Wilbur's Music/Blues Page

Piano Blues

    I've received a number of questions related to blues piano and after multiple requests for basic information I've decided to create this page. Even though this site was primarily created for harmonica, a quick look at piano blues seems appropriate.

Beginning Piano Player FAQ

If you can already play the piano and want to learn the blues style.... skip to the next section. If you are a "BEGINNING" piano player wanting to learn the blues style I have several words of advice and several words of caution.
First the CAUTION:       If you have very little or no training and/or experience playing the piano, you will most likely find playing the blues styles difficult to learn. There are many reasons why this is so....I will list 3 of the more compelling.
  1. Piano blues is much more than a simple blues "riff". Playing that distinctive "blues sound" requires more skill (even simple level blues songs) than some of the other musical styles. The left hand bass is almost always played in a slow rolling style, or in a boogiestyle, or stride piano style. The right hand melody is usually played much faster and uses off beat (syncopated) rhythms. This means that in a blues piano solo (or even accompaniment) your two hands are playing at different speeds and emphasizing notes at completely different times.
  2. Nearly every book on piano blues (that I've seen) immediately launches into descriptions of blues scales, flatted notes, off beat rhythms, and make reference to a variety of other music theory. While none of these concepts are particularly difficult to understand, the blues books all seem to take for granted that the reader has prior knowledge of music. The beginning piano books that do explain these concepts in more detail still seem to be written with the assumption that the reader already knows music and wants to understand the difference between the "blues" and the "other styles" to which the books are making the contrast.
  3. Last but not least, piano blues riffs generally require finger dexterity above beginner level.

Now the ADVICE:       If you're serious about learning blues, I strongly suggest you work your way through at a few beginning piano books first. If you don't already have one....GET A PIANO TEACHER..... If you are an adult, get a piano teacher that understands teaching adults (a surprising number of piano teachers don't teach adults very well). Learn to play simple melodies. Learn to play both hands at the same time. Learn how to read music and learn how to figure out rhythms. Pay particular attention to finger exercises and work those hands . Memorize scales and chords, and be able to play them well. When you get the basics down, get one of the simpler blues books listed below and launch into the wonderful world of piano blues!!
      You don't have to spend years working on the basics before moving to the blues....but you will have to spend enough time developing an adequate musical base from which to learn the blues. How long is "adequate"???? Obviously the answer depends on how hard you work, how often you practice, and how good your teacher is.....but I will go out on a limb and say that a minimum of six months of lessons (one formal lesson a week..and 2-5 hours of weekly practice) will get you to a point to start the blues. This may sound like a lot of time but it really isn't. With a good teacher the things you learn during this period will prove to be invaluable later on.
      I'm sure some will disagree with me about the need for beginners to develop basic skills before attempting piano blues. A few people with natural talent will be able to jump right into the blues, but for the majority of us, learning blues piano requires that basic music and playing skills be acquired first.

DISCLAIMER: I do NOT say that 6 months of piano lessons is all that's needed to jump into blues songs....in fact even after 6 months you will probably still have trouble with even relatively simple blues pieces (after all, it took even the great blues players, years of practice to get that "sound"). However, with some of the basics under your belt you will be significantly better off than trying to tackle the blues with no experience at all.
      On the other side of the coin.... for those experienced pianists out there who may take violent exception to the mere suggestion that someone can start the blues with only 6 months of lessons....let me say that adult beginners (and older kids...12 and up) who are serious about learning the piano can often start experimenting with other styles of music much sooner than is traditionally considered prudent by many classically trained piano teacher.   Additionally....I know of no rule that says a beginning pianist HAS to spend all of their time on classics or Hanon exercises. Contemporary blues can be just as instructive to a semi-experienced piano student as the more traditional fare.

Blues Technique versus Blues Repertoire

The question I most usually get asked is some variant of
"I've looked everywhere and I can't find sheet music for good sounding blues solos". "Where do I find these??"

The blues purists out there are laughing at this question right now. Because the blues is an improvisational style, they would say that that blues solos are CREATED...not played from some piece of sheet music!!!

This strong emphasis on improvisation explains why many of the blues instruction books contain lots of theory on scales, chord progressions, and riffs....but contain very few complete blues songs arranged as great sounding solos for piano. The blues books that do contain complete songs, usually have sparse piano arrangements that serve either as accompaniment for a singer or as a bare bones base from which to build your own personal blues solos and improvisations.

