Blues is a core component of jazz, and having a good command of blues playing is essential for a jazz musician. It’s also a handy skill when playing other styles of music like rock ’n’ roll, funk and gospel.
Here are six blues licks for piano (acoustic or electric), in a few different keys (major and minor). These are followed by some recommendations of some great blues playing on record to check out.
Blues lick 1 (F major) permalink
- Something worth noting if you’re new to jazz phrasing: swung eighth notes on upbeats — or anywhere you count ‘and’ (eg ‘one-and two-and three-and four-and’) — are often played with more emphasis than downbeats, which contributes to the swing feel. For example, the upbeat on C at the start of this example is played with more velocity than the E flat which follows it. Same with the other notes marked with wee triangles.
- The notes in drum notation are almost ‘ghosted’, meaning they’re played relatively lightly.
- Towards the end, the flat third (A flat) to the natural third (A natural) — against the F7 chord — is used a lot in blues playing.
- I play very slightly behind the beat, which contributes to the swing feel.
Blues lick 2 (B minor/major) permalink
A lick that works with both dominant 7th and minor 7th chords.
- The (7-)5-♭5 figure (ascending or descending) is commonly found in blues playing.
- As with all licks, try playing it in different keys, starting with the more common ones: A minor/major, E minor/major, F minor/major etc.
Blues lick 3 (B flat major) permalink
- I’ve added some optional suggested fingerings (the numbers in black below the notes).
- We have a couple of ♭3-♮3 figures, as also seen in the F major lick.
- For the glissando on the last note, lightly brush over the keys with your third and maybe second fingers.
Blues lick 4 (F major) permalink
A slightly more complex lick that includes some chordal movement.
- The 16th-note quintuplet in bar 1 is five 16th notes played in the same time as four. Slow the tempo to 90 or 60 bpms if it helps to clarify.
Blues lick 5 (F minor) permalink
- This lick is written out for both hands and follows the chord sequence i6-VI7-V7-i6, here in F minor.
- Note the use of the flat 5 of the blues scale, including the 7-5-♭5 figure in bar 1, as seen in Blues lick 2.
- Here the flat 5 is written as a sharp 4 (B natural), but it could alternatively have been written C flat.
Blues/rock ’n’ roll lick 6 (D major) permalink
For the roll/tremolo on the first three chords, I play the tremelo on the outer two notes, while holding down the middle note. The roll into bar one anticipates the downbeat.
Suggested listening permalink
The blues playing by the piano players and the other musicians on these recordings is great:
- Wynton Kelly’s solo on ‘Freddie Freeloader’ (Miles Davis, Kind of Blue, 1959)
- Kenny Drew’s solo on ‘Blue Train’ (John Coltrane, Blue Train, 1958)
- Benny Green, ‘Green’s Blues’ (Green’s Blues, 2001)
- Thelonious Monk, ‘Blue Monk’ (Thelonious Alone in San Francisco, 1959)
- Ray Brown Trio, ‘Things Ain’t What They Used To Be’ (slow blues) (Seven Steps To Heaven, 1995)
- Bobby Timmons’ solo on his tune ‘Moanin’’ (Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Moanin’, 1959)
- Nina Simone, ‘Central Park Blues’ (Nina Simone, Little Girl Blue, 1959; recorded 1957)
- Brad Mehldau Trio, ‘Cheryl’ (a Charlie Parker jazz blues from Blues and Ballads, 2016)
- Kenny Drew, ‘Groovin’ the Blues’ (Kenny Drew, Undercurrent, 1961; recorded 1960)