Instructor
Jonny May
Quick Tip
Beginner
Intermediate
Advanced
23:54

Learning Focus
  • Improvisation
  • Riffs
Music Style
  • Blues
Free Lessons

Get free weekly lessons, practice tips, and downloadable resources to your inbox!

Imagine that you just got the call to fill-in on keys for a major band at the House of Blues! Can you see yourself standing on stage behind the keyboard facing thousands of blues fans? In today’s Quick Tip, The Top 10 Blues Piano Licks, Jonny May shares his favorite high-octane blues piano licks that will help you sound amazing when the spotlight is on you. You’ll learn:

Intro to Blues Piano Licks

As a pianist, soloing over the blues can be quite challenging. For example, single-note lines that work just fine for a horn player usually don’t work as well on piano. In order to cut through the band, blues pianists like Otis Spann and Lafayette Leake often played flashy licks packed with harmonized slides, turns, chord stabs and tremolos. In today’s lesson, you’ll explore 10 blues piano licks that capture a thicker texture for that authentic blues piano sound.

Today’s lesson includes a PDF lesson sheet and 6 downloadable backing tracks that you can use when practicing. These resources appear at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. In addition, PWJ members can easily change the key of this lesson using our Smart Sheet Music.

Before we jump right into The Top 10 Blues Piano Licks, we’ll first examine a few improv scales and left-hand accompaniment patterns that you should know. In addition, we’ll briefly consider what a lick is in the first place!

What are “licks” in music?

In music terminology, “licks” represents sort, catchy melodic phrases that performers recycle and repurpose when soloing. Even though licks typically have a familiar sound, they remain organic and mutable in nature. Therefore, licks are frequently shared or imitated within music communities. Over time, pervasive licks become part of an improviser’s subconscious musical vocabulary.

Improv Scales for Blues Piano

When it comes the blues, most blues licks are derived from one of three common scales:

  • The Minor Blues Scale
  • The Major Blues Scale
  • The Mixo-Blues Scale

Before we go on, let’s take a minute to review each of these essential improv scales.

The Minor Blues Scale

The minor blues scale is a six-note improv scale that is constructed according to the formula 1–♭3–4–♯4–5–♭7. Therefore, a C minor blues scale contains the notes C–E♭–F–F♯–G–B♭. Minor blues scales are frequently used over dominant 7th and minor 7th chords and are described as having a “funky,” “down-home,” “earthy” or “bluesy” sound.¹

C Minor Blues Scale
C Minor Blues Scale with Piano Fingerings

Demonstration of C minor blues scale on piano with right hand.

For a deep dive on the minor blues scale, check out the following courses:

🔎 Funky Blues Soloing 1 (Int)
🔎 Funky Blues Soloing 2 (Adv)

The Major Blues Scale

The major blues scale is a versatile, six-note improv scale that is constructed according to the formula 1–2–♭3–♮3–5–6. Therefore, a C major blues scale contains the notes C–D–E♭–E♮–G–A. The major blues scale is usually used over major or dominant 7th chords and produces a balanced sound that is not too bright and not too bluesy. Another name for the major blues scale is the gospel scale.

C Major Blues Scale
C Major Blues Scale with Piano Fingerings

Demonstration of C major blues scale on piano with right hand.

For a deep dive on the major blues scale, check out our full-length courses on this topic:

🔎 The Major Blues Scale (Gospel Scale) 1 (Int)
🔎 The Major Blues Scale (Gospel Scale) 2 (Adv)

The Mixo-Blues Scale

The mixo-blues scale is a 9-note hybrid scale that gets its name from combining the mixolydian scale with the minor blues scale. However, another way to understand this scale is to recognize that it contains all of the notes the major blues scale and the minor blues scale. For example, the notes of the C Mixo-Blues Scale are C–D–E♭–E♮–F–F♯–G–A–B♭. To construct a mixo-blues scale, use the formula 1–2–♭3–♮3–4–♯4–5–6–♭7.

C Mixo-Blues Scale
C Mixo-Blues Scale with Piano Fingerings

Demonstration of C mixo-blues scale on piano with right hand.

