Improvising Blues Piano

Update

The most recent edition (2005) has an additional page (Appendix V, p. 251), added as a result of my experiences teaching the material covered in the book. This edition is recognisable by the new front cover design which features my photo, bringing it in line with US laws on book covers. If your copy has a photo of Roosevelt Sykes on the cover (pianist with hat and cigar) you won't have the new Appendix page. Here it is:

Appendix V - Developing a Vocabulary

Key: C
Beginners Blues (melodic) p. 15
Sixth Blues p. 50
Jump Shuffle (second chorus) p. 53
Seventh Blues p. 84
Medium Jump (second chorus) p. 182

Transposing compatible pieces from other keys will enable you to add them to the above list, eg: Riff Blues, p. 59 (key: G) and Sunday Afternoon Blues, p. 61 (key: F). Once you have internalised the right-hand parts, use them in a flexible way (there's no need to stick to the order given above) and mix in passages of improvisation as suggested for each piece.

All the above pieces can be made to sound more 'authentic' by replacing the walking bass line with a broken octaves bass, as shown in Beginner's Boogie (p. 18) and On-Off Boogie #2, p. 105.

Key: G
Barrelhouse Blues p. 63
Blues with Pick-ups p. 66
See See Rider p. 90
Blues in Thirds p. 96
Slow Guitar Blues p. 134

First play all four with the 'barrelhouse' left hand throughout (as given for the first piece), then repeat them with the 'left-hand shuffle' from Blues with Pick-Ups. Finally try them all with the 'Jimmy Yancey' style left hand from Blues in Thirds. Aim to be able to play any right-hand idea over a selection of left-hand patterns.

Also include right-hand material from other pieces in G such as Five Finger Blues, p. 31 and Riff Blues, p. 59, and transpose material from pieces in the key of C (Blues for Sal, p. 88, Ninth Blues, p. 130 and Pine Tops Boogie Woogie, p. 150), the key of F (Blue Fifth Boogie, p. 74) and the key of D (Slow Blues in D, p. 70 and Bouncy Boogie, p. 99).

You'll need to memorise the melodies of your chosen pieces so you can play them all at the same tempo, with no hesitations between sections. When you've achieved this, mix in some right-hand improvisation to extend the performance even more.

Key: F
On-Off Boogie p. 37
Happy Blues p. 40
Blue Fifth Boogie p. 74
Syncopated Boogie p. 77

These four pieces are all in a straight quaver feel. As above try each left-hand style in turn with all four right-hand melodies. Also mix in right-hand ideas from other pieces in F, such as Sad Blues (p. 42).

Many pieces can be played in either a straight or a swing (triplet) feel, provided this is compatible with your chosen left-hand style. Don't attempt to combine a swing right hand (eg: one with lots of triplets such as Bouncy Boogie) with a straight left hand such as the one in Happy Blues.

- Five-finger positions (also include b3 and b5 ­ see Fig 1.43)
- Arpeggios (as in Sixth, Seventh, and Ninth Blues, pp. 50, 84 and 130)
- Thirds (two notes a third apart, eg: Figs 3.26­27)
- Sixths (invert thirds ideas, as in Figs 1.45­46)
- Pentatonics and blues scales (add top harmony as in Fig 3.53)
- On-off and Off-on chords
- Pick-ups (Blues with Pick-ups, p. 66 and Blues in Thirds, p. 96)
- The famous lick (see Appendix III, p. 246)
- The blue third/sixth combination (Slow Blues in D, pp. 69­70)

 

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