The Only 3 Chords You Need to Master the Blues on Piano

Master the Blues on Piano

by Scott Houston

12 steps to mastering the bluesI’ve got some great news to let out of the bag for anyone dying to have some fun at a piano or keyboard right away. In its simplest form, the blues has only three chords. That’s right, three! (Ahhh, so that’s why there are so many blues bands out there …) You talk about bang for your chord learning buck! Spend about 10 minutes learning three chords, and you will have learned the chords needed to play hundreds of tunes. What a great way to amaze your friends and, most importantly, have hours of fun at the keyboard.

Essentially, the blues is a specific progression that uses the C7, F7, and G7 chords. (For the sake of brevity, I’ll only look at playing blues in the key of C). The blues chord progression lasts 12 bars (thus the phrase “12-bar blues”) that move in a familiar pattern using those three chords. The chart below shows both the chords to play and the pattern to play them in.

Now that you know what the chords are, the way you can use them is endless. I affectionately call this the “blues buffet” because you can put any combination of chords, or patterns using the chord tones, in either or both hands and it will all come out “tasting” good on the same musical plate.

A simple example of a blues riff might include playing the notes of each chord separately in your left hand in a repeating rhythmic pattern. What’s more, the pattern works well for the left or right hands, as well as in combination. For instance, beginners might like to play broken (or arpeggiated) chords with the left hand and full chords with the right hand, and more advanced players might prefer to keep a steady pattern with the left and practice improvising fills with the right, which is what the great boogie pianists, such as Tampa Red, Professor Longhair, and Dr. John, have mastered.

This leads to a lot of fun imitating, exploring, and learning what combinations to play the notes in. The blues has been such a huge influence over popular music in this country, we all know most of these things in our heads already because we’ve heard them a gazillion times in music we’ve listened to over the years.

steps to mastering the blues - scale

My first book and my website have many examples of blues patterns to practice. To get a quick taste of the “blues buffet,” a one-bar example of an arpeggiated C major (notes C, E, and G) chord is shown below. Remember, to turn this combination of notes into a blues progression, simply play the same combination in the chords of C, F, and G in the 12-bar blues pattern. And don’t forget to swing!

Even if you don’t consider yourself a huge blues fan, you will find that learning to have fun playing the blues chord progression will do wonders for your playing in whatever other genre you enjoy. That is because the blues has been, and still is, such a giant influence on almost all other styles of non-classical music that you use blues inspired “licks” and “riffs” quite often as you play other styles.

Three chords … hundreds of tunes …  where do I sign up?

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