Jonny May
Quick Tip

Learning Focus
  • Improvisation
  • Scales
Music Style
  • Blues
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Would you like to play bebop blues piano in the style of Oscar Peterson or Bud Powell? This happy-go-lucky piano sound bears the influence of bebop era harmony and phrasing on the traditional blues form. In today’s Quick Tip, you’ll learn to play bebop blues piano in 3 steps. In fact, you can get this jazzy blues piano sound with just 5 left hand chords and 6 right hand notes! You’ll learn:

  • 12-Bar Bebop Blues Progression
  • 5 Jazzy Rootless Voicings
  • 2 Grips on the Major Blues Scale

While you don’t need to learn a lot of material to play in this style, after this lesson, you’ll be able to improv endless jazz lines using these 3 steps!

Intro to Bebop Blues Piano

The Blues is an American musical tradition dating back to the late 19th century. The music is borne out of the African American experience, particularly in the South. The Blues is characterized by storytelling lyrics containing melodies frequently featuring “blue notes” drawn from the blues scale. Traditional blues follows a 12-bar form using three dominant chords built on the tonic (1st), subdominant (4th), and dominant (5th) scale degrees. Early blues music was improvisatory in the sense of vocal ad lib and ornamentation. The music of Ma Rainey (1886-1939), regarded as “The Mother of the Blues,” epitomizes early American Blues style. On the other hand, blues singer and guitarist B.B. King (1925–2015), nicknamed “The King of the Blues,” represents modern American blues. However, Blues historians point to regional distinctions in Blues styles that influenced modern practice, with each region containing important pioneers.

The history of Jazz is deeply shaped by the Blues, but also by other musical styles including European, African, Latin American, and Caribbean elements. The towering figure of early jazz is Louis Armstrong (1901–1971). Compared to blues, jazz is characterized by more complex chord structures, with a particular emphasis on improvisation and experimentation. Of course, a complete examination jazz history and its significant contributors is vast and wide.

Bebop blues, sometime called jazz-blues, represents the influence of jazz innovation on the traditional Blues form by pioneers of the 1940s-60s including Charlie Parker (1920–1955), Dizzy Gillespie (1917–1993), John Coltrane (1926–1967), Bud Powell (1924–1966) and Thelonius Monk (1917–1982). The following blues tunes are representative of this development.

In the following sections, you’ll learning to play piano with the bebop blues sound in just 3 steps!

Step 1: Play Bebop Blues Piano Chords

The first step to play bebop blues piano is to learn some jazzy dominant chord voicings. In fact, you can begin to play in this style with just 5 voicings! The following example shows some super hip jazz piano voicings that you can play over a bebop blues progression in C.

Bebop Blues Piano Chords
Jazzy dominant chords to play bebop blues piano.

The example above is provided for harmonic context, with the left hand playing the root of each chord. However, since you’ll be improvising, consider the following example in which the left hand plays the voicings (without the roots). These are called rootless voicings.

Play Bebop Blues Piano with Rootless Chord Voicings left hand accompaniment
It is common to play rootless piano voicings for bebop blues when you have a bass player.

In the next section, we’ll insert these chords into the 12-bar blues form.

Step 2: Bebop Blues Piano Progression

The bebop blues progression uses the 12-bar structure of a traditional blues, but with a few harmonic innovations. To fully appreciate these modifications, let’s review the traditional form below with an excerpt from our 10 Lesson Blues Challenge.

Traditional 12-Bar Blues

Traditional 12-Bar Blues Form for Piano
Traditional 12-Bar Blues for piano with root position dominant 7th chords.

The pioneers of the bebop era updated this form with popular conventions of jazz harmony. For example, the bebop blues progression below features the turnaround progression in measures 11–12 which sets up the repeat. In addition, measures 8–11 feature a hip sequence of dominant chords moving counter-clockwise around the circle of 5ths (A7→D7→G7→C7).

Bebop Blues

12-Bar Bebop Blues Progression for Piano
The Bebop Blues Progression employs conventional jazz chord movement over the traditional 12-bar form.

Did you notice that the bebop blues progression also features more complex voicings? This is sound comes from additional notes that are common in jazz chords. Specifically, these notes are called chord extensions and chord alterations. The jazz theory behind these voicings is more of an intermediate level. However, each voicing only contains 3 notes, so players of all levels should be able to enjoy playing these chords right away. And when your ready, you can learn all about extensions and alterations in the following courses:

Now that you’ve got a grip on these voicings, it’s time to practice shifting from chord-to-chord in real time. In fact, this lesson includes 4 backing tracks at various tempos for you to play along with. The  lesson sheet and backing tracks can be downloaded from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. Want to play bebop blues piano in F or B♭ instead? No problem…you can also easily transpose this lesson to any key with our Smart Sheet Music!

Guess what? You’re ready for the next section in which you’ll learn to improvise over the bebop blues progression.

Step 3: Play Bebop Blues Piano Improv

In this section, you’ll learn to create authentic jazz improv lines with the major blues scale. This 6-note scale sounds great over the bebop blues progression. To construct a major blues scale on C, simply follow the formula 1-2-♭3-♮3-5-6. This scale is also called the gospel scale.

Major Blues Scale jazz piano improv blues gospel
C Major Blues Scale (a.k.a: C Gospel Scale)

Note, sometimes the ♭3 will be spelled as a ♯2 instead, as in the example above. Either way, the sound is the same. Generally speaking, the decision to use a sharp or a flat for this note has to do with whether a line is ascending or descending.

Now, just running the major blues scale up and down the keyboard won’t make you sound hip! Instead, you’ll actually improvise more effectively if you narrow your focus to different sections of the scale at a time. You can do this with a piano improv technique called grips.

Piano Improv with Grips

Grips are a simply a fixed hand position of 4 or 5 notes of scale used to generate improv ideas. The first grip we’ll use begins on the note A. Therefore, we’ll refer to it as The A Grip.

The A Grip

The A Grip for piano improv improvisation
The A Grip for improv with the C Major Blues Scale.

Now, try soloing for several choruses with the backing track using only these five notes. You’ll find that viewing just a section of the scale from A to E will instantly generate different ideas than when you view it from C to A.

Great job! Now, let’s try another grip. This time, we’ll start on the E♭. Therefore, we’ll refer to this position as The E♭ Grip.

The E♭ Grip

The Eb Grip for piano improv improvisation
The E♭ Grip for improv with the C Major Blues Scale.

For this grip, there are two fingerings that are equally effective. First, you can use your thumb for both the E♭ and E♮. You can also try fixing your thumb on the E♮and crossing over with the index finger to play E♭. Then, try soloing for several choruses with the backing track using only this grip. However, feel free to taking the notes up an octave as well.

Next, be sure to check out our full-length courses on The Major Blues Scale (Gospel Scale). These courses are packed with tips for building speed and creating lines, turns and slides with this scale.

Congrats, you’ve completed today’s lesson! If you enjoyed this material, you’ll love the following courses:

Thanks for joining us today! We’ll see you next time.


Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by Jonny May

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