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Blues Piano Chords

Blues Piano ChordsThe blues is truly an elegant form. Most musicians can learn its basic concepts in a few lessons, its sound is easily recognizable, and yet it offers the player a source for endless creativity. Blues piano chords are not that difficult to work with as long as you understand that essential to their sound is the dominant seventh chord.

Below is the standard twelve-bar blues written with roman numerals representing the roots of the chords relative to any key. We can see that the progression is made up of three dominant seventh chords arranged in three four-measure phrases:

I7 | IV7 | I7 | I7 |

IV7 | IV7 | I7 | I7 |

V7 | IV7 | I7 | I7 ||

Lets work out the chords for a G blues:

I7 is a G7 chord

IV7 is a C7 chord

V7 is a D7 chord

A blues in C would use the chords C7, F7 and G7 for I7, IV7, and V7, respectively.

So how do you play these chords as blues piano chords? Well that depends on many different things, including the playing context, and performer preference. The first task, however is to learn the above blues progression in all keys. A good beginning list of keys work on in order is: G, C, B-flat and E-flat.

G and C are keys that singers and guitar players like. Sax and brass players tend to favor B-flat and E-flat. Piano players should like all keys equally.

Start by playing a straight quarter-note rhythm with full four-note voicings, both as hands separate and as hands together. Pay particular attention to voice-leading, that is smoothly connecting one chord to another using inversions. As a variation to this practice, try playing the chords in the right hand and the root only in the left hand. This technique will give you a simple bass line. Also play the blues progression with the chords in the left hand and the accompanying blues scale in the right hand, as a preparatory exercise for building solos.

In order to play blues piano chords, you do not have to play full four note chords all the time. In fact, when I am practicing my blues improvisation technique, I reduce the dominant seventh chord down to its basic and most important sound, the tritone contained within the chord.

The tritone is made up of the dominate seventh chord’s third and seventh. For the blues player, a thorough understanding of these two pitches is essential. You will also see how easy it is to connect a blues progression together using only the tritone. Below is a chart of the blues progression in B-flat with the chords indicated in the top row and a suggested voicing for the left hand in the second and third rows using only the third and seventh for each one:

Bb7

Eb7

Bb7

/ / / /

Eb7

/ / / /

Bb7

/ / / /

F7

Eb7

Bb7

/ / / /

Ab

G

Ab

G

Ab

A

G

Ab

D

Db

D

Db

D

Eb

Db

D

Notice the semitone relationship of the tritones between the three chords. An understanding of this relationship between these chords will provide an important key in your understanding of blues piano chords, and the many possible variations on this basic twelve-bar progression.

Once you can play this chord progression in the various keys suggested earlier, try varying the rhythm a bit. You do not need to do much to make it more interesting. In fact simpler is probably better so as not to detract from the important soloist, whether that is your right hand, or another player.

First, try a basic half-note rhythm for the accompaniment. The chords falling on beats one and three. Once you are comfortable with this pattern, syncopate the third beat an eighth-note early as in a basic Charleston rhythm, a staple from jazz styles.

You can also even use a simple whole note rhythm, one chord per measure. What could be easier? When I play with a whole note rhythm for the chord changes, I like to occasionally syncopate the downbeat an eighth-note early. This is very effective for a slow blues with drummer, bass and soloist. It allows the soloist an incredible amount of freedom while still sounding surprisingly full.

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