Effin' the Blues

How to blues in F...

This article accompanies the video shared at the end of this article.  I wrote this first so that I could gather as many blues techniques together and then put them all into the video to demonstrate, otherwise I may have forgotten some really good ideas!

Blues and improvising go hand in hand.  Although the genre Blues has repertoire with fixed melodies, it begs to improvised, personalised and experienced, both by the performer and the audience.  To do so requires extensive listening to the genre, excellent feel, a technique relevant to your style, as well as sprinkling of some basic theory.  When executed, some really nice blues can be createdI'd like to help you in the direction.

My video, posted at the end of the article, is based on the classic blues shuffle rhythm and standard 12 bar blues, such as is the form of this famous jazz-blue piece, Night Train, which was made famous, most would agree, thanks to Oscar Peterson's album and performance of the same name.

Having thoroughly enjoyed listening to that, I encourage you now to listen to Robi Botos' version below.  He has such an elegant touch and tense timing; it's really great (starts at 48 seconds)

So how might one begin with playing some blues on the piano?  Below are ten ideas.  In my video, I demonstrate them one by one, getting more and more complex.  I encourage you to either use a metronome or at least pay close attention to your timing because, really, it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing!  By all means, personalise, use different chords, change the rhythm, the key, the order... I'm just showing a path into the blues woods, so to speak, by starting very simply and getting more complicated.

But first, just a spot of theory to consider and understand:

Blues is often played over 12 bars.  The most common chord progression is based on the 1st, 4th and 5th chords of a master key.  Night Train is in C, giving C7, F7 and G7.  It is not so uncommon to apply the more jazz-flavoured '(6)251' progression.  I discuss this in a lot more detail in my Water Pianism Podcast Collection, category three... and in this video on my channel.

The blues scale is often useful: 1, b3, 4, b5, 5, dominant 7.  It works if you play only the master key's blues scale over the other notes but you can also play the blues scale notes of each chord's blues scale.  To this scale, one might add the 2 (could be called the 9th), the 6 (could be called the 13th) and the major 3rd.  The other notes could still be used a few % of the time and be safely labelled 'passing tones'.  Just don't spend too much time on them!

Night Train is very easy to understand and follow - I even put the lead sheet at the top of the page as the article thumbnail image!  The video of course demonstrates the above points with further discussion, such that you could easily learn the melody of Night Train and then improvise with it at your guise.

Improvising does not have a rule book.  Unfortunately, many seek one but never find it.  Books exist but at the end of the day, after dozens of books and lots of knowledge, your fingers will always play whatever they want to play and you will become a mere spectator to your hands so until you accept that, your improvisations will be tense (in the negative sense) and lack that little je ne sais quoi - which can only be discovered by listening a lot, along with your own experimentations.

So, please, enjoy this demonstrative list of steps into your first blues improvisation.  Begin in one octave and stretch to two or more when you feel able.  Play a few notes per bar and be as melodic or 'boring' and 'safe' as you wish, remembering that boring and safe are totally acceptable even in an otherwise complex improvisation! Metronomic steadiness or at least care over timing are paramount.

Major scale mastery is imperative (you didn't think I was going to fail to bring that up again, did you!?)

1. Notes of the major triad of the Master Key across all chords (C E G);
2. As above but with the dominant 7th included (C E G Bb);
3. As above but with the added b5 (C E Gb G Bb);
4. As above but with the minor, b3, added (C Eb E Gb G Bb);
5. As above but with the 4th added to complete the blues scale (C Eb E F Gb G Bb);
6. Notes of the triad, then 7th, then b5 of the scale of the key of the chord (C, F and G) - this requires a bit more brain work to switch between the keys but is very fruitful when you can do it;
7. Apply grace and crush notes when physically possible (more often than not, when you can slide from a black to white note);
8. Repetition of a riff or note, in one same key or over two (in the same key, the note values will change when the chord changes unless you mirror the riff using the same note values in the new key);
9. Tension and release;
10.  Miscellaneous ideas:  Octave wobble, glissando, block chord only.

Here is the video.  Have fun!