In this blog, we’re going to talk about playing the blues, show you which ingredients are needed to play typical blues-flavoured sounds on a piano or guitar, and take an in-depth look at blue notes, blues scales, blues-style chord progressions (including that well-known 12-bar blues), straight-versus-swing blues and various other important topics.

Want to Play the Blues? Use These Chords, Notes and Tips!

More Than Just a Blues Scale

Elements of the blues can be found in countless styles of music. In fact, instrumental parts such as guitar solos heard in pop and rock songs are often based on blues scales, which are great for building up melodic and harmonic tension using so-called blue notes (more on these later). To turn a piece of music into bona-fide blues, you’re naturally going to need more than just a blues-inspired guitar solo. What you need are the right spices to give the sound that bluesy edge. By the way, there’s no hard line to draw between what’s considered blues and what’s not. However, while it’s personal, most people associate the blues with slow songs full of lament; a somewhat erroneous association since so many blues songs are actually up-tempo and swing vivaciously. Next up, we’ll dive briefly into the history of blues before we go into detail about the musical ‘seasoning’ needed to get that classic bluesy feel and discuss some of the most-used blues rhythms.

A Brief History of the Blues

Since there’s plenty of information readily available in books and on the internet, we’ll keep this section nice and short so we can go back to covering the playing part of the blues right away. Blues is one of the many forms of folk music and came into existence between 1860 and 1900, where it originated among slaves in the American South who sang spirituals, gospels and working songs: music to express suffering and, in turn, make life a little more bearable. That’s exactly where the melancholic roots of the blues come from. “Melancholic, but not sad,” says singer/guitarist Frank Van Den Bergh alias Magic Frankie. “Blues is about the bad things that happen to you that you eventually overcome. That’s why the blues is so powerful and touching.” Technically, etymology is history as well, so it’s interesting to learn that the name for blues comes from the blue flags that are used in sailing as a sign of mourning. At the time of the First World War, many black Americans moved to northern cities such as Chicago and Detroit, where the blues developed a more ‘urban’ sound thanks to the use of electrically amplified instruments. At the same time, the blues became more up-tempo and laid down the groundwork for styles like rhythm & blues and rock ‘n’ roll. The Rolling Stones are one of the most well-known proponents of blues-inspired rock.

Blue notes

The crucial bits in any blues tune are the so-called blue notes. Without these, there’s no blues. The blue notes used in melodic lines aren’t taken from the trusty major scale, but plucked out of various blues scales, of which the minor blues scale is by far the most popular one. Played in C, the note order is as follows: C – Eb – F – Gb – G – Bb – C. With this information, you can easily figure out all other blues minor scales as well but, while we’re at it, we’ll give you two more that a lot of guitar-backed bands like to use: the A-minor blues scale (A – C – D – Eb – E – G – A) and the E-minor blues scale (E – G – A – Bb – B – D – E). In the first example, the C-minor blues scale, the third, fifth and seventh notes are the blue notes. Cram these into your solos and put a little extra emphasis on the third note (Eb) and you’ll get a super-bluesy sound. That’s because blue notes are, in a way, closely related to the good ol’ major scale. Admittedly, the blue notes in the C-minor blues scale aren’t exactly the Eb, Gb and Bb, but close enough is good enough here. Guitarists can hit a blue note by (almost) bending the D-string up to an Eb, harmonica players can bend an E down to an Ab, and keyboard players have the option to play grace notes by softly striking any of the keys right next to the actual note. For even more information about blues scales, check out our dedicated blog.

Chords & Progressions

The most commonly used blues chords are mostly made up of dominant seventh chords. If you’re playing the blues in C, you’re most likely playing C7, F7 and G7 chords, the first two of which aren’t even part of the C scale. That’s no issue when you’re playing blues – in fact, this only makes things sound even better. Side-note: the Bb note in the C7 chord and the Eb note in the F7 chord are blue notes in the C-minor blues scale, so all of this actually makes at least a little sense. On to blues progressions. Loads of different progressions can be found online, but one of the most-played ones is a 12-bar version aptly named the twelve bar blues. Further down the page, we’ve included two popular 12-bar blues progression examples for you to try.


The beautiful thing about blues is that it’s a perfect style for improvisation. Once you know the most important blues scales by heart, laying down improvised blues solos becomes fairly easy. Practise, experiment, and be receptive to feedback and you’ll only get better. On top of that, blues has the advantage of being cyclical music that usually goes round in 12-bar cycles, giving musicians the opportunity to take turns playing one or more rounds of solos. As such, blues songs are popular during jam-sessions, which are a great way to improve your music-making skills. If you listen closely and watch carefully, you’ll develop a feel for what’s coming next in terms of breaks, outros, solos and so on. Basically, once you know how to play the blues, you can pull up a chair at any jam session. As the old adage goes: “No matter your preferred style of music, you need to at least be able to play blues.”

Language and Intuition

We’ve mostly stuck to the essentials in this blog, but there’s a lot more to cover when it comes to blues music, including different scales and complex chords and progressions. This brings blues a little closer to its offspring, jazz. While blues can be quite overwhelming in terms of music theory when encountered for the first time, it’s nevertheless accessible for beginners since, according to blues organist Pascal Lanslots, the genre doesn’t require any specific playing techniques. “Sure, it’s important to understand the theoretical aspects so you can understand the language, but blues is mostly about feeling. The emotions you’re after must be based on intuition.”

