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Blues Lesson 1

  1. Basic Blues Format
  2. Root tones Exercise
  3. Triad Blues
  4. Improvisation
  5. Keyboard Chord Voicings
  6. Transposing Melodies & Chords symbols
  7. Swapping 2s and 4s
  8. Quiz - Quiz Answers
  9. Exercises
  10. Lesson Material

    Library - Keyboard Comping

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BL 1.1 - Twelve Bar Blues Format

The Blues is the most important and most popular form in Jazz and Jazz related music styles. It consists, in its most common present day form, of 12 bars, subdivided into three 4 bar phrases.

In the traditional vocal style :

  • the 1st 4 bar phrase makes a statement :
            "From dawn to dusk I work the fields all day ......"

  • the 2nd 4 bar phrase repeats the statement :
            "Yeah, from dawn to dusk I work in the fields all day ...."

  • the 3rd 4 bar phrase completes or resolves the statement :
            "But when the sun goes down I rush home to sweet Mae."

Repeated phrases are also common in instrumental blues, although it is not essential.

The basic Blues harmony consists of three chords, the I, IV and V chord.
These are the primary triad chords, built on the 1st, 4th and 5th of the major scale in any key.

The three primary triads in the key of C are :

Audio 1.1

Here is the chord progression for the Blues in C :

Audio 1.2

Here is the Blues chord progression in chord numbers as it applies to any key :

Audio 1.2
(for Blues in C)

| I | I | I | I |

| IV

| IV

| I

| I


| V

| V

| I

| I


(The Chord number indicates the scale tone of the major scale on which the chord is built.)

The above chord sequence (chord progression) is typical for the blues and easy to memorise :

The last 2 bars of each (4 bar-) phrase are all harmonised by the same I chord.

The differences occur in the first two bars of each phrase.

  • The I chord covers the first 2 bars of the first phrase.

  • The IV chord covers the first 2 bars of the second phrase.

  • The V chord covers the first 2 bars of the last phrase.

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BL 1.2 - Chord Root Tones Exercise

It is most important to get an intimate knowledge of the chord movements of the blues. To learn this play sustained chord root tones on your instrument.
You can play these notes with a backing track, or with a Metronome, or while tapping the beats with your foot.
Here is the exercise for the Blues in C :

Audio 1.3

Play-along midi files for the Blues in C are :

( About Transposing Instruments)

Practise above exercises until you are able to sing the root tones.

If you have done some ear training this should be easy.

The root of the IV chord is a perfect 4th above the root of the I chord (first two notes of Amazing Grace).

The root of the V chord is a perfect 5th above the root of the I chord (first two notes of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star).

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BL 1.3 - Song : Triad Blues

The next step is to start playing all chord tones as broken chords (arpeggios).
Triad Blues is a simple example of the Blues in C. The melody consists of chord tones only.


Play-along midi files for Triad Blues in the instrument key of C are :

( About Transposing Instruments)

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BL 1.4 - Improvisation

Play Triad Blues until you are thoroughly familiar with all chord tones, and can play Triad Blues from memory. Then start improvising using chord tones only.
Use one of the four simple rhythm patterns shown below, so that you do not loose your place in the chord progression.

Audio 1.4

For example :

Audio 1.5

Play Triad Blues (from memory) in the key of C, then improvise using chord tones only.


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BL 1.5 - Keyboard Chord Voicings

Keyboard players play in the left hand detached 1 beat chords or sustain each chord for a full bar. You can also do your own thing and react rhythmically to the play-along track provided.

Aim for smooth transitions from chord to chord. Do not play all chords in root position, this produces awkward jumps. Use a mixture of root positions and chord inversions instead.


For the Blues in C for example :

Audio 1.6

When playing the melody or improvisation in the right hand.
Play chords in the left hand with the bottom note within the range from Middle C to A a 10th below middle C.


Chords played lower than this sound too muddy.
Chords played above this range sound too tinny.

When playing keyboard accompaniment - known as 'comping'.
Play low bass notes in the left hand and closed position chords in the right.
Play right hand chord voicings so that they straddle Middle C, as shown in Comping Patterns 1C and 1G. This sounds best in most cases.

Using an 'intelligent keyboard'.
If you are the owner of an 'intelligent keyboard' you do not have to worry about the above.
Simply set your keyboard to 'fingered chord' mode, select a swing style rhythm, and play the chords near the left end of the keyboard (where the keyboard computer identifies your chord inputs).

See also BL Comp 5.

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BL 1.6 - Transposing Melodies and Chords

You can use the two letter strips below to transpose notes and chord symbols quickly from one key to any other key.
Simply cut out the two Note and Chord Symbols Transposition strips.

Use the Original Key strip for the notes or chords of the song in the original key.


Use the New Key strip to find the notes or chord symbols in the new key.

Transposing Triad Blues from C (original key) to G (new key).
Align the letter name 'G' on the New Key strip with the letter name 'C' on Original Key strip.


Now read from the upper strip : C E G E C (in the original key of C)
Directly underneath on the lower strip are : G B D B G in the new key of G.

The chords : C (I) , F (IV) and G (V) in the old key of C,
become : G (I) , C (IV) and D (V) in the new key of G.