For a deep dive on the mixo-blues scale, check out the following Quick Tip:

🔎 Mixo-Blues Scale for Piano – The Complete Guide (Int)

Next, we’ll cover an important blues piano technique for the left hand.

Blues Shuffle Accompaniment Patterns

We’re almost ready to break down The Top 10 Blues Piano Licks. However, first we need to review an important left-hand technique that will provide the foundation for our blues licks…the blues shuffle pattern.

A blues shuffle is a groove that is based on consecutive 8th notes that are played with a swing feel (i.e.: LONG-short-LONG-short-LONG-short…etc.).  The most common way to play a blues shuffle pattern on piano is to alternate each beat between a perfect 5th interval and a major 6th interval with the left hand.

The following examples demonstrate how to play a basic blues shuffle groove with the left hand over the three chords found in a traditional blues in C, which are C7, F7 and G7.

C7 Blues Shuffle Pattern
C7 Blues Shuffle Accompaniment Pattern for Piano

Basic left-hand blues shuffle pattern on piano for C7 chord.
F7 Blues Shuffle Pattern
F7 Blues Shuffle Accompaniment Pattern for Piano

Basic left-hand blues shuffle pattern on piano for F7 chord.
G7 Blues Shuffle Pattern
G7 Blues Shuffle Accompaniment Pattern for Piano

Basic left-hand blues shuffle pattern on piano for G7 chord.

For a deep dive on additional blues piano accompaniment grooves, check out the following courses:

🔎 Rockin’ Blues Bass Lines 1 (Int)
🔎 Rockin’ Blues Bass Lines 2 (Adv)

The 12-Bar Blues Form

Not sure when to change chords? The following example shows where each of these chords typically occur in a traditional 12-bar blues. (Note that on the backing tracks that come with this lesson, the final G7 chord occurs on beat 3 of measure 12 as indicated below. However, in other contexts, the final G7 chord may last for all 4 counts of measure 12.)

Chord changes for 12-bar blues form in C
Traditional 12-bar blues form in C.

Now that we have reviewed some basic blues piano techniques for each hand, we’re ready to test drive Jonny’s favorite blues piano licks.

The Top 10 Blues Piano Licks

Now comes the really fun part! In this section, we’ll learn 10 awesome blues piano licks that you can use to construct a flashy blues piano solo! Most of the licks are modeled over the C7 shuffle pattern in the left hand. However, you can actually plug-and-play these licks over any chord in the blues form without having to transpose them. Therefore, it only becomes necessary to transpose these licks if your entire song is in another key.

Each of the examples in this section include the right-hand fingerings that Jonny uses when performing these licks. As you test drive each lick, start out by trying to use these suggested fingerings. However, in some cases, it may be necessary for you to make adjustments based on what works best for your hand.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the notation for some of these blues licks can look pretty intimidating…16th-note triplets, 32nd notes, etc. However, don’t let the density of the notation become a deterrent for you. Instead, use the notation in conjunction with the demonstration videos as you try to imitate what you hear and see. If necessary, you can slow down the videos by clicking on the gear icon (⛭) in the lower right-hand corner of the video frame.

Alright, let’s check out blues piano lick #1!

Lick #1

Blues Piano Lick #1

Blues Piano Lick #1 features upper harmony, turns, rolls and gospel connectors drawn from the mixo-blues scale.

Lick #1 is a great “real life” example of how the mixo-blues scale is often used. Notice that the notes don’t follow a purely ascending or descending scale pattern. Instead, certain parts of the lick draw on the minor blues scale (measure 1 – beats 1 & 2) while other parts focus on the major blues scale (measure 1 – beat 3).

As you practice this lick, make sure that you synchronize the notes that fall on the upbeats. For example, on the “and of 3,” the note C in the right hand should line up with the perfect 5th in the left hand. Initially, a good approach is to leave out the roll (the notes A→G♮→E♮) so that you can get the feel of the “macro rhythm” in your hands. Afterward, you can focus on the “micro rhythm” as you slide the roll back in.

