How to Improvise on Piano with the Blues Scale

Sheet music is like a home cooked meal. You grew up with it, you know all the ingredients, it makes sense to you–it’s familiar. But then one day, a hulking beast barges in, gobbles up your sheet music, and demands you to play anyway. His name is jazz, and he’s got no time for notes on a page. If you’re new to jazz improvisation, learning the blues scale will save you hours of pain and discomfort. You can apply the blues scale to pretty much any solo, in any song, and at least sound like you have a clue.

The blues scale for each key consists of the minor seventh chord (in this case, Cm7), plus the fourth and flat fifth (F and Gb). While it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the blues scale for each key, you can usually fall back on the root blues scale at just about any point in a jazz solo. In other words, you can rely on the C blues scale throughout a C blues jam, even though the key may also change to F and G.

piano Blues Scale Notes

Beginners often fall into the trap of only playing the notes in the chords. The result is about as exciting as a bedtime story from Ben Stein. In jazz, dissonance is a virtue. It gives a solo texture and color. The flat third and flat seventh (both contained in the blues scale) are especially sexy target tones to play over a major chord, where those notes are otherwise natural.

Even the blues scale fatigues with overuse. A musician should have a toolbox of other scales and chord tones to draw on during his solo, says Bill DiCosimo, a jazz pianist and chair of music and entertainment industries at Syracuse University’s Setnor School of Music. DiCosimo suggests using the relative minor blues scale over the dominant chord. So, in the key of C, the relative minor is A, or the sixth, and the notes of the A blues scale are A-C-D-Eb-E-G-A. Chord extensions, especially the ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth, also help spice up a solo.

You can learn jazz theory on any instrument, but you can master it on piano. If you are serious about learning music theory or composing, it’s helpful to have a keyboard or piano on hand, regardless of your main instrument. Since the keyboard clearly lays out every note, studying theory with a piano is like traveling in a foreign land with a roadmap.

Continue to Part Two of This Piano Blues Scale Lesson

You can view Part 2 of this video lesson below, and read the full article that goes with it.


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Drew Roberts is a former digital editor of Making Music magazine.

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Yes it’s really brilliant. But there is no slow motion to memorise the notes or keys for the right hand. For rookies like me would it help. Can I find the subscription somewhere? Thx

If I subscribe as new subscriber can get to this back issue of Dec 2012 and see the transcribed right hand notes; think that’s what the post above referenced but not sure? thnx

I have recently acquired a piano and, having never played one before, am quite pleased with what I can do after only a few hours after reading this article. Thank for making a down-to-earth instructional that was easy for a rookie like myself to keep up with.

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