Playing the blues often comes down to a straight forward chord progression, which anyone can learn and play on the piano within minutes. Some of the most famous blues, boogie and rock ‘n’ roll songs use this simple chord technique – artists like Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Ray Charles and Fats Domino would use these chords in a lot of their legendary songs.
Here’s a quick guide on how to play 12 bar piano blues chords, and how you can start playing the blues today with this simple tutorial.
What are the chords?
One of the reasons why blues music is so great to listen to is that it likes to keep things simple. With only 3 chords you can begin to play 12 bar blues instantly – and here’s how…
Let’s begin by working out the 3 chords in the key of C. The first chord is always easy to work out as it is the same chord as the key you are playing in – in this example it will be C. The next two chords can be found by taking the 4th and 5th notes of the C scale which are F and G.
Take a look below so you can see how they look on the piano –
You will see above that on a C scale the first note is of course C, and the 4th and 5th is F and G. This means that if you want to know what the 3 chords are of a 12 bar blues chord progression, you only need to locate the 4th and 5th notes of the key. For example, if you want to know what the chords are for playing in G, you take the 4th and 5th notes which are C and D.
Top tip – if you are unfamiliar with a particular scale or key, there is an easy way to find out what the 4th and 5th notes are of that scale. All you need to do is count the distant between the notes on the C example above (including all the black keys). Once you know that distance it will be the same for all keys and scales.
For instance, the interval (distance) between C and F on the above example is a total of 5 notes (or 5 semi-tones). The interval between the F and the G is 2 notes (or 2 semi-tones or 1 tone).
Use this formula to work out chords for other keys
Now that we know the interval between the notes we can calculate the chords for any key we choose. For example, let’s try and work out the chords to play a 12 bar blues in the key of A. We know that the first chord is A, so what are the other two?
Look at the keys of your keyboard or piano and count from A up 5 notes (remember to count away from A – so A is zero). Also remember to include the black keys when counting – you should get to the note D if you have done this correctly. You have now quickly identified your second chord of the 12 bar blues in A which is the D chord.
To work out the final chord all you need to now do is count up 2 more notes from D which will take you to E – this is your final chord. We now have our 3 chords to play in the key of A which is – A, D and E.
But how do I work out the full chord for each note?
So far we have only worked out what the single notes are on the scale, which means we can now work out the full chord which consists of 3 notes. Here is the full chord of C to begin with –
This is called a ‘C major’ chord and you can see how straight forward it is to play. Using your thumb on the C, your third finger on the E, and finally your fifth finger on the G you can now begin to play the first chord.
Here’s the F and G chord –
There is again a simple formula to work out each chord once you have its starting note. All you need to do is work out the interval between the notes and remember the number so you can use this for ALL chords on a piano.
The interval for a C major chord is 4 and 3. This means that E is 4 notes above C, and G is 3 notes above E. This is the same for all major chords and we can see this below when we look at a more difficult chord like E major –
To find out how you use these chords and what a 12 bar chord progression is, please join my online piano blues course now to get access to tutorial videos, sheet music and handy notes covering artists such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Jools Holland, Ray Charles and many more.