, you are going to learn how to play 3 Blues Piano Fire Licks and Riffs so that you can take your blues piano improv to a whole new level.

What is a Blues Piano Fire Lick?

A Blues Piano Fire Lick is a highly energetic, repetitive lick that you play in the very high register of the piano. When you hear these licks, it’s as if the pianist is “lighting the piano on fire” with the music. Blues and Rock pianists like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis were famous for adding these licks and riffs to their piano solos to create a ton of energy and excitement.

Here is a very simple blues piano Fire Lick that you can start incorporating into your piano improvisations:

Blues piano basic Fire Lick on a C blues shuffle
Blues piano basic Fire Lick on a C blues shuffle

As you play this on your piano or keyboard, keep in mind that this is a blues, so your 8th notes are swung, not straight (however, if you were playing Rock n Roll, the 8th notes would be straight).

Later in this lesson, you’ll learn my top 3 blues Fire Licks and how to use them in your blues improv.  However, before I teach you these, it’s important to understand the 5 characteristics of a blues piano Fire Lick so that you know which riffs work well as Fire Licks, and which ones don’t.

5 Characteristics of a Blues Piano Fire Lick

Now, what makes a lick a Fire Lick as opposed to an ordinary lick? There are 5 criteria that I use to define a Fire Lick:

  1. Blues Fire Licks are played in the very high upper register of the piano.  The ideal range for Fire Licks is between the third C from the top of your keyboard (C6) all the way up to the very highest C (C8).
  2. Fire Licks are usually large 4 or 5-note chords played together with octaves on the outside.
  3. Rhythmically, Fire Licks consist of primarily repeated 8th notes or triplets.
  4. Most Fire Licks are short, lasting only 1 or 2 beats before being repeated.
  5. Fire licks often use blues techniques like slides, double slides and rolls.

Now, these are not hard-set rules. Blues Fire Licks do not have to meet all 5 criteria.  However, I find that the best sounding Fire Licks will meet at least 4 of them.  Therefore, as you consider other licks for a Fire Lick in your playing, check to make sure they fit at least 4 of the criteria above. (Many of the licks in the Bible of Blues Riffs work as fire licks).

Now that you understand what makes a blues piano Fire Lick or Riff, it’s time to learn one of my favorite Blues Fire Riffs, the Double-Slide Fire Riff!

Blues Fire Lick #1: Double-Slide

Blues Fire Lick #1 is arguably my favorite fire lick to use when improvising blues piano, and it’s not too hard to play.  Here is how it goes:

Blues piano Fire Lick #1 with double slide over a C7 blues shuffle
Blues piano Fire Lick #1 with double slide over a C7 blues shuffle

As you can see, we are striking a C7 using 8th notes, and we’ve removed the E (the third) from the chord to create an open sound.  On its own, this already has a very cool sound.

But what makes this fire lick amazing is the addition of the double slide. Notice that before we strike the chord on beats 1 and 3, we slide from the F and F# before we hit the G.

Go ahead and practice this Fire Lick over the C7 blues shuffle pattern.  When you feel ready, I also encourage you to try this on an F7 and a G7 blues shuffle pattern in your left hand. Remember, these Fire Licks work over all 3 chords of your 12-bar blues (C7, F7, and G7), so you don’t need to change the right hand position. Once you have this down, try it on the full 12-bar blues form.

Finally, try to improvise with this lick.  When you play a blues line or phrase, try using it different spots, like the beginning, middle, and end.  If you are not sure how to improv blues lines, checkout the 10-Lesson Blues Challenge, where I teach you how to create awesome blues lines using every blues improv technique like 8ths, triplets, turns, rolls, slides, and runs. We have a beginner/intermediate course and an intermediate/advanced course.

Congratulations on learning Fire Lick #1. Now, it’s time to learn how to play Blues Fire Lick #2.

Blues Fire Lick #2: Triplets

This Blues Piano Fire Lick #2 uses triplets to create even more energy than Lick #1.  Check it out:

Blues piano Fire Lick #2 with triplets over a C7 blues shuffle
Blues piano Fire Lick #2 with triplets over a C7 blues shuffle

Notice that with this Fire Lick, you are not sliding any notes.  However, the fast movement from the Gb on the first chord to G on the second chord creates the perception of a slide.

Also, notice how the hands line up.  The second note of the blues shuffle (called a swung 8th note) lines up with the 3rd triplet in the right.  Make sure you are playing it this way!

Now, I recommend practicing this over the C7 blues shuffle, F7 blues shuffle, and G7 blues shuffle.  Once you can play this over each chord, then try putting them together on the 12-Bar Blues.

Blues Fire Lick #3: Rolled

This is definitely the hardest blues Fire Lick because it uses a blues roll.  Check it out:

Blues piano Fire Lick #3 with blues rolls over a C7 blues shuffle
Blues piano Fire Lick #3 with blues rolls over a C7 blues shuffle

The challenge most students have with this roll is not the notes, but the rhythm.  Specifically, you’ll find it hard to line up the last note of the roll (C) with the “and of beat 2”.  If you want to play this roll smoothly, it is essential that this beat line up in both hands.

Go slowly. Take your time.  Make sure that the rhythm is solid before speeding up.

Once you can do this over the C7 blues shuffle, try the F7 blues shuffle and then the G7 blues shuffle.

Once you can do this, try it over the 12-bar blues form.  Sounds amazing, right?!?

Now that you know your Blues Fire Licks, you might be thinking, “when can I use these in my playing”?

We’ll answer that next.

When to Use Blues Fire Licks in Your Playing

When can you use blues Fire Licks in your blues improv?

Well, the short answer is that you can use them anywhere you want!

The better question to ask is how do I use Blues Fire Licks to create an amazing, memorable solo?

To answer that question, you need to understand that Blues Fire Licks are extremely exciting, energetic licks.  Therefore, it is important to save these licks for the biggest, loudest, section of your improvisation.

In other words, save your Fire Licks for the climax of your improvisation.

OK that’s great Jonny.  But when is the best time in the solo to build to a climax?

That’s a good question. When you’re improvising over the 12-bar blues form, you would normally repeat the blues form several times.

In my nearly 20 years playing the blues professionally, I have found that I get the best response from crowds when I play 3 times through the blues from.  2 times usually isn’t enough. 4 times is a little too much. But 3 times is perfect.

The first time through your improvisation, use simple techniques like 8th notes and triplets and stay in the mid range of your keyboard.

The second time, you can build your energy by moving into the upper-mid range of the keyboard and using harmonized slides and turns.

Finally, the third time through your solo, use Fire Licks and Runs to create a super exciting sound.

I promise that this 3-step will work every time, and whoever is listening will not forget your improvisation!

If you enjoyed this lesson, I put together my top blues courses to help you take your improv to the next level:

Bible of Blues Riffs
10-Lesson Blues Challenge
Rockin’ Blues Bass Lines
St Louis Blues Lead Sheet

Happy practicing!

Your teacher,

Jonny May

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