The recurring theme here is that most of the instruction books require you either learn blues theory complete with riffs, left hand bass, chord progressions and all the rest.......OR.......content yourself with playing very simple blues melodies and/or blues accompaniment for a singer. The intermediate to early advanced pianist who simply wants to find sheet music with great sounding arrangements of blues songs (complete with solo riffs) will find themselves rather frustrated. Unlike classical or even pop music where complete arrangements are plentiful and many variations are available, the same type and amount of sheet music arrangements for the blues have been much harder to find.

The good news is that music publishers are starting to notice the demand for already arranged blues sheet music for pianists whom have technical skill and the ability to play but don't want to spend hours and hours memorizing riffs and learning to do improvisation. These books are still somewhat hard to find, but I've listed the good ones I know about in the next section....and I will add more as I find them.

Advanced beginning or early intermediate pianists can find a number of "Blues Style" books that have very simple blues sounding songs. Usually these books are "Big Note" easy to play versions and are usually located along with the rest of the basic instruction books at your local music store.

SUMMARY: If you can already play the piano at the intermediate level (or above) and want to spend the time learning blues theory and technique so you can improvise blues...you're in luck. You can find a fair number of books out there that provide good to very good information, tips, and lessons.
If the same level pianist wants to dabble in the blues style and add a few good blues solos to their repertoire without delving into theory and improvisation.....you will have a harder time. Complete sheet music arrangements for the blues piano are much harder to find than their counterparts in other musical genres.


Instruction Books for Blues Piano

If you haven't read the section on "Blues Technique versus Repertoire" take a few minutes, go back and read it. Understanding that section will greatly assist you in making sense of the brief reviews attached to the books listed in the bookstore.

The blues sound can be tricky to interpret from the written page and tricky to play...especially for those new to the style. I strongly suggest getting a book that comes with a CD or cassette so you can hear how the songs should sound. Several books come with the CD optional.... SPEND THE EXTRA MONEY...GET THE CD

Click on BOOK LIST to go directly to the list of reviewed books and materials.

NOTE: I haven't looked at all the blue piano books out there so this list is limited to the ones I've used. As I find more I will add them. If you know of some....drop me an E-mail and tell me about them. website1402@yahoo.com

Blues Piano...Tips and Practice Suggestions

I won't rehash the basics of piano practice....however I will emphasize a couple of points.
  1. If you can't already play the piano..(at least late beginner ..preferably early intermediate).. don't try to start on the blues.
    First learn the basics of music and get in some keyboard time.
  2. If you have access to someone who can teach you blues piano... go see them. Unless you have a natural talent for piano blues, (or you like re-inventing the wheel by learning all on your own), a teacher can save you lots of time in learning the blues. Even a few lessons are time and money well spent.
  3. To start with ONLY buy books that have CD/cassette so you hear how the music should sound.
    The secret to the blues is its beat and rhythm.   Learn how to count and how to translate what is written to what gets played.
  5. Use a metronome.
    Blues purists will tell you that the blues is unfettered and open to changes in tempo...and they're right.   AFTER you become more proficient in playing the blues...add in your own style of tempo changes. Until then, use the metronome to help learn the blues swing and rhythm...and to keep your tempo on track.
  6. Get a cheap tape recorder and listen to yourself.
    You may THINK you've got the blues going on...but until you hear it on tape...it's just an uninformed opinion.     Tape doesn't lie.     Tape lets you critique yourself in private and allows you make adjustments to your playing. Few things give you the feedback you need to improve your playing like a tape recorder.
    CAUTION:   You aren't laying down tracks for a record so don't get too caught up in tape recording quality. If you have (or can afford) an expensive set-up then go ahead....but even a cheap tape recorder will let you hear how you sound. Don't waste time trying to get a perfect tape or worry too much about acoustics, echo, and other unrelated recording issues. Listen to the rhythm, tempo, phrasing, and note accuracy of your recording. If that's done well...then you have the blues sound even if the recording itself is substandard.
  7. Listen to good blues played on the piano.
    Get some CD's by the great blues piano players and hear what it's all about.

Playing the blues on piano is fun and challenging. I hope the information on this page helps you get started. Send me an E-mail and let me know what you liked (or didn't like about this page). Good luck!!