Twelve Bars for Ten Fingers

longshots-bluesOne of the most popular chord progressions in American music is the 12-bar blues. Like a
coloring book, it provides an outline or picture frame for 10 (or less) fingers to fill with colorful chords and melodies.  There’s nothing quite like using this standard to teach the three primary chords and encourage creativity. This is definitely a two-pronged assignment worth incorporating into your curriculum.

Usually, I’m in a hurry to get the potential improvisers on board so I tend to throw them into the 12-bar blues as soon as possible using this 12-bar blues “cheat sheet”. 12-bar-blues1I begin (regardless of age or experience) by coaxing them to play along with me accompanied by a Clavinova style, the iReal b “band” or at least a metronome.  Here are specific steps I use to get them comfortable with the pattern.

1) Ask the improviser to choose one hand or both (depending on ability) and play C’s, counting to 4. It soon becomes obvious to the pianist that each “box” is a measure of 4 beats.

2) Once it easy to find the C’s, F’s and G’s, in both hands together, then the student is asked to play 5ths above each root.

Ex: C-G, F-C and G-D.

Mastering these shifts can be tricky. Once this is achieved within a steady beat (using one of the tempo tools described above) it is time to show at least some of the vast array of “colors”  with which to shade in the picture frame.

Attempts to incorporate this pattern occur at least once a year in my studio. Here’s a blog about Paintin’ the Blues–a project my students completed last spring. This past week, my students received a refresher course on this pattern but were encouraged to choose a simple LH (left hand) pattern:

  • whole notes on open 5ths
  • quarter notes using the “back and forth” bass (see illustration below)

While assigned to master this in the LH, they were also introduced to the Bright Blues Scale, explained by Bradley Sowash in last week’s post. Having enjoyed the pleasing sound of the Pentatonic Scale the week before, it was easy to add one more “blues” note into the mix. It was close, but I believe they enjoyed the magic of the bright blues scale even more than the pentatonic.

  • Pentatonic Scale: C D E G A Fingering: 123 45 or 123 23 (just pick up and move over to G and A)
  • Bright Blues Scale: C D Eb E G A C Fingering: 123 123 5 (see illustration below)
  • Limited Bright Blues Scale: C D Eb E G Fingering 123 5

My early level students were asked to use an open 5th in the LH and a limited bright blues scale in the RH. Most first enjoyed playing the RH along with the iReal b band first. Hint: the 3rd finger is in charge of making major (and minor decisions) between Eb and E. Here’s James trying out the limited bright blues scale AND working hard to firm up his fingers as he suffers from “knuckle buckle” quite frequently. 🙂

More advanced students were encouraged to explore various LH patterns and the full bright blues scale. Here’s some ideas from my project last year.


Using all 10 fingers may be difficult for early level players (and even more experienced players) so I always provide an “easy route” by prescribing a pared down LH pattern and even using just one finger in the RH. My goal: to find a way for anyone at any level to be successful and of course, creative.

Note: I now use the iReal b app on my iPad at every lesson as it provides a terrific back track for  improvisers. Some students have followed my instructions and purchased the app and find that practice has taken on a whole new feel, look and sound. My observation: when creating their own tunes with this “back-ground band” provided by iReal b, I notice students find a new freedom to explore and find their own “groove” at the keys. For $7.99, this app continues to be worth it’s price tag.

One More Note: You’ll notice on my 12-bar blues sheet above that I include the chords in the key of C. Once this is mastered, I encourage improvisers to expand this pattern to other keys, thus the need for the roman numerals. This may come in handy for future blogs at! You’ll notice two slight differences in this second framework:

1) A IV (subdominant) chord has been substituted for the I (tonic) chord in bar 2.

2) A V (dominant) chord has been placed in bar 12 which serves as a turnaround to ease right back into bar one.

Oh, and One More Thing: The image of the staff featuring the scale and bass pattern was generated on Notion–a notation iPad app.  Wow, that was amazingly easy to use!



Leila J Viss

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