Guys I'm in the midst of studying jazz. And I'm so confused whether jazz is the same as blues, especially the rhythm parts If blues is using shuffle, then jazz is using swing? Then why sometimes blues is also using jazz rhythm?

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    There's a huge amount of stuff that is contained in the grey area between jazz and blues.
    – Tim
    May 20, 2018 at 7:52
  • So we can narrow down the scope to these questions: (1) What are the MAIN CHARACTERISTICS OF BLUES AND JAZZ. (2) What are the SIMILARITIES and most importantly the DIFFERENCES between the two.
    – Vehrnesto
    May 20, 2018 at 8:32
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    @YauQiHerng - you have not mitigated Tim's concern with your addition. The point is that is an that is 'fuzzy' by definition. For every rule you might try to compile, you will find exceptions.
    – Stinkfoot
    May 20, 2018 at 18:24

4 Answers 4


Blues and Jazz are overlapping genres, so it won't always be possible to characterise a song as 'jazz, but not blues' or 'blues, but not jazz'.

It would be possible to write a very big book about the characteristics of blues, and probably an even bigger one about the characteristics of jazz, but very briefly, blues tends to...

  • Make use of the blues scale
  • Have simple arrangements centred around guitar, piano, and voice
  • use fairly simple chord progressions, most typically the 12-bar blues chord progression
  • lyrically, emphasise themes of hardship and struggle

These are huge generalisations - What is it about the blues chord progression that makes the blues feel? goes into a bit more detail.

jazz, on the other hand -

  • tends to use more complex chord progressions, with an emphasis on substitution and variation
  • uses a wide range of scales
  • uses a lot more brass, and bigger ensembles, than blues songs
  • in some forms, tends to use more dance rhythms
  • has a stronger latin influence

Again, these are generalisations, and in the early days of jazz and blues, many of the same influences were feeding into both blues and jazz, and typical blues forms were (and continue to be) used in jazz.

The Wikipedia article on Jazz has quite a good section on origins, and This Essay from Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz mentions some of the cross-cutting influences.

An example of a song that (I feel) is both blues and jazz is Strange Fruit:

The scale used in the vocal delivery and lyrical theme are very bluesy, but the chord progression and trumpet part speak to the Latin influence on the jazz idiom.


As topo morto said, it won't always be possible to decide whether a given song is Jazz or Blues. However, there is one thing that's striking about blues and sets it apart from most genres, including in particular Jazz: in Blues, the accompaniment prefers to use the same chord-flavour on every functional degree, irrespective of whether this seems to fit in the key's scale. The historical reason is that many influential Blues guitarist, very notably Robert Johnson, used slide guitar for accompaniment a lot, which can't very well change harmonies in any other way but moving the entire chord up or down the neck.

The most characteristic case is that all chords are seventh chords (“dominant” seventh chords, but the term is absurd here because they don't act as dominants). Classically, with the 12-bar progression 7 - 7 - 7 - 7 - 7 - 7 - 7. It won't always be so clear-cut – more modern blues does also switch chord genders occasionally, and it certainly doesn't always use seventh chords, but it definitely doesn't put multiple chords in a row with each chosen in a way to conform to any particular scale.

In particular in contrast to Jazz, you don't normally find any major seventh chords in Blues.

