Play Smooth Blues Piano Licks
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Do you want to learn how to play smooth blues piano licks? Many blues players learn a few blues piano licks. However, they don’t understand how to connect these licks into longer phrases called blues lines. In today’s piano lesson, I’m going to teach you how to connect blues piano licks and riffs into longer musical phrases so that your blues improvisation sounds more interesting. Specifically, you will learn:
- The Blues Scale
- 3 Essential Blues Piano Grips
- How to Use Each Grip with 8th Notes, Triplets, Turns, and Harmonies
- 3 Examples of How to Connect Licks Into Smooth Lines
Whether you are a beginner blues pianist or you have experience playing blues piano, you will learn the skills to take your blues piano improv to the next level. Let’s dive in!
The Blues Scale
The first step to playing interesting blues piano licks is to know the blues scale. For example, here is the C Blues Scale:
What is the C Blues Scale?
The C Blues scale is a 6-note scale using the notes C, Eb, F, F#, G, and Bb. Likewise, you could relate this scale back to a C Major Scale by thinking of the notes as modifications of the C Scale. In this case, you would call the notes 1, b3, 4, #4, 5, and 7. If you don’t know your C Major Scale, you can learn in our Key of C Major course.
It’s important to practice the C Blues Scale scale up and down the piano so that you comfortable with the fingering. To practice exercises to master C Blues scale, checkout our 10-Lesson Blues Challenge.
Next, let’s look at the 3 essential blues piano grips.
3 Essential Blues Piano Grips
Learning the blues scale is important, but playing one scale up and down the piano is not very interesting. If you want your blues piano improv to sound interesting, then you need to understand the 3 blues piano grips.
Blues Grip #1
Blues Grip #1 uses the top 3 notes of the C Blues Scale with the notes G, Bb, and C. Additionally, we will use fingers 1, 3, and 4 (thumb, middle, and wring finger). For example, below is Grip #1:
The numbers on the right side of the sheet music refer to the right hand fingering. Next, we’ll look at Grip #2.
Blues Grip #2
Blues Grip #2 uses the middle notes and top note of the C Blues Scale with the notes Gb, G, and C. Additionally, the fingering for this grip is fingers 1, 2, and 5 (thumb, index, and pinkie). Check it out below!
Next, let’s look at Grip #3.
Blues Grip #3
Blues Grip #4 uses the bottom 4 notes of the C Blues Scale: C, Eb, F, and G. However, with this grip, we will add an A, which comes from the related Major Blues Scale. Check it out!
For more on the Major Blues Scale, checkout our Extended Turnaround Improv course.
Now that you’ve learned your blues piano grips, let’s next look at how to use each grip.
How to Use Blues Piano Grips
Each blues piano grip is very unique, so there are different techniques that are common to each grip.
Grip 1 Techniques
For Grip 1, it is very common to use 8th notes, triplets, and slides.
8th Notes Exercise
8th Notes are the best place to start when it comes to blues improv because they are easy to play and sound great. Instead of jumping right into improvising, it is important to practice an 8th note exercise to master this note value. For example, below is an exercise to practice your 8th notes:
Once you have completed the above exercise, trying improvising short musical “licks” or “riffs” with the notes from Grip 1. For example, you can play any of the notes above in any order. However, the key is variety! If you want to learn more 8th note blues exercises, checkout our 10-Lesson Blues Challenge. And if you would like to learn 120 Blues Riffs to inspire you, checkout our Bible of Blues Riffs (Beginner/Intermediate, Intermediate/Advanced)
Triplets add a lot of energy to your blues piano improvisation because they move quickly. Like 8th notes, it’s important to practice a triplet exercise before improvising with them. For example, here is an excellent triplet exercise:
Once you complete the exercise, try improvising short blues licks and riffs with triplets. If you struggle to read the sheet music above, don’t worry! Our Smart Sheet Music allows you to play a digital light-up keyboard with this entire lesson. Additionally, you can slow it down, loop sections, and even change the key with the click of one button.
