A Little Blues History

Blues Piano Day 1

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A Little Blues History

bluesWhen learning any new style of music, it is important to also learn a brief history. This will not only allow you to play in a more authentic style but also give you a better appreciation of how the music developed throughout the years.

What is the Blues?

Blues began in the late 19th century and then really developed and took off in the 20th century, laying the foundation for modern-day styles like R&B and rock ‘n’ roll. The blues also has strong connections to many other styles of music such as gospel, country and jazz.

Jazz and blues have always been intertwined, and although jazz is noted for its improvisation and experimentation, the blues is a big influence on the compositions and instrumental styling of both “classic” and contemporary jazz music.

Blues is the name given to both a musical form and a music genre that originated in African-American communities of primarily the “Deep South” of the United States around the end of the 19th century from spirituals, work songs, field hollers, shouts and chants, and rhymed simple narrative ballads. The blues form, ubiquitous in jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll is characterized by specific chord progressions, of which the twelve-bar blues chord progression is the most common. The blue notes that, for expressive purposes are sung or played flattened or gradually bent (minor 3rd to major 3rd) in relation to the pitch of the major scale, are also an important part of the sound.

Different Blues Styles

As the blues kept evolving and developing in different parts of the country, we can hear very different and distinct styles that emerged. Below are a few of the most well known styles that contributed to the blues history and sound we know today.


Boogie Woogie

Boogie Woogie style features fast tempos and driving left-hand patterns. It’s a very energetic and upbeat style and the right hand is typically required to play combinations of single-note motifs and chordal punches or syncopations. The boogie-woogie left hand patterns influenced many later subgenres of blues.



Jump Blues

Jump Blues was a boisterous style that thrived in the late ’40s and early ’50s, and was a precursor of R&B and rock ‘n’ roll styles. In addition to piano, it featured driving rhythms and energetic horn sections as well as vocals. Noted jump blues piano players include Big Joe Turner, Amos Milburn and Floyd Dixon.



Chicago Blues

Chicago Blues is perhaps the most well known and recognized blues form. Infamous musicians and bands such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf from late ’40s and early ’50s built on this style and crated the now classic band lineup of guitar, piano, bass, drums, harmonica and saxophone. Famous piano players from this time include Otis Spann, Lafayette Leake and Memphis Slim, just to name a few.



New Orleans Blues

This blues style is a melting pot of different influences, characterized by African and Carribean rhythms, syncopation, variations on the traditional 12-bar blues form, colorful pianistic embellishments and a “laid back” kind of feel.



Modern Electric Blues/Rock

This generally refers to the period after the “blues revival” of the ’60s with such artists as Buddy Guy, B.B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughn. This style has essentially blended Chicago and Texas-style blues with more contemporary rock an soul influences. Some rock artists such as Eric Clapton and Bonnie Raitt keep a strong thread of the blues in their music, while venturing into other stylistic areas.


The most notable piano players of this time are sidemen working with major artists. Among today’s piano players keeping the blues flame alive are Chuck Leavell (Rolling Stones, Allman Brothers), Jools Holland (Squeeze), Reese Wynans (Stevie Ray Vaughn) and Al Kooper, just to name a few.