Lick #1 also features a technique called upper harmony (aka top harmony or drone notes) in which the melody is harmonized with a stationary tone on top. For example, the high C in measure 1 functions as an upper harmony note. Sometimes it can be helpful to initially practice a lick without the top harmony as you work out the feel.

Another feature of this lick is a technique called gospel connectors. This essence of this sound involves using neighbor notes from the 4-chord (F-A-C) to resolve to the 1-chord (C-E-G). In particular, gospel connectors will usually use the note A to resolve to G and/or the note F to resolve to E or E♭. A good example of this appears in measure 1 on beat 2.

Alright, let’s check out Lick #2…

Lick #2

Blues Piano Lick #2

Blues Piano Lick #2 features turns and upper harmony over the mixo-blues scale in the style of Oscar Peterson.

Lick #2 is great solo idea that is well-suited for beginner and early intermediate piano students. Do you see that persistent note A that keeps showing up on top? This is another example of upper harmony. In fact, the most common notes for upper harmony are the root (C), the 5th (G), the major 6th (A) and the minor 7th (B♭). Of all these options, Jonny tends to prefer the sound of the root and the major 6th. For more great examples of upper harmony, check out Yannick’s Quick Tip on Blues Piano Tritone Riffs for Maximum Crunch (Int).

Now, let’s check out Lick #3…

Lick #3

Blues Piano Lick #3

Try out Blues Piano Lick #3 for a flashy run down the piano.

Blues Piano Lick #3 uses turns and upper harmony just like Lick #2. However, the difference is that Lick #2 was stationary in terms of its range. By contrast, Lick #3 travels down the keyboard to create a flashy descending run. Note that this lick uses the minor blues scale almost exclusively. The only exception is the final E♮.

Let’s check out Lick #4…

Lick #4

Blues Piano Lick #4

Blues Piano Lick #4 is a must-have major blues scale lick.

Lick #4 is another great-sounding lick for players of all levels. This must-have lick uses turns and upper harmony over the major blues scale. In fact, this lick uses the same rhythm and structure as Lick #2. However, because it draws on the major blues scale, it has a brighter sound.

Alright, let’s take a listen to Lick #5…

Lick #5

Blues Piano Lick #5

Blues Piano Lick #5 is a high-octane fire lick that uses an upper register ostinato.

Blues Piano Lick #5 is a great example of what Jonny calls a blues fire lick…a screaming upper register lick with lots of bite. Think of 1950s rock & roll pianists Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, both of whom leaned on the upper register of the piano in their flashy showmanship. Therefore, Lick #5 is the perfect go-to lick when you want to really heat things up! Lick #5 is also an example of an ostinato. In music terminology, the word ostinato describes a repetitive rhythmic or melodic idea.

Let’s check out another flashy blues piano lick…

Lick #6

Blues Piano Lick #6

Blues Piano Lick #6 is an example of a solo line that uses longer phrasing.

When you’re playing a blues piano solo, it’s a good idea to incorporate some variety in your phrasing. For example, you’ll notice right away that Lick #6 is longer than our previous licks. Therefore, this lick really stands out. Part of its impressive sound comes from the use of consecutive 8th-note triplets that go on for one-and-a-half measures. In addition, the upper harmony notes in bars 1 and 2 create syncopated accents which add another layer of complexity.

Let’s check out another fire lick…

Lick #7

Blues Piano Lick #7

Blues Piano Lick #7 is another fire lick that uses a flashy sounding “grab ‘n roll” technique in the upper register.

Lick #7 draws on the minor blues scale and uses a technique that Jonny calls “grab n’ roll.” In other words, this lick can be divided to two-parts: the “grab” and the “roll.” A grab, for instance, represents an dense or thick sound that comes from playing multiple notes simultaneously. We see examples of a grab on beats 1 and 3 in each measure. Notice in this grab that the outer notes remain stationary while the index finger moves up a half step from F♯ to G. After each grab, we then have a rapid sequence of descending notes that create a roll sound. When playing this roll, be sure to time it so that your hands sync up on the “and of 2” and the “and of 4.”

