When we first get into soloing, or improve, we usually start with something easy. Someone feeds us a lick or two, we pick up the pentatonic scale out of a magazine, we discover that we have a pretty good ear for the Dorian mode, and off we go, fitting our newly learned systems over the chords of whatever song we are working on. We go to the woodshed, practice our fingers off, and start to sound pretty good. In fact, sometimes we even sound awesome. But if we don’t have a path laid out, we may end up riding that one trick for decades before we pick up something new … if ever at all!
It’s a lifelong learning experience, and when you know what options you have, the next level is always in sight.
What’s cool about music, and we all know this intrinsically, is that there is no one single perfect path. All roads lead to Rome. It’s a question of which route we feel like taking: the highway or a slow, winding drive. Most of us are self-guided, anyway. I wouldn’t say that any of us are self-taught, unless you’re living in a cave. But self-guided is when we don’t necessarily have a single teacher, so we choose what we want to learn based on what we know. What we might not realize is that we can re-purpose some of what we’ve learned in new ways.
There are lots of different improve systems that most of us hear about and maybe even work on. In this article, we’re going to take what we’ve learned from pentatonics and apply them to the Blues. If you are an advanced improviser, you may still pick up one or two tips from this. If you understand all of this already, and have truly put it to practice, you can take this lesson and find a young student to mentor. If you haven’t really played around with the Blues, it’s easily within your grasp.
When I was a kid, I resented that all of my “square” music teachers continually prescribed scales, patterns, and exercises. I wanted to get right in and play music! Being of little brain as I am, it took a long time before I realized that my teachers were right, and that I really did want to spend time running through scales, patterns, and exercises. Still, if anyone had shown me these simple tips about the Blues (and maybe showed me how to practice efficiently), I would have had a lot more fun early on!
First off, you know that when we talk about the blues scale, we are talking about a modified pentatonic scale, right? Start by refreshing your memory on the pentatonic scale. You’ll use it a lot in the blues.
D minor Pentatonic
Notes: D F G A C
Scale Position: 1 b3 4 5 b7
Now turn your pentatonic scale into a blues scale by adding one more note. For the minor pentatonic scale, add a b5 or #4 (same thing), which would be a G#.
D minor blues scale:
D F G G# A C D
1 b3 4 #4 5 b7 8
When you play the blues, you are usually playing three chords: a I chord, a IV chord, and a V chord. The V chord is a dominant 7th, so you can call it a V7, but V is okay if we want to be a little lazy. Over those three chords, we can lay down a pentatonic scale. Say we’re playing the blues in D. That’s not a common key for horn players, but it’s a great guitar key, especially in drop D. So in the D blues, you’ll follow these chord changes:
D7 D7 D7 D7
| //// | //// | //// | //// |
G7 G7 D7 D7
| //// | //// | //// | //// |
A7 G7 D7 D7
| //// | //// | //// | //// |
The scale that fits best over this entire progression is a pentatonic with an extra note: the flatted-fifth. This is what everyone refers to as … the blues scale. But it doesn’t fit perfectly. It sounds sort of weak over the IV and V chords. It’s only the “minor” blues scale. There’s a major one, too, and you can use both of them to sound fairly sophisticated in even your beginning solos.
The trick here is to play your major blues scale over the I chords, and a minor blues scale over the IV and V chords. If you only get one thing from this lesson, that’s the one thing. Switch from major to minor scales over your blues changes, and you’ll immediately sound fresh and more musically aware.
With our D blues, then, refresh your memory on your D major pentatonic scale. Work up any patterns and licks that you’ve got for this scale (same for the D minor pentatonic). You’ll be able to easily use everything that you already know with this little minor/major shift trick.
D Major Pentatonic
Notes: D E F# A B
Scale Position: 1 2 3 5 6
Now take the D major pentatonic and add a flatted 3rd (F) to get the D major blues scale. Play notes from this scale over all the D7 chords (the I chords). But when you hit the G7 or A7 measures (the IV and V chords), switch to your D minor pentatonic with the flatted 5th (the D minor blues scale).
D Major blues scale:
D E F F# A B D
1 2 b3 3 5 6 8
Notice that the G# is a #4. A sharp-four is the same as a flat-five (also called a diminished fifth). The reason that we have enharmonic spelling of notes is partly to help music engravers save space in printed music. It’s also used in spelling out upward or downward runs so that they make sense to the musician (sharps going up, flats going down). But the point here is that we want a flat five. So this is your pentatonic b5 scale … the minor blues scale.
Second thing is the number of steps between the notes of the minor blues scale makes a little numeric pattern: 3-2-1-1-3-2. This is the number of half-steps or frets between each pair of notes. We can use that pattern as a mnemonic for working out rapid note runs. I’ll get to that in another article.
You can also note that the D major blues scale is the same as the B minor blues scale. You just start on a different note. That’s got to do with the whole major and relative minor relationship. We can talk about that in another lesson, how to use the circle of fourths / circle of fifths for practice, analysis, and composition.
