The blues in all of its variations is one of the most important things to master for any musician, and that's doubly so for jazz players.
All Things Jazz Blues: Blues History
Blues music is deeply rooted in African-American history. During the 19th century, African-American slaves in the Deep South incorporated African traditional music, spirituals, and work songs in this new form of music on plantations.
Early documentation of blues music is not available, but it's said to have begun its foundations as early as the 1870s.
In the years that followed, blues music laid the groundwork for just about all of what we know as American popular music: rock n roll, jazz, funk, and more!
Today, many still employ the blues form and vocabulary in a variety of different sounds and contexts.
All Things Jazz Blues: Blues Form, Chords & Harmony
The fundamental harmony (i.e. blues chord progression) that makes up what we know today as the blues form is made up of the I, IV, and V chords. Typically, the blues form consists of 12 bars where the chords lay out like this:
The example depicted here is in the key of Bb. In the key of Bb, the "one chord" is of course Bb. We use roman numerals, so here's how jazzers typically describe the chords in a blues form in Bb:
- The I chord is Bb
- The IV chord is Eb
- The V chord is F
Blues Progressions for Jazz Guitar - Jazz blues progressions in its many forms covered in-depth.
All Things Jazz Blues: Tunes
There is a seemingly endless well of songs that use the blues form in a similarly endless variety of approaches, forms, and harmony.
While these tunes would include a ton of genres, I will try to stick to what's mostly considered jazz, for obvious reasons. ;)
In the jazz lexicon, some of the most appreciated blues tunes were composed by none other than Thelonious Monk. His melodies always seem to have something "off" to create interest in rhythm, melody, and harmony.
Here are a few of his tunes that would be worth checking out:
Other blues tunes from the bebop era are also worth learning! Try these on for size:
- Billie's Bounce
- Blues for Alice (Using the famous "Bird Blues" form)
- Au Privave
- Bag's Groove
- Chi Chi
...among many others.
Top 50 Blues Heads - A thorough list of 50 popular blues heads you should know.
All Things Jazz Blues: Comping (Accompaniment)
As guitar players, we spend 80-90% of our time comping (i.e. playing chords!) for other soloists or lead players. Therefore, it is absolutely crucial that we can do this effectively.
So, what's effective comping? How do you play "good chords" over blues?
Well, it all starts with listening. Being able to listen is a skill that seems to be given so little importance by beginners. But if you don't listen, how will you know what's needed?
To practice this, you should begin by learning the form as mentioned above. Make sure you can follow this up and down. It's only 12 bars, you can do it, even as a beginner!
Once you feel you've got a handle on that, take a look at some basic chord shapes and get to work! ;-)
Jazz Blues Comping for Guitar - All the fundamentals you'll need to get you started with blues comping.
All Things Jazz Blues: Improvisation (Soloing!)
Now here's what a lot of you were probably waiting for! How can you take an effective solo over a jazz blues song? (No shredding, please!)
Being able to improvise over a blues confidently and effectively is paramount to anyone looking to seriously get good at this stuff, and it's not about just playing a pentatonic scale up and down. ;-)
What's more is that you can also apply blues language to just about anything if you're clever enough.
Here's George Benson himself talking about applying that over Rhythm Changes:
Pretty incredible, isn't it? There's a good bit of transcription homework there for ya! LOL
I'll leave you with a few articles on blues improvisation that I find quite helpful!
How to Improvise on Jazz Blues for Guitar - Everything you need to know about the basics of improvising over a jazz blues
Approaching the IV Chord in a Blues - A more specific lesson on how to approach the transition to the IV chord in the blues form
Remember, you can't really become a serious jazz guitarist without a good handle on the blues, so get to work! ;-)
Jonathan Orriols is a guitar player out of Miami, Florida with 20 years of experience. He writes and performs music in several groups spanning different genres such as jazz, blues, and rock. He also studied composition for film, tv, and games through Berklee’s online program.