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

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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:

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

  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 video to explain all the above:

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.

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Tim Topham

Lead blogger and coffee snob
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.
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  • chrissabrown

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

  • 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.