So you want to learn to play the blues like Otis Spann? It can be a long and profound journey, and the good news is that for all its evocative, story-crafting finesse, blues piano begins with mastery of only a handful of key concepts – so let’s get this blues piano lesson started!
One of the things that makes blues piano so instantly recognizable is what’s called the blue note, a note that shows up so often that it goes a long way to branding the sound of the blues, especially blues piano.
The blue note is defined by its place in the blues scale, which is a palette of notes that musicians can choose from. There are several types of blues scale, some minor, some major, some short and potent and others more intricate in their sound.
A scale is actually a formula of relationships between notes, and different starting notes will yield different scales. Let’s spend this blues piano lesson with a hexatonic – made of six tones – C Major blues scale:
C – E♭ – F – G♭ – G – B♭
On sheet music, these notes look like this:
As you play, experiment with the notes in this scale, and see if you can hear what gives it its bluesy feel.
The notes are defined by their relationships to the root note – here, the C – and the most important thing to take from this blues piano lesson is that the third note, the F, is the blue note. It’s what’s known as a flat fifth (formally, it’s called the Tritone), and despite having some interesting mathematical properties, it’s generally avoided because its harmonic relationship to the root note is considered to feel awkward. And it does, normally.
But the blues loves the flat fifth; it couldn’t exist without it. You know blues piano when you hear it because of a few things: the lyrics and themes, for instance, and the song’s structure. But it’s this blue note, this flat fifth, that often jumps out first. Get to know it! It’s your first tool, and it’s the voice of the blues.