“Which Blues Keys Should I Know?”
Many teachers will tell you that you should know blues (or any other tune) in all 12 keys. Here’s how to work – partially or fully – toward that goal.
12-bar blues forms are some of the easiest to learn by harmonic function (e.g. I7-IV7, rather than C7-F7) so you can play them in all 12 keys. However, this is no small task. In addition to learning complex theory (intervals, chord construction, chord function, etc.), you also need to be comfortable playing in difficult keys on your instrument (which can be a huge technical challenge on bass or other instruments).
Instead of trying to learn all 12 keys at once, I recommend working up to it, starting with the most common and ending with the least (you can probably get by without learning the keys in Group 4 below). Here is my suggested order, with examples, for learning blues keys:
- Group 1: F and Bb Blues. These are by far the two most common keys for jazz blues because they are easy for both C Concert instruments (including bass) and transposing instruments (Bb, such as trumpet and Eb, such as alto sax). You should know at least one blues melody, preferably more, for each key.
Common F Blues: Bags’ Groove, Now’s the Time
Common Bb Blues: Tenor Madness, Blue Monk
Note: Some tunes, like Straight, No Chaser, are commonly played in both keys
- Group 2: G and C Blues. Still friendly for both C and transposing instruments these key are, in my opinion, the second most common. Notice that they are adjacent to Group 1 in the circle of fourths.
Common G Blues: All Blues
Common C Blues: C Jam Blues
- Group 3: Eb and Ab Blues. More friendly for transposing instruments but harder for C ones, these keys are adjacent to Group 1 in the other direction.
Common Eb Blues: Blue Train
Common Ab Blues: Centerpiece
- Group 4: Db, Gb/F#, B, E, A, and D Blues (everything else). While you may encounter one of these keys in a more obscure tune or big band chart, they are relatively rare in jazz (however, in blues and rock, E, A, and E are common keys because they work well on guitar). If you’re going to learn these additional keys, view it as a chance to expand your theoretical knowledge and technical skill.
What are your favorite blues from Groups 1, 2, or 3? Did I overlook any common blues in Group 4’s keys?
Update: My friend Steve Tresler (author of the awesome Creative Music Blog) pointed out that many swing-era big band tunes are Db blues (e.g. Things Ain’t What They Used to Be and Splanky). If you play in this style of music, treat Db as part of Group 3. Thanks, Steve!