Useful Information

For guitar and keyboard players

As a guitarist or keyboard player, you’re free to accompany a blues song in various different ways. The rhythms included below are great and can be heard in countless tunes. If you’d like to brush up your theoretical knowledge before you grab a few chords, check out our Chords: Theory & Symbols blog.

Transitional Chords

Say you’re playing a tune and the next chord you’re supposed to play is a C7. This is a great time to slide from a Db7 (a semitone higher) down to the actual C7, where the Db7 chord serves as a transitional chord that’s played one count prior to the chord coming up next. Transitional chords are widely used in blues but make sure not to overdo it. In this example, while done way less often, you could even move up from something like a B7 to a C7 chord if you wanted to. As such, this interval transition technique offers players an easy way to go from a perfect fifth to a fourth.

Alternating I-IV

Back to the C7 chord progression example. Here, the C7 chord can also be alternated rhythmically with an F7 chord (a fourth in C). In turn, an F7 chord can be alternated with a Bb7 (B-flat), a G7 chord with a C7, and so on. The alternative chord is always a quarter tone higher in pitch and often played roughly on the last count of the measure.

Parallel 7-Chords

The technique needed to play parallel 7-chords comes from boogie-woogie music and is mainly suitable for pianos and organs. Here’s what it looks like in musical notation:

Want to Play the Blues? Use These Chords, Notes and Tips!
Here, you’re playing a basic chord as it were, moving from the fourth to the seventh chord and back again (C – F – C7 – F – C). Depending on the song you’re accompanying, you can easily turn this bit into a (rhythmic) version of your own, kind of like the Blues Brothers did in their rendition of Sweet Home Chicago.

12-Bar Blues Progression Example

As said, you can find tons of blues-based chord progressions online. Below, the example on the left includes a popular 12-bar blues progression in the key of C, where the Roman numerals indicate the interval (prime, fourth, fifth). On the right, you can spot an often-played bit of slow blues in the key of A, where the second measure is usually played in the fourth interval, so D7 in this case. The turn-around (the last four bars) are also played a little differently in slow blues. Keep in mind that the progressions seen below aren’t set in stone and can certainly serve as inspiration for a more personalised version.

Want to Play the Blues? Use These Chords, Notes and Tips!

Left: Popular blues progression in C
Right: Classic slow blues in A

Blues: Styles and Rhythms

Blues is home to an immeasurable number of styles that are usually based on a certain tempo and rhythm. Since we’d prefer not to get in over our heads, we’ll cover four of the most popular blues subgenres that will get you pretty far: blues rock, slow blues, Texas blues and Chicago blues. Blues-rock is rhythmically ‘straight’, while slow blues, Texas blues and Chicago blues are based on shuffles: swinging rhythms. Even if you can’t read music, shuffle is most easily explained using a little notation.
Blues rock is played in straight eights, meaning each eighth note is made up of two quarter notes per beat. The ‘straight’ part means all eighth notes are played for the same duration while counting “one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and..” at a steady pace. Notated, this is what it looks like:

Want to Play the Blues? Use These Chords, Notes and Tips!
A shuffle, as seen notated below, includes alternating long and short eighth notes instead of ‘straight’ eighths. The eighth notes that land on the numbers (1, 2, 3, 4) are long notes, while the ‘and’-notes are short, accented notes. The result is swing timing, or swing feel. Swing is based on triplets, which are basically three notes played in the time you’d ‘normally’ play two. Go ahead, add up all of the notes in the notation below. There’s twelve, not eight, counted like “one-and-uh-two-and-uh-three-and-uh-four-and-uh..” To capture that swing feel, the first eighth note needs to be played during the ‘one-and’ part; the second eighth note needs to land on the ‘uh’; the third eighth note on the ‘two-and’; the fourth one on the ‘uh’ again, and so on. Swing can only be mastered when you think, count and play triplets.

Want to Play the Blues? Use These Chords, Notes and Tips!

  • Since it’s easier, a lot of music is written down in eighths with ‘swing’ written at the top of the sheet. You now know that this means you’re playing a swing feel based on triplets. Sometimes, it’ll explicitly say you’re to play “eighths with a triplet feel”.
  • Slow blues, Texas blues (hail Stevie Ray Vaughan) and Chicago blues are each examples of shuffle and demand that swing feel. Again, it’s important here to think, play and count in triplets. When played properly, slow blues swings, trust us. Texas blues and Chicago blues are more up-tempo, with the Texan version timed a tad lazier compared to the Chicagan. To use the right jargon: Texas blues has a different bounce.

See Also

» Steel-String Acoustic Guitars
» Resonator Guitars
» Electric Guitars
» Lap Steel Guitars
» All Guitars and Accessories
» Digital Pianos
» Keyboards
» All Keyboard Instruments & Accessories
» Music Books
» All Musical Instruments and Accessories

» The Church Modes for Beginners
» The Blues Scale: Nail it in Every Key
» The Pentatonic Scale: Easy to Learn
» Major & Minor: Hearing and Understanding the Difference
» Guitar Chords: CAGED Major
» Chords: Theory and Chord Symbols
» How to Tune Your Guitar or Bass
» Learning to Read Music: The C-Major Scale

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