Playing a traditional, slow, Chicago-style, 12-bar blues tune can be a real challenge for a pianist. Doing so involves many duties: laying down a groove, establishing proper harmony, and creating excitement, all while restraining yourself to a simple chord progression and a five or six-note scale. With traditional blues, the only strict rule is there are no rules, only traditions. So let’s look at some of them.
1. Starting from the Five
Ex. 1 demonstrates how sometimes you’ll be starting the blues with a loud guitar or drum pickup into the last four bars of the progression, a la “Key of C, from the five! . . . two, three, four…” At that point, you start right on the V chord, so come in strong with both hands. In this scenario, the entire rhythm section is setting up the time, the groove and the harmony with the “walk-down” chords (V7-IV7-I7) and the subsequent turnaround (V7#5-I7).
2. Slower Than Slow
A traditional slow blues can be really slow, as illustrated in Ex. 2. In this scenario, the singer might cut the band on the downbeat, and break things down to a really soft first chorus of solo or vocals. Now the band’s suddenly playing very softly and your part is exposed. In this situation, open chords work great. Spice them up with a few fills, tremolos, slip notes, or hammers, which are basically on-the-beat grace notes. If you’ve grown up listening to rock and blues, these licks might already be in your DNA; it’s just a matter of activating them and playing them tastily. In this example, I’m moving to a “quick four,” which is a IV chord on the second measure. Then I’m back to the I7 chord in the third, and then to a V7#5 to a I7 in the third to fourth bar. Whatever you do, you must watch the singer, listen to the drummer, and listen to the vocal phrasing. You can play a tasty fill in the space between lines. So too might the guitarist. In my experience, some of the authentic stone-cold blues players want you to fill and solo with them at the same time.
3. Triplets and Shell Voicings
You might want to build on a 12/8 feel by playing triplets in the right hand, as seen in Ex. 3. For the left hand, you can choose to play nothing at all, roots by themselves, third and seventh “shell” voicings, or even tenth voicings if you can reach. It’s also cool to open the voicings up, spreading the notes between both hands. Whatever voicings you use, remember to listen to the drummer and put everything right “in the pocket.”
4. Tremolos and Slippery Licks
When you want to kick things up a notch, try playing close voicings or even triplets in the left hand, and tremolo riffs and cool slippery licks in the right hand, as in Ex. 4. Full rhythmic coordination of both hands will take a while to get used to, because so many blues licks are out of time. But no matter what you do in your left hand, don’t comp like you’re playing jazz. Play strong, because you might be the only rhythm instrument playing the chords.
5. Rocking Solo Riffs
During the last chorus of a solo, the whole band should open up and really rock, as illustrated in Ex. 5. This is your time to hook up with the bass player, drummer, and hopefully the guitarist, too. Play the boogie/rock left-hand pattern, and in the right hand you can riff loudly and frenetically in a high register. Out-of-time, four-finger repeated riffs work great, as do traditional rock and New Orleans-style riffs.