10 best blues piano songs you need to know

23.12.2021 Ben Maloney Piano

The blues features some of the most distinctive and influential patterns, shapes, tunes and sounds in music history. From humble beginnings in America’s Deep South, it’s come to make an impact on too many genres, artists and songs to count.

The genre originated in the fusion of traditional African music with European folk music. First developing from spirituals, chants and work songs, it grew into the blues proper in the early 20th century, before being incorporated in a multitude of ways into American popular music.

This article offers a selection of ten blues piano songs, from delta originals to blues-rock classics. They’ve been curated with an eye to giving aspiring blues players a rounded introduction. While being great fun to learn, the tunes will also help you to understand the genre’s key idioms. 

By the time you’ve learned just a handful you’ll be grasping them intuitively, taking your first steps towards being a blues pianist proper. The pieces cover a range of skill levels, so you should be able to find something that matches your ability. 
 

Best blues songs to play on piano
 

  1. ‘Beale Street Blues’ by W. C. Handy
  2. ‘Call It Stormy Monday’ by T-Bone Walker
  3. ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ by Elvis Presley
  4. ‘Boogie with Stu’ by Led Zeppelin
  5. ‘I Put a Spell on You’ by Nina Simone
  6. ‘Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out’ by Jimmy Cox
  7. ‘Strange Brew’ by Cream
  8. ‘Basin Street Blues’ by Spencer Williams
  9. Born Under a Bad Sign’ by Albert King
  10. ‘Hound Dog’ by Big Mama Thornton

1. ‘Beale Street Blues’ by W. C. Handy

The music of W. C. Handy, the ‘Father of the Blues’, seems the perfect place to begin. He didn’t invent the genre, which emerged as a kind of rural folk music, played and sung by African-Americans in the southern US. He was, however, the first to publish sheet music in a blues style, launching the genre to new levels of fame and popularity. 

‘Beale Street Blues’ was one of Handy’s huge breakthrough hits, announcing the blues’ arrival on the national stage. Fusing blues and ragtime styles, the piece utilises a form that would mark the blues and many other genres forever: the twelve-bar blues. This, in combination with the swung shuffle rhythms, was a whole new world for most listeners.

The song seems particularly significant in light of its name-dropping of Beale Street, a beating heart of black art and culture in Memphis, Tennessee. Handy’s own lyrics - ‘if Beale Street could talk’ - were later honoured by both novelist James Baldwin and filmmaker Barry Jenkins in their respective works. This song’s a mighty important one.

2. ‘Call It Stormy Monday’ by T-Bone Walker

Texan guitarist T-Bone Walker is a key figure in the story of the genre. He helped to usher in the ‘electric’ era in the late 1930s and ’40s, which saw the blues leave its acoustic roots behind to don amplified instruments instead. Walker’s instrument was the guitar, and this became the musical tool of choice for many icons to follow.

‘Call It Stormy Monday’ is arguably Walker’s best song. Recorded at the height of his impact and productivity in the mid-1940s, it’s a staple of the ‘West Coast’ style that took influence from jazz music, which the Los Angeles-based Walker pioneered. The larger ensemble, the piano’s prominence, and Walker’s own playing all reflect this stylistic debt. 

Many artists later seized on Walker’s classic, unable to resist its appeal. Famous covers include those of singers Bobby Bland and Latimore, and the great blues-rock outfit, The Allman Brothers Band. The version of the tune linked in above is for voice and guitar as well as piano, so make like Walker and get a group together. 

3. ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ by Elvis Presley

Although he’s known to all as the ‘King of Rock and Roll’, Elvis Presley was well versed in the blues. The genre was in fact a key ingredient in the rock and roll style he helped to innovate, along with Tin Pan Alley pop and country-western music. But ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, one of his signature tunes, sees him turning wholeheartedly to the blues.

Gone is the uptempo, energetic and danceable Presley. ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ features a sultry performance, typical of a genre founded on sorrowful expression. It was recorded in 1956 as his star was rising, and the session included two phenomenal musicians: guitarist Chet Atkins and the great Floyd Cramer at the piano keyboard. 

‘Heartbreak Hotel’ is marked by a slow tempo and those shuffle rhythms, but the blues influence is arguably most evident in Cramer’s piano work. Making great use of blues licks, his part is one of the song’s finest assets. They say more about blues piano than words ever could. 

4. ‘Boogie with Stu’ by Led Zeppelin

The electric blues of T-Bone Walker had become something quite different by the 1960s. Over in Europe, a number of young British musicians, listening to classic records, were inspired to pick up their guitars and play the blues style. One of them was Jimmy Page, and his band Led Zeppelin went on to play some of the finest blues-rock of the decade.

Although they veered away from blues roots on later albums, ’Boogie with Stu’ - which does appear on one such album, 1975’s Physical Graffiti - harked back to the good times. Some unconventional percussion opens the song, which then settles down into an old-fashioned jam, with an uptempo boogie-woogie feel. 

