Learning to play the blues on piano can sometimes seem like a very daunting task, but I’m here to tell you that it’s just the same as learning any other style – like classical for instance.
First of all you need to start with the piano blues scale so you can begin to understand which notes are used in many of the blues songs you love and hear today. They are all using the same notes – but not necessarily in the same order.
What are the notes of a blues scale?
Here you will see below the notes of a blues scale in the key of C.
There are other notes you can use and the blues isn’t limited to these seven, however this is the best place to start if you want to learn the blues scale and how to play the blues on the piano.
How is this different to the C major scale?
If you are familiar with the C major scale you will notice that there are some similarities, but there are also some big differences too. The C major scale, which is the easiest to play and most well known scale on the piano, consists of the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C.
The C major scale is the very first scale everyone plays on the piano, and you can see why. With it’s simple pattern of playing up the white keys, excluding all of the black notes, it’s a great place to start.
The blues scale however uses the black keys, and this is why a lot of people approaching the style of piano blues for the first time begin to panic. However, all is not lost and remember that the piano blues scale can be simplified to just seven notes – C, Eb, F, F#, G, Bb and C.
Why do these notes create a blues sound?
One way to describe blues music is to imagine a world whereby both major and minor notes are used at the same time. If you are a classical player you will often start by identifying the key the music is in before you play it. It will typically be in either a major or minor key, but can sometimes change and transpose within the music.
Blues music will use both major and minor notes at the same time. For example, if you are in the key of C major you will play the E – not the Eb. If you are playing in C minor you will play Eb – not the E. The note E is a part of the C major scale, and becomes Eb when playing the C minor scale.
This is where the blues style takes advantage of both, and you will often see and hear a piano blues player moving from the E to the Eb and vice versa within the same melody – which is an important trait of blues music.
But why is the F# and Bb used?
Firstly, the F# is often used as a kind of ‘passing note’ to get to either the F or the G which sit either side of the F#. If you were to play the F# and dwell on that note during a C blues melody it would not sound so good, and would create an ‘off key’ sound.
So in order to make the F# fit within a blues melody you would need to play it quickly – and certainly not play it for very long if you want it to sound correct. When playing the blues scale however you don’t need to worry too much about how long you play it for. Just play each note for the same amount of time, and the focus is to learn the notes.
The reason why the F# (sharp 4th or flat 5th on the scale) works is that you are attempting to bend the pitch of the piano to create a nice bluesy sound. If you watch and listen to a blues guitarist you will notice that they push the string up when playing in order to bend the pitch. To recreate that sound on the piano we have to slide from the F# to the F or G with our finger, as we obviously can’t physically bend the pitch like a guitar can.