  • 1
    Your comment about slide guitar is wrong, I'm afraid. As a guitarist and slide player, you can do a lot more with a slide than just push the open chord up the neck. And it's a lead instrument used in blues, certainly - but there are many others. Regular guitar, piano, banjo, fiddle and harmonica were all significant early blues instruments, as shown by the recordings of all of them.
    – Graham
    May 21, 2018 at 9:39
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    What you're missing is that blues comes from field hollers and work songs. They used simple and repetitive tunes, because they were accompanying repetitive work. That's why we can trace verses of blues songs and sea shanties to common roots in work songs of the American South - they both served the same purpose, and sailors picked them up and passed them on. In blues, the need for them to accompany work moved on, but the music kept its roots.
    – Graham
    May 21, 2018 at 9:45
  • @Graham well, you can discuss a lot where the roots are, what should be considered the original reason for why such and such is done. Arguably the original blues isn't defined by any accompaniment at all. However, the vocal elements of those original work songs have passed over just as much into Soul and Jazz as they have into what's today considered Blues music (as opposed to Bluesy singing). What Blues music is characterised by is cultivating the elements that are unique to the old Blues. And yes, I would say that is most prominently the sound of a slide guitar moving entire chords. May 21, 2018 at 11:13
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    That's not true though. Slide guitar was a key part of Hawaiian music long before the blues picked up on it - that's why Nationals have those island scenes engraved on them. Players like Tampa Red adapted this sound to fit their blues, not the other way around.
    – Graham
    May 21, 2018 at 11:40
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    Actually they did - there were some who toured with fairs and vaudeville. I don't disagree with the diddly bow being part of the musical heritage, but it is simple history that slide guitar was picked up for the pre-existing blues style from other sources. Wikipedia has a bit of a summary, but there are better books about it. And of course there are recordings of people like Tampa Red, so we know how they played. It wasn't just sliding a chord.
    – Graham
    May 21, 2018 at 21:11

If it shuffles rather than swings, and is built on the '12-bar blues', it's very likely Blues. If it's played by guitar (maybe piano) and vocal, and the lyrics are about the misfortunes of daily life, the genre is pretty well confirmed.

Fairly safe to say that if it ISN'T a 12-bar, and ISN'T shuffle, it isn't classic blues.

But music is all about cross-influences. Don't sweat over borderline cases. Interesting to see 'Strange Fruit' mentioned. I wouldn't force that one into any genre. 'Political Art music, with blues and jazz infulences' perhaps.

  • 2
    I'm still not entirely clear as to what constitutes 'swing' and 'shuffle' and what their definitive differences are!
    – Tim
    May 20, 2018 at 17:55
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    There are tons of traditional 8 bar blues pieces. Key to the Highway is a notable example. On old country style blues you'll also find 9 bar, 13 bar... 12 bars is by no means a standard.
    – Stinkfoot
    May 20, 2018 at 18:22
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    Swing (or Jazz, or Blues) doesn't HAVE a definitive definition. Not much does in art. That's why it's so easy to nitpick any answer to this sort of question.
    – Laurence
    May 20, 2018 at 20:53
  • This is a bad answer. The 12 bar blues is pretty late in its ubiquity and if you listen to a lot of the biggest blues men from before it's often not even slightly followed. There are plenty of 1 chord vamp blues songs for example, or songs that alternative between 1 and 4, or songs with ambiguous harmony. And if by "shuffle" you mean a sort of 12/8 feel comping, again, this is but one small corner of blues and by no means the older style
    – Some_Guy
    May 22, 2018 at 3:01

The main difference between blues and jazz is the way pitch is used. It is this which I'll discuss briefly in this answer. Simply put, jazz focusses much more on the harmonic aspect, whereas blues on the microtonal melodic aspect.

Blues sits in the tradition of microtonal field hollers, microtonal African American music which is melodic in nature, and doesn't rely on harmony as a device at all, in terms of pitch, the expressiveness comes from melody, and microtonal inflection. Blues has a sprinkling of harmony, but this harmony is always fundamentally subservient to the melody (I could go into a lot more detail on this but I'd be here for a while. There are a couple of different ways harmony can manifest itself in blues but that's another question)

If any one thing is a cornerstone of "blues", then it's "blue notes". That is to say, singing or playing notes that sit outside of the western scale. They are not fixed pitches, but spaces which are explored, creating a very deep expressiveness. These most significantly are the intervals of blues thirds and tritones.