For the recording, the band welcomed the Rolling Stones’ road manager and pianist Ian Stewart to the lineup. He brought serious honky-tonk action to the session - not an easy piano part. There’s lots of syncopation, grace notes and fast sextuplets. Approach those sextuplets as you would a trill - that’s the easiest and best way to play them. 

5. ‘I Put a Spell on You’ by Nina Simone

One of the great tunes in popular-music history, ‘I Put a Spell on You’ was famously written and recorded by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins in 1956. Hawkins was a blues singer, but in truth its difficult to think of his famously bizarre rendition as a blues performance. So we’ll turn to Nina Simone’s spectacular cover instead.

Pulling it back to a slower and looser tempo, Simone injects the textbook blues feel with her shuffled rhythms. Her recording features a polished string arrangement, but even the violins manage to supply some bluesy inflections. These perfectly complement the material played by the rasping saxophone and by Simone herself on the keys. 

Her part, as it appears in the Faber arrangement linked above, features a lot of sustained chords. Exploit this space in the texture when you play, as it helps to instil that relaxed quality, but feel free to fill it out with some riffs here and there. Improvisation is a key part of blues performance that by nature isn’t accounted for in fixed sheet music.  

6. ‘Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out’ by Jimmy Cox

Jimmy Cox was a vaudeville performer, best known as the man behind the 1920s blues hit, ‘Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out’. It was made iconic back in the day by Bessie Smith, ‘Empress of the Blues’, but later versions by the likes of Eric Clapton will probably be better known to readers today. 

Once again tapping into the heart of the genre, the tune’s concerned with the loneliness that people often face during hard times. Lyrical themes like this are just as core to the blues as any of its characteristic musical features. The genre developed as a kind of remedy, offering performers and listeners comfort in music when they’re feeling low.

You won’t find any twelve-bar structures here, but there’s plenty of melodic and harmonic chromaticism, another hallmark of the style. There’s a number of dynamic instructions in this arrangement too, which shouldn’t be ignored. As you might have figured out by now, expressiveness is crucial when playing the blues. It’s all about feel.

7. ‘Strange Brew’ by Cream

Cream is another British rock group of the ’60s that was majorly influenced by the blues. They were a supergroup, made up of guitarist Eric Clapton, bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker. No pianist, you’ll notice, but Faber’s arrangement of ‘Strange Brew’ adapts the song for keys. 

‘Strange Brew’ started life as a tune called ‘Lawdy Mama’, which was recorded twice by Cream. The original version featured more traditional shuffle rhythms, while the other was played in straight time, truer to the emerging rock style. The song appearing on Cream’s 1967 album Disraeli Gears is the second version, but the bluesy spirit is still audible. 

First off, it’s built on the twelve-bar blues backbone, which plants it firmly in the genre’s stylistic world. Eric Clapton’s ceaseless guitar licks also make exceptional use of the blues scale. Despite the lack of a shuffle rhythm, the genre’s influence is totally apparent. It all perfectly demonstrates how the blues came to evolve by fusion with other styles. 

8. ‘Basin Street Blues’ by Spencer Williams 

‘Basin Street Blues’ - another great ‘street blues’ tune to partner W. C. Handy’s. Written by the versatile Spencer Williams in 1928, the song’s legacy will be forever tied to the name of Louis Armstrong, who recorded it that same year. 

Williams and Armstrong were both first and foremost jazz musicians, but true to its name, ‘Basin Street Blues’ saw them both engage with the blues style that was becoming wildly popular during the so-called Roaring Twenties. The song was one of the huge hits of the era, and artists across the generations covered it - from Bing Crosby to Miles Davis.

Like other tunes from the era on this list, ‘Basin Street Blues’ sees blues idioms adapted for what was a pop setting. As a result it won’t sound anything like as raw as the delta blues of someone like Lead Belly. The trick is to try and spot how the blues manifests in the music - see if you can identify some of the features we’ve touched on.

9. ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’ by Albert King

Albert King’s Born Under a Bad Sign is one of the best blues albums of all time, recorded for the legendary Stax label at their Memphis studio. As we’ve seen, the 1960s was a time of change for the blues, and Stax was at the forefront. The album offers a fresh and punchy take on classic forms, embodying the label’s contribution to blues history. 

‘Born Under a Bad Sign’ is the title and standout track, written by Stax regulars William Bell and Booker T. Jones. King’s recording features a choppy guitar riff, big bass lines, horns and a piano whose rhythms are straight as an arrow. It’s now a blues standard, having been covered by a range of artists, including Cream.

This Faber arrangement features an introduction marked by syncopated chords and chromaticism, lasting for sixteen bars. After that, the unmistakable riff enters in the left hand, underpinning the bulk of the song, as the right hand colours the melody. The introductory material returns to close the piece.

10. ‘Hound Dog’ by Big Mama Thornton
 

Composed by songwriting duo extraordinaire Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller‘Hound Dog’ is best known as another big Elvis tune. But Big Mama Thornton got there first. Her 1953 version was the original recording, and it’s definitely her most well-known tune. Her powerful vocal performance is a thrill. 

