Teaching 12 Bar Blues to inspire beginners (especially boys!)

By Tim Topham | Piano Teaching

Jan 01

Teaching 12 Bar Blues to inspire beginners

Want a quick-win in your next lesson?

One of the best ways I’ve found to get kids really motivated to play piano is by working on a 12 bar blues. There is heaps you can do with this simple framework, and it works for students of all levels – whether they are beginners or have been playing for years.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with a 12 bar blues, it’s a musical structure used predominantly in jazz/boogie that follows the chord structure shown below, where the roman numerals refer to chords in whatever key we are playing. Eg for blues in C, the I chord = C major, IV = F major, V = G major. The slash sign means play that chord four times in each bar (if you want!).

Here’s a clip of a guy improvising to a 12 bar blues structure:

As long as kids have an understanding of the C, F and G major triads, they can start playing the blues.

Teaching the chords and progression

I teach these triads within a student’s first three lessons (as long as their hand can cope) and we build on them each lesson thereafter, perhaps by playing simple duets (eg. Heart and Soul), introducing sus chords, or playing pop songs that use very simple triads (eg. Let it Be by the Beatles comes to mind) and, of course, the blues.

Kids love playing jazz/blues because there is no music to read (ie. no stress), they can make stuff up as they go along (within a framework), there really aren’t any wrong notes and let’s face it, it sounds pretty cool.

It’s a good idea to introduce the blues concepts gradually, so here are things I get students to do within this 12-bar structure:

Teaching plan for 12 bar blues

  1. Play triads in RH and octaves in the LH
  2. Play triads in RH and triads in LH
  3. Break up the triad in the LH, keep same RH
  4. Play 5ths and 6ths in LH
  5. Play 5th/6th/b7ths in LH
  6. Introduce off-beat (syncopated) chords in RH (this can be quite challenging)
  7. Introduce some “cooler” 7th/9th chords in RH
  8. Teach the C blues scale for improv in RH

I normally play along with the students on a second keyboard and always use a rhythm backing as it sounds so much better while they are learning.

Here’s a YouTube teaching video to explain all the above:

I hope it’s something you can use with your students too!

Quick update: a great way to create an easy backing track for students to play-along to is with the iReal b app for ipad and iphone.

Want to get my iReal Pro backing tracks?

If you want to quickly get started teaching the blues, I’ve got a package of files to help:

  1. iReal Pro chord chart ready to import and press play
  2. C major blues WAV format backing track
  3. MIDI file that you can important into any software (eg. Garageband)

To access these great freebies, just click below:

Got any questions about teaching the blues?

Leave your thoughts below.


About the Author

Best-known for his blogging and teaching, Tim is also a well-respected presenter, performer and accompanist based in Melbourne, Australia. You can check him out on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.

  • chrissabrown

    Great informative video – thanks Tim! My boy students in particular will really like trying this so thanks again!

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  • Amelia

    Tim, a great step by step, easy to grasp explanation.

    Do you have an mp3 of the backing track which you use or direct me to where I can find one?

    Thank you very much

    • http://timtopham.wordpress.com timtopham

      Hi Amelia

      I just use a jazz rhythm on the keyboard in my studio. If you don’t have a second keyboard there are some backing track app options – just google for it. I’ll see if I can find some and post about it soon!

      Have fun.

      • http://timtopham.com/ Tim Topham

        As a follow-up, there’s a great app for Android, iPhone and iPad called iReal Pro that provides backing tracks for any chord progression. If you want something that kids can play along to, definitely check this out!

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  • Marilyn

    I’m going to start this up next week. This was VERY helpful!

    • http://timtopham.com/ Tim Topham

      Great news Marilyn! Good luck. Let me know how it goes :)

  • Bradley Sowash

    I know a lot of improv teachers find the blues a great starter and I respect that. However, you might be interested that I don’t teach blues until my students are well into improvisation. It has to do with how blues has its own rules like dominant I and IV chords and strange scales. I like them to understand the rules and then show them how blues breaks them. It seems to me that introducing the blues too early mixes up student on the theory end. Weird thing for a lifelong jazz/blues player to say, I know.