The Basics of Rock & Jazz Blues

Scott Healy teaches readers to play jazz and blues piano
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Some of my best friends are guitarists, and they love playing in sharp keys, such as A, E, and G. (Especially A, because they get a great sounding first position tonic I chord, and they can also use that nice, low, open A string). Then there are the jazzers who like playing in flat “horn” keys like Bb. A jazz blues has the same twelve-bar structure as a standard rock blues, but with a few added harmonic embellishments. Let’s examine both of these styles in more depth.

Rock Blues

Example 1 presents one chorus of a slow rock blues in A in the style of Elmore James and Muddy Waters. Some call this a I-IV-V progression or a straight blues. It has three 4-bar phrases, the first four bars on the I chord (or the tonic A7 in this example), then two bars on the IV (D7), back to two bars on the I. The last four bars are the familiar V(E7) to IV (D7) to I (A7) progression, with a quick turnaround to the V (E7) in the last bar. The left hand pattern is your anchor, and the slow 12/8 feel should be even and grooving. As a general rule, you want to accent strong beats and play with a fairly heavy hand. The grace notes I’ve indicated in the examples are really “slides” or “hammers” to be played on the beat. Rock on!

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2. Jazz Blues

Example 2 illustrates a typical jazz blues in the key of Bb. Instead of staying four bars on the I (Bb9) chord as in a rock blues, here we go right to the IV (Eb9) in the second bar, then back to the I in the third and fourth bars. Blues guys call this the “quick change” or “quick four.” In the sixth bar there’s a passing diminished chord (Edim7), then in the eighth measure a secondary dominant (G7#5) sets up a jazz II-V-I cadence pattern (C9 F7#5 Bb9) in the ninth and tenth bars. Finally, the last two bars have a I – VI – II –V turnaround back to the tonic. Play with a lighter and less-accented swing eighth-note feel. In this example you’ll need your bass player friend to walk four-tothe- bar while your left hand comps tastefully.

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“A jazz blues may have more chords, chromatic notes, and harmonic movement than a rock one, but it’s still the blues!” says Grammynominated keyboardist, composer and arranger Scott Healy. Healy has performed and recorded with Tony Bennett, B.B. King, Bruce Springsteen, and Christina Aguilera, and he is also the longtime keyboardist for Conan O’Brien and is currently in the Basic Cable Band on TBS’s Conan. Find out more at