Thornton’s recording of ‘Hound Dog’ is seen as one of the most important precursors of the rock-and-roll movement that was just around the corner. Its innovative potential is probably what inspired Elvis - or rather his producer - to interpret it just three years later. So it transformed from a rhythm-and-blues number into a rock-and-roll anthem. 

Coming in a really easy piano format, this title gives you the best chance to see the twelve-bar blues in action. The progression starts in the second bar and ends in the thirteenth, shifting as follows, with one chord per bar: C-C-C-C-F-F-C-C-G-F-C-C. This is the bedrock of so much music - once you suss it, you’ll start hearing it everywhere.

Your next steps for blues piano music


This is just the beginning. We’ve only scratched the surface of a world of blues piano sheet music, filled with the likes of Ray CharlesFats Domino and many other greats. These ten songs might give fans the perfect introduction to blues piano, but the rest of nkoda’s collection will help you to become an expert.

Or, if you feel like putting the blues to one side for now, lose the generic label and jump straight to the easy piano songs - period. The greatest achievements in piano composition of all time. 

The choice is yours. Just keep reading, learning, playing and loving. Take pride in your music, find what makes you tick, play like the devil and don’t let the fire go out. 

Share this article

Related Articles

10 best jazz piano songs you need to know

10 best jazz piano songs you need to know

Make like Monk and the rest of these cats by jamming your way through the wonderful world of jazz piano.

Piano
By Ben Maloney

10 easy piano songs any beginner can learn

10 easy piano songs any beginner can learn

Starting out and looking for something to play? Find some great music here that's just right for beginners.

Piano
By Ben Maloney

Piano chords 101: complete beginner’s guide

Piano chords 101: complete beginner’s guide

Part three of the blog's series of 101 guides to piano music focuses on chords.

Piano
By Ben Maloney

Piano keys 101: complete beginner’s guide

Piano keys 101: complete beginner’s guide

The second 101 guide to piano music is all about getting to know the keys themselves.

Piano
By Ben Maloney

Piano notes 101: complete beginner’s guide

Piano notes 101: complete beginner’s guide

The blog kicks off its series of guides to piano music with this exploration of piano notes.

Piano
By Ben Maloney

10 best blues piano songs you need to know

10 best blues piano songs you need to know

Learn the distinctive idioms of the blues with these ten classic tunes for piano.

Piano
By Ben Maloney

How to write piano sheet music and compose a song

How to write piano sheet music and compose a song

If you’re wondering whether to try your hand at writing sheet music, then hesitate no longer. Absolutely go for it. Writing sheet music for the piano is a lot easier than it may seem. It’s not something reserved for learned composers and experienced pianists. All that’s required is a bit of imagination...

Piano
By Ben Maloney

How to read piano sheet music: a beginner’s guide

How to read piano sheet music: a beginner’s guide

If you’re taking up the piano and want to learn to read sheet music for it, this article will tell you everything that you need to know. It offers a guide that will help you acquire the knowledge and skills to make your playing ambitions a reality...

Piano
By Ben Maloney

10 most beautiful piano songs to play

10 most beautiful piano songs to play

In this article we’ll look at pieces that time and time and again seem to be thought of as some of the most beautiful piano songs. Hopefully by looking at them, we’ll be able to get a sense of what beauty really is...

Piano
By Ben Maloney

10 best country piano songs you need to know

10 best country piano songs you need to know

But make no mistake - country isn’t just for cowboys and Tennesseans. Country music has been a major player in the recording industry for the better part of a century. Below you’ll find a list of ten of the finest country songs of all time.

Piano
By Ben Maloney

10 best rock piano songs you need to know

10 best rock piano songs you need to know

The piano might not be most closely associated with this particular style of music, but the instrument has played no less vital a part in rock’s history and development. Here we’re looking at the pieces of music that best support that claim...

Piano
By Ben Maloney

10 best classical piano songs you need to know

10 best classical piano songs you need to know

Classical music’s overflowing with exceptional piano music. Over the centuries composers have produced countless great, famous, original and influential works for this instrument. Picking ten of the best isn’t straightforward - there’s a lot of competition but we think we have found some that deserve a place on this list...

Piano
By Ben Maloney

10 best piano pop songs you need to know

10 best piano pop songs you need to know

Many classics have been sung at the keys over the years and across the genre by countless iconic singers and players. The selection of music below tries to do right by this breadth and diversity. At the same time, it offers a body of work that’ll help you to be a better pianist, whatever kind of pop music you’re looking to engage with...

Piano
By Ben Maloney

10 best pianists: the greatest of all time

10 best pianists: the greatest of all time

If you play the piano, then you’re a member of a global community of tens of millions of people. In this article, we’re looking at some of these remarkable people...

Piano
By Ben Maloney

10 hardest piano pieces and songs of all time

10 hardest piano pieces and songs of all time

This is a run-down of some of the most difficult pieces for solo piano that have ever been composed. Ten works are explored on this list and every one demands full technical mastery of the keyboard. We’ve compiled as diverse a list as possible so that, if you’re bold enough to take them on, you should find at least one that works for you...

Piano
By Ben Maloney