04 April 2023
Songwriter, pianist and music producer John Geraghty presents Part 6 of his new series. In this lesson, he talks through how to play Boogie Woogie music on the piano. This style will surely impress your friends!
This series will cover many piano genres including Contemporary Classical, Blues, Country, Latin, Rock n Roll, New Orleans, Jazz, Pop, Funk, Boogie Woogie, Ragtime, Rock, Gospel and Ballad style. Each article will demonstrate plenty of playing techniques and tips to help broaden your musical knowledge and repertoire of different genres.
A quick look at the history of Boogie Woogie
Boogie Woogie first became popular in the late 1920s with musical pioneers like Jimmy Yancey, PineTop Smith, Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons at the forefront. PineTop Smith was the first to introduce the name Boogie Woogie with his 1929 hit PineTop’s Boogie Woogie. In today’s world, pianists who use this style of playing include Ladyva, Jools Holland and Brendan Kavanagh.
Step 1: What IS Boogie Woogie piano?
Boogie Woogie piano is played in 4/4 time signature using a repeated left-handed 8-note quaver bass pattern and right-handed melodic blues licks. It is based around a 12-bar blues chord progression using the I-IV-V in major keys.
Step 2: Three Common Boogie Woogie chord progressions to have a go at
1. Below is a standard example of a Boogie Woogie chord progression. It uses the I-IV-V chords as mentioned above. This example is in the key of C.
2. Sometimes, the F chord in bar 10 is replaced with a G chord.
3. In this third example, the G in bar 9 is replaced with a Dm chord (ii). The C in the final bar is then replaced with a G. The preceding C on bar 11 going to the G in bar 12 is known as a turnaround.
Step 3: How to play a typical Boogie Woogie bassline pattern
The bassline in Boogie Woogie is prominent, so it’s important to make it stand out! Take a look at the example below, which starts in C with a bassline of G-C-A-C-G-C-A-C and so on. This bassline pattern alternates between the fifth, first and sixth notes from each chord.
Why not give it a go? Pay close attention to the fingering using the first chord variation.
Once you get the speed up, transpose the above example in the keys of F and G major. Start on each root note (F and G) with finger 5. You’ll find it easy to implement as muscle memory will ‘kick in.’
Step 4: Have a go at these three, left-hand bassline patterns
The below examples are all in C major.
Step 5: Three octave bass lines to try out
Octave left-hand basslines are a popular technique in Boogie Woogie piano. Here are a few common ones using C major. Use fingers 5 and 1 throughout.
1. This one leads up to the flattened 7th (Bb) note.
2. This pattern uses notes from the C6 chord. (C-E-G-A) Try transposing it into F (F-A-C-D) and G (G-B-D-E).
3. Here’s a bassline that can work over Dm and G on bars 9 and 10 from the chord variations shown earlier in the article.
4. This bassline includes a turnaround over the last two bars.
Step 6: How to add a ‘swing’ feel to your Boogie Woogie playing
One of the main features of Boogie Woogie music is its rhythm. It’s not Boogie Woogie if it ain’t swingin’! Try adding a swing feel to all basslines using the rhythm below.
Step 7: Addressing the right hand
Now that we’ve addressed the left hand, let’s take a look at how to play Boogie Woogie in the right hand.
The right hand would typically use notes from the blues scale. The keys of C, F and G are shown below in the example. Try them out at your piano.
C Blues scale
F Blues scale
G Blues scale
Step 8: Incorporating thirds into your Boogie Woogie playing
Thirds are used a lot in Boogie Woogie music, especially the use of Chromatic thirds. Here’s a classic example of this being used over the key of C. Notice the fingering 4/2 over three of the thirds.
Step 9: 'Pick-ups'
It’s common in Boogie Woogie music to begin a melodic riff BEFORE the start of the bar. The example below shows where the riff starts, indicated by each bracket. Because the riff starts before the bar, when transposing into F and G these too will have to start before the bar on the same off-beat. The chord sequence is over a 12-bar blues chord progression.
Give it a go.
Step 10: How to use octaves in the right hand
Here’s an example of how to use octaves in the right hand over C.
Step 11: Throw in some arpeggios!
Here’s a 2nd inversion arpeggio blues lick over C to try out. Can you transpose it into F and G?
Step 12: The importance of breaks
Use a break to add another dynamic to your Boogie Woogie playing. Simply stop playing quavers in the left hand and instead play just the root note as a single note, or play it as an octave for one beat only.
Step 13: Now that you've got most of the piece down… how do you make a strong start?
Boogie Woogie players will often start with chords in the left hand. Try the example below and alternate between C and Cdim chords.
Step 14: The ending
Finish with a bang. A popular ending involves a walk-up from C to G in the bass followed by Db7 to C. You can make this ending into a turnaround or intro by simply excluding the Db7 and C chord on the last bar and hitting octave G’s over the last bar.
Step 15: Putting everything you’ve learned together
Here’s my own composition called Speedway Boogie, available to download for free here. Play this as fast as you can! It includes an intro, bassline patterns, blues licks in thirds and octaves, a Dm-G-C-G chord progression which includes a turnaround, and a stop at the end. Enjoy!
Take a listen to my recording of the piece below to help you learn it.
The next step...
✔ Listen to popular Boogie Woogie and Blues pianists such as:
✔ Buy a book on Boogie Woogie and learn more left and right hand patterns and licks. We suggest:
✔ Choose your favourite right-hand lick and play it over different basslines
✔ Play in straight and swing feel
Next up in the How to Play series, we take a closer look at New Orleans Piano.
About the author
John Geraghty is a songwriter, music producer, pianist, author, teacher and entrepreneur. Although John is a classically trained pianist, his passion lies in songwriting and music producing. He has studied most genres of music including pop, jazz, gospel, country, and blues piano.
He is the author of The Complete Classical Piano Course and Playing By Ear – A Songwriter's Way and has his own online music school. His teaching method is simple and direct: "Leave out everything that is not necessary and teach the student what they really want to know."