The final technique I use for Grip 1 are blues Turns because they add excitement and energy to your improvisation. However, they should be used sparingly. For example, below is an exercise to practice your turns:
Once you’ve practiced the above exercise, try improvising short licks and riffs. Next, you’ll learn Grip 2 techniques.
Grip 2 Techniques
In Grip 2, it is common to use harmonies with 8th notes and triplets.
8th Note Exercise
You can harmonize the two bottom notes in Grip 2 (Gb and G) with the top note C. To master this, it’s important practicing an 8th note exercise below:
Once you’ve practiced the above exercise, try improvising short licks and riffs. If you are interested in trying some other left hand blues accompaniment patterns, checkout the Rockin Blues Bass Lines courses (Beginner/Intermediate, Intermediate/Advanced). You’ll learn to learn 24 sweet blues left hand accompaniments.
You can also harmonize the bottom two notes of this grip using the triplet value. Again, it’s important to practice an exercise to master this technique before you try improvising with it:
Once you’ve practiced the above exercise, try improvising short licks and riffs. I also encourage you to practice this licks with the included backing track, which can be downloaded on this page after logging into your membership. Next, you’ll learn Grip 3 techniques.
Grip 3 Techniques
For Grip 3, we will use mostly 3rd harmonies with 8th note and triplet note values. Additionally, we use single notes in this grip.
8th Note Exercise
When it comes to harmonizing this grip in thirds, it’s best to practice this technique with 8th notes. For example, here is an excellent exercise:
As you can see, we are rocking the Eb and G third interval against the bottom note C of the C Blues Scale. Then we play an F and A third interval to a C. Once you’ve practiced the above exercise, try improvising short licks and riffs. If you’d like to practice these licks in other keys, a great resource is the G Blues Improvisation course (Beginner/Intermediate, Intermediate/Advanced). In this course, you master blues improv in the key of G.
Playing thirds in a triplet value is a very exciting way to play thirds! As with the other techniques, it’s important to master this technique with an exercise. For example, checkout the Triplet Exercise below:
Once you’ve practiced the above exercise, try improvising short licks and riffs.
Single Note Exercise
Grip 3 is similar to the Grip 1 because it also uses single notes. The 2 single notes that I like to use in this position are the C and the Eb. For example, below is a quick exercise to practice these notes:
Congratulations! You’ve learned the 3 essential grips that will help you create smooth lines. Now you are ready to start connecting your blues licks and riffs into longer blues lines.
Creating Smooth Blues Piano Lines
The key to improvising smooth blues piano lines is to connect your short licks and riffs into longer musical phrases. How do you accomplish this? You need to understand how to shift between your grips. In the following examples, I will demonstrate how to connect your grips in a variety of lines.
Blues Piano Line #1
For Blues Piano Line #1, we will use primarily 8th notes down the piano. We will practice this over two chords from the 12-Bar Blues form: C7 and F7. Here is the full line with both hands:
As you can see, we start with Grip 1, shift to Grip 2, shift to Grip 3, and shift back to Grip 1. This is exactly how blues pianists construct blues lines.
Blues Piano Line #2
For Blues Piano Line #2, we will use primarily triplets and turns down the piano. For example, here is the full line:
This sounds great! I encourage you try making up your own licks that use triplets and turns. Next, you will learn another blues line that uses primarily triplets.
Blues Piano Line #3
For Blues Piano Line #3, we will use primarily triplets down the piano. For example, here is the full line:
Now that you’ve learned your blues scale, grips, and how to connect them into lines, what’s next? If you want to take your blues piano playing to the next level, I recommend that you learn more licks and riffs. An excellent resource is the Bible of Blues Licks – 120 Licks and Riffs for Piano (Beginner/Intermediate, Intermediate/Advanced).
If you want to learn techniques to generate your own licks, I recommend our 10-Lesson Blues Challenge (Beginner/Intermediate, Intermediate/Advanced). You’ll learn blues techniques like turns, rolls, ostinatos, punches, and more.
Finally, if you want to hear how I use blues licks and riffs in a solo, checkout my St. Louis Blues improvisation.
Thanks for learning and see you in the next piano lesson!
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