Have Fun Learning Blues Piano Chords
In this blues piano lesson, we are going to take a look at three chords that you must know when it comes to playing the blues on the piano. Once you learn these three blues chords, you have a nice foundation upon which you have have hours of fun playing and improvising over the blues. Sure, there are more, but these are used by the pros regularly and serve as an ideal beginning, but you won’t sound like a beginner once you start playing them with some confidence!
Firstly, you will want a familiarity with the basic 12 bar blues form. You can learn about this popular song form and listen to two jazz piano greats playing over it in a most tasteful fashion here. Once you have an understanding of this form, continue on…
It is understood that you are here with a familiarization of the basic blues form as noted above and are ready to learn how to play these blues chords on the piano so you can immediately start having some fun with them. As you already know, there are three chords in the basic blues, known as the I, IV, and V, and they are all dominant 7th chords. In the key of C Major, those three chords are:
In their basic root position form, these chords are played as follows:
C7 = C E G Bb
F7 = F A C Eb
G7 = G B D F
By the way, if you need more of a familiarity with how to play 7th chords, a most easy to follow program may be found here. Although we are focused on only dominant 7th chords for our purposes here, there are ten types of 7th chords this popular program makes learning easy as pie.
Okay, we are going to do something interesting with these three chords. Let’s take a look at the first one, C7:
C E G Bb
A blues pianist will approach this chord in a more interesting fashion… and it’s super easy to do! See that E and Bb? They are the 3 and 7 of the chord, respectively… and they are the most important notes of the chord (The 3 and 7 are the most important tones in most 7th chords). So a blues or jazz pianist will keep those two chord tones and leave out the 1 (root) and 5. This accomplishes a couple of things: it frees up the fingers to add more interesting sound to the chord and it leaves off the root, which allows the bass player to play it without causing intonation problems between the two musicians playing the same note at the bottom of the chord. So, we have that E and Bb… and to that, we have a special “color tone,” known as an extension, that we will add. Specifically, the extension we will use here is the 9, which is D. Here is what this blues chord voicing looks like:
Played in the range where that 9 is just a whole step above middle C, this voicing produces a blues sound that is likely to be very, very familiar to your ears! Remember, we are not playing the root. Therefore, the reason becomes clear why this type of voicing is referred to as a rootless voicing. Specifically, we are playing a C9 chord. Play that blues voicing and listen!
It should be noted that this voicing and the two that follow are popular among blues pianists and jazz pianists alike. They are used so often that they have come to be know as stock voicings… “always there on the shelf ready and waiting for regular use” : )
Okay, moving on to that next voicing. Here is a great example of some super smooth voice leading that follows…
We’re looking at that F7 chord. But to arrive at that super sounding blues voicing, we’ll use that first one we came up with above as a starting point. See that E and Bb? Simply take each of them and lower them by one half step. What about that D, the 9? Leave it there. That’s right! You see, when you play that same note with an F7 chord, it actually becomes a 13. So, yes, you have here a blues piano voicing for F13:
Nice! Play it and listen for yourself! Wow, we’re 2/3 of the way there. We have two rootless voicings learned and just one to go. We’re going to take care of that G7 chord. This is going to be so, so very easy. Here’s how we do it… see all those chord tones in the previous F13 chord voicing? Yes, all three of them… simply raise each of them one whole step. When we do that, we get this:
You see, if you take any voicing and move each of the chord tones in the same direction by the same amount of distance, you get the exact same type of chord with a different name. Makes sense, right? Also notice that all three of these chord voicings contain the 3 and 7 plus one extension (or “color tone”).
There you have it! You now know how to play three of the most popular blues piano (or jazz piano) voicings known to mankind! You know, there’s lots of fun you can have with these. For now, what I would suggest is this: get them under your fingers to the point where you feel comfortable enough with them to play them over the basic 12 bar blues form as shown here. Play them with that left hand while keeping time at a very slow tempo for starters. This is a really nice way to become acquainted with these chords as you use them in this I-IV-V progression. Sure, you can have fun with the right hand soon… for now, though, get yourself to the point where you feel at ease playing these three chord voicings with confidence while keeping a steady time over that form. Do that and you’re on your way to playing blues piano with confidence!
(By the way… I created a fun video that focuses on these three voicings, which can be found here. The Audio Animation Video along with my personal narration makes it all clear. I think you might enjoy this.)