A question I get asked a lot is – how easy is it to learn blues and boogie woogie on the piano? But more specifically – how easy is it when comparing it to learning classical music?
When I look back at my learning experience I remember how hard it was learning the pieces and scales for each classical grade exam and never really feeling like the end was in sight. However, after passing all eight grades many years ago I look back with fond memories and wish I could do it all again – and practice more as well!
After I’d passed grade eight I wanted to move away from classical and learn to play the blues and boogie woogie. This style of music, as well as rock n roll, had always been in my heart and what I’d constantly turned too over the years.
Q: Do you still play classical piano?
Although I still like to play classical from time to time, it was never really what I wanted to do. I felt that by pushing myself through the ABRSM grades it left me with the skills to learn anything I wanted, so I persevered and did what I needed to do to leave myself with plenty of options by the end of them.
Because of the level I had achieved I was able to quickly learn blues techniques, and I of course had a huge advantage over a beginner learning this style and playing for the first time. But what really motivated me to learn the blues was listening to legends like Jools Holland, Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Silvan Zingg, and so on.
I was always amazed by how good I felt when I listened to the blues, and even artists that were famous for playing the guitar like BB King and Chuck Berry were always at the root of my learning experience and motivation. That buzz you get when those amazing licks are played along with the pumping rhythm is hard to come by with classical music, and its simplicity is what ultimately draws me to this style.
Q: Is classical music harder to learn than blues and boogie woogie piano?
Having gone through the learning experience of both these styles I would categorically state that classical music is much harder to learn than blues piano. It is worth noting however that I am specifically referring to the advanced part of these styles, rather than the beginner pieces and techniques.
Any style of music can be learned fairly quickly at its foundation level, but most people who want to learn to play an instrument tend to look at the more advanced songs and techniques. When you compare blues or boogie woogie with classical, then classical would win hands down every time when looking at the very highest end of technical difficulty.
Take Evgeny Kissin for example, who is considered to be one of the greatest living classical pianists. One of my favourite piano pieces to listen to is his version of ‘La Campanella’, which you can watch in awe by clicking here.
This is a very difficult piece to master, and when comparing this to blues and boogie woogie piano you can see that it requires a lot more skill. But what does this mean to you?
Q: Do I need to practice scales to learn blues piano?
You may have stumbled onto this article because you’re looking to decide whether or not you should learn classical music before you try anything else. If you are solely interested in learning to play blues and boogie woogie piano, then you do not have to learn classical piano and you don’t have to practice scales for three hours a day!
Piano blues requires different techniques to classical piano, so scales will not have as much as an effect on learning this style of music. Practising scales is something I would always recommended to anyone, no matter what style of music they are learning. Piano is very much about dexterity and control, so one of the best ways to achieve this is to practice scales, so they should still not be underestimated.
Learning to play classical piano to a decent level would mean that scales are mandatory. But when it comes to blues piano I find that the scales are less important, especially when you consider that a ‘blues scale’ is very different from the standard ‘do-re-mi’ of a classical scale. Take a look at the B flat blues scale for example by clicking here.
Q: I have some experience with classical piano – can I learn the blues?
Over the years I have had some great discussions with other piano players who mainly play classical, and one of the things that often comes up is their belief that they can’t learn to improvise and ultimately play styles like blues.
‘Without the sheet music, I just can’t play anything’
Classical music is always played from sheet music, so the learning process is typically all about learning to read music and then following the score. The prospect of taking away the music (even though you can readily find sheet music for blues songs) to improvise and play from memory can often put people off.
When it comes to learning blues and boogie woogie piano the approach can be quite different, but that doesn’t mean to say that a classical player or even a beginner can’t learn to play this style.
‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks’
This is how I would sum up a classical player with the desire to learn blues piano, and probably the single most important barrier they put up that stops them from learning. Sure, it can be hard to learn new techniques and play without the music, but it is certainly a much easier learning experience than what the classical grades put you through.
Q: Isn’t blues piano all about improvisation?
Another myth that I would like to bust talks about the need to learn how to improvise, and the importance it plays when learning how to play piano blues and boogie woogie.
When we think about improvisation we immediately assume that the musician is making it up on the spot. However, this just isn’t the case and what a lot of people don’t realise is that improvisation is regurgitating melodies and rhythms that have been previously practised and rehearsed.
For the most part, learning to improvise is all about learning how to quickly extract melodies you’ve already learnt and being able to play them at will ensuring they perfectly fit with the rhythm and style of music. This of course isn’t easy to do, and takes many years to perfect – but so does anything!
For more information on improvisation, here are some other great articles to read: