Blues Keyboard Ornamentation: Grace Notes

By Doug Harvey

One of the best ways to take your blues keyboard playing to the next level is to add authentic blues ornamentation.

Ornaments are extra notes or musical flourishes that add interest and musical tension. They also help to create an authentic blues sound. Much of the ornamentation in blues keyboard styles was originally inspired by blues singers and their whoops, hollers and glides. Piano players can sometimes only approximate these unique vocal ornaments. Of course, keyboardists can also produce intricate and rapid-fire blues ornamentation that no singer could ever hope to imitate, except maybe for Bobby McFerrin!

The most familiar blues ornament is the grace note. Grace notes aren’t unique to blues – they’re everywhere in classical music – but they’re usually played differently in blues. Often they’re played quickly, and sometimes simultaneously, with the note they’re embellishing, for a dissonant, “bluesy” sound. When possible, they’re played with the same finger, unlike classical music:

blues-ex-1

 

 

 

 

 

Though when the grace note is a white key followed by a black key or another white key, it’s necessary to use two different fingers:

blues-ex-2

 

 

 

 

 

But they can still be played “crushed” together, to sound more like this:

blues-ex-3

 

 

 

 

 

Notice that these grace notes are a half step below the note they’re embellishing, which is standard practice in blues piano.

Add grace notes to your blues playing and supercharge it with an authentic blues feel, like this:

Blues-ex-5

 

 

Doug Hanvey gives blues piano lessons in Portland, OR.

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