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BL 1.7 - Swapping 2s and 4s

Swapping 2s or 4s is often included as a special feature in performances by many small Jazz combos. It is especially popular with Trad Jazz groups, but can be just as effective in a modern Jazz ensemble.

Rather than one performer improvising over an entire chorus (or more), two or more soloists take turns playing only 2 or 4 bars at a time. Each player reacts to what the previous player just has played. This is great fun and can produce a fresh and unpredictable outcome.

In this Course most lessons include four play-a-long midi tracks for swapping 2s and 4s.
These can be of great benefit to your development so make sure you use them. Play in all the 2 bar- (or 4 bar-) gaps as indicated in each lesson.

As the tracks are prerecorded I obviously cannot react to your efforts, but you can respond to mine and that is the main purpose. Either copy each phrase or respond to it in your own way.

Try to respond by using the chords or scales discussed in each lesson. In this lesson for example improvise over each track using chord tones only. I have done the same here.
There is also a complete improvisation demo which fills the gaps of the swapping track.
(As you progress through the course by all means come back later to this song and use other sources of improvisation.)

Swapping 2s and 4s on Triad Blues : complete improvisation

  • Take 1 (9 choruses) - : I play the first 2 bars of each 4-bar phrase, you play the following 2 bars.

  • Take 2 (9 choruses) - : You play the first 2 bars of each 4-bar phrase, I play the following 2 bars.

  • Take 3 (9 choruses) - : I play the first 4 bars, you play the following 4 bars.

  • Take 4 (9 choruses) - : You play the first 4 bars, I play the following 4 bars.

Improvise using triad chord tones only.     Bossa Nova style : play all quavers 'straight'.

Use the swapping tracks in the following 5 ways.

  1. Listen
    Play each gapped track several times, just listening to it.
    They contain many rhythmic ideas ('licks') you should absorb so that they gradually become part of your own vocabulary. The spaces between each phrase nicely highlight each idea in isolation.

  2. Write
    Write down some of the ideas on paper as 2- or 4-bar rhythm patterns. The more you involve yourself actively with music elements like these the more you learn and absorb them.

  3. Sing
    Sing the rhythm pattern of each phrase segment in the gap immediately behind it.
    Like "deeeedadadadit -dedaaaah".

  4. Repeat
    Improvise on your instrument. Use your own note selection but try to repeat the rhythm pattern of each preceding phrase segment.

  5. Respond
    Improvise on your instrument. Use your own note selection and rhythm pattern and complement in your own way the phrase segment before (or behind) it.

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BL 1.8 - Quiz

  1. How many bars are there in a basic blues format ?

  2. How many vocal phrases make up one blues chorus ?

  3. How many different chords are there in a basic blues format and which are they ?

  4. What is a "I Chord" ?

  5. What is a "IV Chord" ?

  6. What is a "V Chord" ?

  7. Which are the I, IV and V chords in the major key of G ?

  8. Which are the I, IV and V chords in the major key of F ?

  9. What are C-instruments ? Name a few C-instruments used in Blues and Jazz.

  10. What are Bb-instruments ? Name a few Bb-instruments used in Blues and Jazz.

  11. What are Eb-instruments ? Name a few Eb-instruments used in Blues and Jazz.
Quiz Answers

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BL 1.9 - Exercises

  1. Play the root tone exercise for the Blues in Concert keys of C, F and G until you can do it from memory.

  2. Practice the Major triads in all 12 keys (but see Note)

  3. Transpose Triad Blues to the key of G, then play the melody until you can do it from memory.

  4. Improvise over the basic bliues in the Concert key of G, using major triad chord tones only.

  5. Keyboard players - practise Comping Patterns 1C and 1G

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BL 1.10 - Lesson Material

Ex.1 - Blues root tones
Ex.2 - Major triads Demo 2 bars each key
Triad Blues (in C) Melody Play-a-Long in C for Bb instr. in C for Eb instr.
Triad Blues (in G) Play-a-Long in G for Bb instr. in G for Eb instr.
Swapping 2s on Blues in C Demo me 1st you 1st
Swapping 4s on Blues in C me 1st you 1st
Comping pattern 1C (in C) Demo Play-a-Long
Comping pattern 1G (in G) Play-a-Long
Manuscript paper Transposition Ruler Transposition Table

NOTE (applies to the chords and scales exercises in all lessons)
Ideally you should know all chords and scales in all twelve keys.   However 'Rome was not built in one day !'
Therefore, if you are relatively new to this material start working on those chords and scales which cover the blues progression in the Concert keys of F, C and G.   These are :

  • For C instruments the keys of - Bb + F + C + G + D   (keyboard, guitar, flute)

  • For Bb instruments the keys of - C + G + D + A + E   (trumpet, clarinet, tenor and soprano sax)

  • For Eb instruments the keys of - G + D + A + E + B   (alto and baritone sax)

When you are proficient with those move on to gradually cover all 12 keys. These are essential for improvisation over Jazz standards and other songs.

Unless otherwise indicated : play-along tracks for chords and scales exercises start on the Concert key of C and follow the Circle of 5ths. This is the key of D for Bb instruments, and the key of A for Eb instruments.

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Copyright © 2011 Michael Furstner (Jazclass). All rights reserved.