The Basics of the Blues Keyboard

Blues music is a genre that had a firm origin in America. It is one of the most important and popular forms of music in the world, and was a precursor to Rock & Roll, Rhythm and Blues, Hip-Hop, and many other forms of music. In this article, we will review a brief history of the Blues, and the piano’s role in this truly American music.

Birth of the Blues

Blues music began in the late 19th century, in the African-American communities of the Deep South. It has roots in European folk music, work songs, shouts and ballads. It is characterized by a call-and-response pattern and specific chord progressions. The most common form of Blues, which developed during the early 20th century, is called the AAB pattern. It consists of a line being sung over four bars, repeated over the following four bars, and then a different line to conclude. This is also called 12-bar Blues. The lines are often performed in a “walking” style.

Blues was one of the first genres of pop music to be commercially recorded. Singer Bessie Smith and guitarist Robert Johnson were among the first Blues recording artists, making now-legendary recordings.

The Piano’s Role in the Blues

Although piano had been used infrequently from the beginning of Blues music, the first major use of piano in the Blues began with the advent of Boogie-Woogie piano. Boogie-Woogie first became popular in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and eventually wound up being played at Carnegie Hall in 1938. It eventually was adapted by Jazz big bands.

Ever since that time, the piano has played a heavy role in many Blues recordings.

One of the most popular Blues pianists was Ray Charles. Not only did he develop a potent mix of Rhythm and Blues, and infuse it with a lot of soul, he was able to adapt country songs and pop standards to his singular style. Here is a video of Ray giving the country classic “You Are My Sunshine” his inimitable stamp.

One of the early rock and rollers, Fats Domino was one of the first Blues pianists to achieve truly great commercial success. His rollicking piano style was often imitated but never duplicated. Here he is performing one of his signature songs.

Otis Spann was considered by many to be the leading Chicago Blues pianist of the postwar era. Although he was a sideman for Muddy Waters, he was also a fantastic vocalist in his own right. Here is some TV footage from the 1960s of his performance of a Blues standard. His playing speaks for itself.

Mac Rebennack, better known as Dr. John, has played many different styles of piano, but always with a strong Blues base. Here he is performing with The Band during their famous Last Waltz show.

Memphis Slim was another piano Blues legend. Here he is performing a Blues standard he composed, “Every day I Have the Blues.”


Blues piano is an exciting genre that has influenced and continues to influence many musicians in different genres.