If you’ve ever wondered what the difference is between a normal C major scale and the C blues scale, well I’m about to let you in on a little secret – and it will literally change your way of thinking when it comes to playing the piano. This is the secret piano blues scale the professionals don’t tell you about!
So if you’ve been playing the piano for a little while now and you’re very familiar with the C major scale, you’ll know that it’s the first and easiest scale you’ll learn. Why? Because you only have to play from C until the next C hitting all the white notes and missing out all the black notes – what could be simpler!
However, when it comes to figuring out how to play blues on the piano it can be very different. What you need is the secret piano blues scale! But before that, let’s first of all look at the C scale and how that looks on the keys –
Here you can see an overhead view of some of the keys on a piano or keyboard. To play a C major scale you just have to hit the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, B and C. Typically the fingers would be 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5…
If you’ve seen and heard a blues and boogie woogie pianist play in the key of C, they often hit a lot of the black keys too. So what are those ‘blues’ notes and why do they work when it appears they shouldn’t according to what we know about the C major scale? This is the secret piano blues scale!
Before we look at why they work, here’s a common blues scale in the key of C so you can finally see what it looks like –
As you can see this scale is now very different from the original C major scale and the D, E, A and B have been removed and we now have some new notes as well – Eb, F# and Bb. A suggested fingering for this blues scale is 1, 3, 1, 3, 1, 3 and 5. Similar to the fingering you use on a chromatic scale, you can navigate in almost the same way to play this. You can of course replace the finger 3 for a 2 in some or all the places if you wish, but either way this should allow you to practice the scale with some fluidity.
A common way to play the blues scale is to also swing the rhythm. So rather than playing each note equally like you would the normal similar motion C scale, you can hold the first note slightly longer, and then skip the next.
But why do these notes work when they are so different to the C major scale?
There are lots of different ways to explain why these notes work and create the blues style sound, but rather than going into too much detail and getting all theory based I will give you my take on this.
First of all let’s have a look at the Eb. If you are familiar with both the C major and minor scale you will understand the difference between the major and minor third. The third note of the C major scale is an E, and the third note of the C minor scale is an Eb. You will notice the difference in the major and minor sound if you play the standard root three note chords using the 1st, 3rd and 5th note of each scale.
Give it a try – all you need to is play C, E and G at the same time for the C major chord, and then play it again but this time change the third note E to an Eb. This very slight movement changes the chord from C major to C minor. So now you know the difference between a major and minor third, you can begin to understand why it’s used when playing blues piano.
First of all, when playing blues piano you need to often change between the E and the Eb to create both a major and minor sound within the music. In a nutshell, I often describe the blues style as just that – a mixture of both major and minor keys!
This is primarily what makes the blues style so different and so unique when comparing it to other styles of music that usually stick to either major or minor for most if not all of the song. Now when we look at the next black key – the F#, we cannot match this note to either the C major or minor key. So if it’s not used in the scale, then how can it be used when playing blues piano?
My take on this is that it very much tries to emulate the way a guitar is played, and you’ll often notice that when a guitarist wants to bend the pitch of a note, they will push the string up so the pitch itself bends and seamlessly moves from one note to the next – usually just one note a way, or what’s called a semi-tone.
So although we cannot seamlessly bend the pitch of a note on a piano (unless you have a pitch bend function usually found on keyboards), the only way we can attempt to do this is to move very quickly from a black key down to a white key – in this case, the F# to the G. When playing blues piano this is typically called a ‘slide’, and a common way to navigate from a black key to a white key is to slide your finger off of the black key so it falls as smoothly as possible to the adjacent white key.
Give this a go, and what you need to do is place your second finger on the F# – roughly at the bottom right of the key, and then slowly slide your finger off and onto the G. You’ll notice that as you get better at this action and a little quicker, that you are effectively bending the pitch of the note. This creates a kind of ‘wrong to right’ pitch which temporarily makes it sound like you’ve hit a bum note, but then very quickly corrects itself.
Ultimately this is what creates the ‘blues’ style, and it’s very much a style of music that likes to break the mould of what we traditionally see as ‘the correct theoretical way’ to how we approach, compose and listen to music. Finally, the Bb is a very common note used in many styles of music but works well as probably one of the most commonly used notes in blues – the 7th.
One final thing to point out is that the notes which were removed from the C scale – D, E, G and A, can be used when playing blues piano. They are just often removed from the blues scale and the scale itself is simplified into just seven notes in total.
However, the B is not often used at all and will not really work when playing blues. The B, or ‘major 7th’, is typically more suited to jazz or more laid back styles like ‘lounge’ piano. You’ll hear what I mean if you try this yourself! Head over to the piano and play a C chord (C, E, G), and then add the Bb at the top. You are now playing a C7 chord, and one that is often used in blues piano. If you now change the Bb to a B (major 7th), you’ll notice the sound of the chord is very much like a jazz chord, and reminds you of being in a restaurant listening to either jazz or lounge style piano.
And that’s it! You’ve now got the tools you need to begin putting together some great right hand piano blues licks. But do you have the right equipment? To help you on your learning journey, check out this awesome keyboard/piano shop to find the best deals.