Okay, so the first thing we usually do when we run blues scales over changes is … we run the scales … up and down. As written. Verbatim. And we sound like a newbie. The first secret of shedding is that we go to the woodshed alone so that no-one else hears. The second secret of shedding is that if anyone hears, then we just need to remind ourselves that we are setting an example of how to practice. We don’t let our ego get in the way with bashfulness. Embrace the fact that you might sound like a beginner. We have to stand tall in that department or we will never get anywhere.
What we want to do as soon as possible is to not play the blues scales as straight runs up and down. We want to break it up a bit, make it interesting, more melodic. That’s pretty easy to do on a guitar, if you use chord tones or practice patterns that you build off of the blues and pentatonic scales. But this leads us to a bit of work. Pretending for a minute that I didn’t have to write this article the night before publication, let’s just say that I leave it as an exercise for the reader to tab out the scales, and to come up with a half-dozen patterns from each of the two scales, shed them until you own them. Don’t you hate it when people say that? “I leave it as an exercise for the reader …” Ah, but it’ll grow hair on your chest. Unless you’re a woman, then it’ll grow … uh, your chest.
Okay, that trick alone will have you sounding pretty cool over blues changes. Remember to drop back to a simple D major or minor pentatonic from time to time in your soloing, which is another way to keep things sounding interesting. Play some of your hard-won pentatonic riffs and patterns, but then go back to your newly found Major/minor blues patterns. Also remember to lay back, play behind the beat. The bass and drums have got you covered, baby. You need to sound relaxed and cool when soloing. In improv, better to be late than early. It’s a different story if you’re the bass player, but we’re working on soloing, here. Lay back, especially on the fast runs. You will sound (and be) totally in control.
Practice this in keys that are good for guitar, like G, A, E, and C. Then do it in good keyboard and horn keys, like F, Bb, and Eb. Actually a good keyboard or horn player will know all of their keys, but if you’re playing with some cats that are just starting out, they might not know the “guitar” keys. You can mentor them into the sharp keys, but stretch a bit into their territory, too. You will be a better, more versatile player for it. It wouldn’t hurt to be able to lay the blues in all 12 keys, but those 8 are a great start.
You can have a lot of fun going “outside” once in a while in your solo, but you always need to return to the tonic, or the tonal center, or else the trick doesn’t work very well. For example, you can use your chromatic licks to excellent effect, but make sure you come back home on a downbeat. Anywhere there is a I chord, play the tonic. In the key of D, this means you’re hitting home on a D-note to re-establish that tonal center. This brackets your outside run and frames it nicely so that your audience “gets it” and enjoys your ideas even more.
Try getting some hang-time in during your solo. Lay it heavy on one note and hold it for digestive purposes, maybe bend it drastically, even. Let the listeners have a break in between runs so that their subconscious can process the lines that you just fed them. Or use empty space. Like Miles supposedly said, it ain’t always the notes you play, but the ones you don’t play. Either way, you’re breaking up your ideas into melodic phrases.
Use rhythmic ideas to build your phrases. Wynton Marsalis once said something to the effect that there is a finite number of notes, and that all of the melodies of the world have already been written … it’s just the rhythms that are left for us to play around with. Once in a while, take a break from 16th and 8th note runs, and add a little change-up in rhythmic variety. Get some things off the beat using an eighth note to syncopate some quarter notes, or play some short notes mixed with long, back and forth.
Remember to repeat some phrases for clarity, too. In comedy, we learn about the rule of three: repeat something twice, lay it out the same way the third time, but change the ending. That rule can be extended to four, five, six, whatever. You will know if you take it too many times when everyone’s eyes start glazing over or they leave the room.
Try starting your phrases off of the 7th or the b5. Actually, the b5 is a great place to start your lines, but don’t over-use the trick. That’s why we have other notes (the third is another great place to start your runs).
Keep in mind that the only difference between the pentatonic and the blues scale is one note. Use that knowledge to your advantage. With the minor blues scale, it’s the b3. With the Major blues scale it’s the #4/b5. Build some of your phrases around those tones. In fact, sit on those tones for a while, all alone, without playing any other notes. Then go back to the pentatonic scales and riff on those. Mix it up.
There are lots of blues practice tracks on YouTube, or you can buy the Jamey Aebersold playalong, Blues in All Keys. If you have an accompaniment software tool like Guitar Pro or RockSmith, you can jam along for hours, testing out all of these little ideas. The Aebersold tracks are great, but they all have a Jazzy feel. They’re all swing-based. You’ll find that you now have more variety of styles available on YouTube and in some of the apps.
I hope there’s something juicy in here for you. If not, it’s time to take it down to someone who is just getting started. I’m sure that you’ve got friends with a kid who’s just learning guitar. Maybe it’s time to lay out some simple lessons to them as a way of giving back to the community. No matter what you do with it, I hope you have fun with your soloing, because that will translate through to your listeners and they will enjoy your music because of your own joy. Shed until your fingers fall off!
Chris Carden is a Detroit-area saxophonist, leader of a funk band, a jazz band, part-time sideman in a classic rock band, and co-owner of CarBrake Sound, a music composition and sound design service for video and film. He works days for an automotive manufacturer, supporting the visualization tools that the designers use, and he is thrilled to be surrounded by great musicians of all musical styles in the same building, let alone the same campus. It usually takes him less than 60 seconds to meet someone and find out what instrument they play.