Alright, let’s check out another grab ‘n roll lick…

Lick #8

Blues Piano Lick #8

Blues Piano Lick #8 features two different “grab ‘n rolls” that are joined by gospel connectors.

Lick #8 is a fun sounding blues piano lick that should be accessible to most students. This lick features two “grab ‘n roll” pairs. The first grab is the pick-up notes E♭ and G, which occur on the “and of 4.” Then, you’ll roll through a C major triad (C–E–G) on beat 1. Next, we have the notes F and A on beat 2, which are gospel connectors, although they are used in a slightly different manner than what we saw in Lick #1. On beat 2 of measure 1, the notes of F major (F–A–C) are being used to connect to the notes of C7 (C–E–G–B♭).  Therefore, the A resolves up to B♭ and the F eventually resolves up to G (after passing through G♭).

We encounter our second “grab” in Lick #8 on the “and of 2” with the notes G♭ and B♭. Afterward, we have another roll that uses some notes of C7 on beat 3. Then, we come to an F and an A on beat 4, which is another set of gospel connectors that resolve in the opposite direction from those that occur on beat 2.

Next, let’s check out a more advanced grab ‘n roll lick…

Lick #9

Blues Piano Lick #9

Blues Piano Lick #9 is a high-energy “grab ‘n roll” lick for more experienced players.

Lick #9 is similar to Lick #8, except that it has a lot more notes in it, which adds tons of energy and excitement. For example, the initial grab on the “and of 4” contains 5 notes that form a big Cm6 chord! Next, the roll on beat 1 uses a big C6 voicing. Afterward, the gospel connector on beat 2 is now a big F major triad with the note C on top and bottom. Then, the grab on the “and of 2” contains 4 crunchy notes from the C minor blues scale. The roll on beat 4 outlines notes of a C7 chord. Then, we get another F major triad on beat 4, which connects us back to the initial grab.

Alright, let’s check out our final lick…

Lick #10

Blues Piano Lick #10

Blues Piano Lick #10 has fun, cheerful sound that mixes both blues scales.

Lick #10 combines the minor blues scale with the major blues scale in a cheerful manner. For example, beats 1 and 2 of measure 1 use the minor blues scale exclusively. Then, the rest of the lick draws on the major blues scale exclusively, resulting in an overall happy sound.

In the next section, you’ll find the complete notation for how Jonny combines these licks over the entire 12-bar blues form.

Putting It All Together

Once you’ve learned a handful of the blues piano licks from the previous section, you can start putting them together over the blues form to construct an exciting blues piano solo!

Here is an example of the combination that Jonny demonstrates at the conclusion of today’s featured Quick Tip video. Notice that the left-hand shuffle follows the chord changes of the standard 12-bar form.

Piano Solo with Blues Licks

Conclusion

Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson on The Top 10 Blues Piano Licks. With the pro tips and tricks that you’ve learned in today’s lesson, you’ll definitely be gig-ready when you get that call!

If you enjoyed this lesson, then be sure to check out the following PWJ resources:

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

 

 

Video Poster

Would you like to comment on this lesson?
Visit this Quick Tip on YouTube


¹ Aebersold, Jamey. Jazz Handbook. , 2013, p 31.


Writer
Michael LaDisa

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,...

View Profile

More Free Lessons

Explore 5 levels of passing chords that you can use to personalize tunes, add variety and increase harmonic expressiveness.

Discover 6 steps to play solo piano with the peaceful and captivating new age compositional style of Windham Hills pianist George Winston.

Do your improv lines sound aimless? Develop authentic jazz language with bebop scales used by legends like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie!

Looking for downloads?

Subscribe to a membership plan for full access to this Quick Tip's sheet music and backing tracks!

Start Your Free Trial

Join Us

Get instant access to this Quick Tip and other member features with a PWJ membership!


Guided Learning Tracks

View guided learning tracks for all music styles and skill levels

Progress Tracking

Complete lessons and courses as you track your learning progress

Downloadable Resources

Download Sheet Music and Backing Tracks

Community Forums

Engage with other PWJ members in our member-only community forums

Become a better piano player today. Join with the 14-Day Free Trial today!

Get Started