As a typifying example, Hendrix playing an instrumental born under a bad sign is perfect. The melody of the guitar is a masterclass in blue notes https://open.spotify.com/track/1HbOlAS9kF9d5j7WNQbin9 (not on youtube any more but please listen to Hendrix - Born under a bad sign!!!!) And and earlier example:

Jazz is more harmonic, I'll come back and add more detail later. For later jazz, it's easy peasy lemon squeezy to distinguish it from blues, so I won't bother: to go into much detail. Suffice to say there are complex "jazzy" harmonies, and a harmonic framework based fundamentally on discreet pitches (the ones on the piano). Even when playing "a blues", it will be constructed of these 12 notes, and almost certainly full of substitutions and harmonic colour.

For earlier jazz there is more of a crossover. While early jazz does include some blue notes, it's within a framework of ensemble playing illustrating a harmonic progression: bent and blue notes are gravy rather than the fundamental structure of the song itself. For an example of this, listen to potato head blues (one of the best recordings ever made?): the song is definitively jazz, but if you listen to the clarinet part in the solo, he plays around with blues thirds as a cheeky sounding and definitely "bluesy" embellishment. Nevertheless, the fundamental context is "jazzy", they're illustrating chord progressions with their playing, painting a picture of a harmonic environment with their melody lines. This isn't the function of melody in blues at all.

For an example of more modern jazz not easy to mistake with blues, here (also an excuse to share some fantastic music):

As an aside, the "blues scale" as an idea is a much later invention, pinned on to blues by non blues musicians, and largely misses the point altogether. It can at a stretch be useful to improvise along to the blues if you really want, no one with good ears and a passing familiarity with the blues could tell you with a straight face that the blues is "based on the blues scale" any more than Bach is "based on the pentatonic scale".

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    I am not sure that looking at blues as it was played in 1930, or that looking at the historical origins of blues has much bearing on the OP's question. Certainly blues players have shown much interest in harmony for a very long time, and jazz players have shown much interest in melody (and in blue notes) for a very long time. Jazz and blues can be difficult to disentangle (and it may be pointless to try), but as far as melodic concerns go, I tend to think that blues is more lick-oriented than jazz.
    – user39614
    May 22, 2018 at 4:38
  • My favoured example was Hendrix playing an Albert Collins song. I only settled for a 30s blues song because thought I may as well go for a contrast; they both illustrate the point well. 2ndly, of course many blues musicians have shown interest in harmony, but this is always to the ends of framing the lead line. There are various clever ways blues musicians have incorporated harmonic devices into their music (which is no mean feat, constructing harmony around a microtonal framework without losing its fundamental essence is an outstanding musical achievement). (cont.)
    – Some_Guy
    May 22, 2018 at 6:06
  • but the music is still defined by the blues sound world of microtonality. You can have blues with no functional harmony at all, and it's still blues http:// youtu.be/K_DOnKJ232M But you can't have a blues song without blue notes, without the melody and improvised solos fitting firmly within that space (which you might call "blue tonality" perhaps) Jazz, while of course heavily influenced by this, doesn't inhabit that same sound world. Here my choice of a 30s example was deliberate because later jazz is easy to separate from the blues, but in trad the distinction is more nebulous.
    – Some_Guy
    May 22, 2018 at 6:19
  • You can also have jazz with no functional harmony; and there were jazz players and composers like Mingus or Oliver Nelson who were interested in exploring the nature of the blues with music that might not seem to be obviously blues in a traditional sense. I don't believe that blues musicians use harmony "always to the ends of framing the lead line"; lots of players outline the harmony with their lines, and blues bands also have rhythm sections that outline the harmony. I am not even convinced that blues has to use blue notes (which is a pretty limited form of microtonality).
    – user39614
    May 22, 2018 at 6:39
  • You have listed some characteristics often found in the blues, but it is difficult to nail down definitively what it is that makes something the blues, or jazz for that matter.
    – user39614
    May 22, 2018 at 6:39

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