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Let’s Talk About the Blues Scale

The Blues Scale. Why do so many players talk about this as the quintessential soloing tool? Have you ever wondered why the blues scale doesn’t always sound good while being played over a blues progression? Aren’t you looking for something more “realistic” in terms of an approach for soloing? Although this column is starting to sound like an infomercial proposing something “new and improved,” I believe it’s important to answer some of these questions and hopefully describe how and why the blues scale works the way it does. Or, more important: why the term “blues scale” can be a bit deceiving when it comes to actually soloing over a blues. Finally, I will boldly go where few players have gone before and will describe what I call “the bluesy scale” and why it may be a more appropriate set of notes to use for soloing.

First things first: let’s outline the notes in the “blues” or “minor pentatonic” scale.

In scale degrees: 1 b3 4 5 b7 8

In the key of C: C Eb F G Bb C

This is typically one of the first scales that guitar players learn, mainly so they can start to solo over blues progressions and gain some insight into Hendrix-like licks. As bass players, we also learn how important this scale is for adding fills or navigating through chord changes in blues and classic rock tunes. If so many people learn about this scale, why should I attempt to improve (or at least amend) it? It comes down to listening and applying a bit of theory knowledge. Let’s examine this scale over the chords in the blues progression.

For those of you following this Blues Bass column, you may remember when we talked about the major and minor chords in blues and how many blues tunes, specifically shuffles, use dominant 7th chords. These chords have a major third and the typical walking shuffle pattern also uses a major third. So why does this “blues” scale have a minor 3rd? A good friend of mine, who also happens to be an incredible guitar teacher in the Philly area, once told me that the blues can be found in the tension between the flat 3rd of the scale and the major 3rd of the chord. We, as listeners, have become accustomed to this “blue” or dissonant sounding overlap of major and minor 3rds.

If we’re talking about practical application of the scale for soloing, the major 3rd will work over the chords, but the minor 3rd will give it a “bluesier” sound. If you’re playing over a minor blues, the major 3rd will sound out of place, so beware of this and stick with the minor 3rd. However, if you’re soloing over a blues with the dominant 7th chords, try bending or sliding between the minor and major third to add some more color. This leads to the first alteration of the blues scale: include the Major 3rd.

As we make our way through the blues progression, we find that the IV chord features a major third as well… this also happens to be the 6th of the root and is typically used in the walking shuffle or slow blues bass pattern. This note happens to sound good in a solo too… not only because it works well over the IV chord but because it is a half step away from the dominant 7th . This gives you the ability to do some sliding or trilling and it gives you a colorful tone to including in your phrasing. Hence, alteration of the blues scale #2: include the Major 6th.

If you listen to blues guitar solos, one thing you’ll notice is how often players bend notes to create a somewhat dissonant, wailing effect. They bend the 2nd to the minor 3rd, the 4th to the #4th or 5th, and they can get away with bending “not so good sounding” notes into the right ones. All of this is well and good… if you’re guitar player. If you’re a bass player, your strings will probably be too heavy to bend (and bending a whole step is almost impossible). What you can do is glide seamlessly between the notes, moving a half step above and then back down, or you can climb up chromatically. You can create your own spin on guitar licks, especially if you can quickly play off of the 2nd to the minor 3rd or the 4th to the #4th. So here we have two more alterations to the blues scale: include the Major 2nd and the sharp (augmented) 4th (you can also think of this as the flat or diminished 5th).

Our final alteration has to do with a very “tricky” note: the 7th. If we’re playing over the V chord in our blues progression, the b7th is the minor third of the chord so it will act as the quasi-dissonant “blue” note. Technically, this will work over the chord, keeping with the “blues” sound. If you’re going to try to develop your soloing, try playing off of the chords in the progression instead of just using the scale and take advantage of the major third of the V chord, or the major 7th of the key. For those of you familiar with the harmonic minor scale, you’ll notice that the major 7th functions the same way. Be careful when you use this, because it will clearly sound “un-bluesy” if used over the I or IV chord, but it can be an important part of your arsenal for soloing over the progression as a whole. Therefore, the final addition to the scale: the Major 7th.

After all of these alterations to the standard blues scale, the “bluesy” scale ends up being a hybrid scale that demonstrates a more advanced understanding of the melodic and harmonic elements in blues. It’s a combination of the minor pentatonic scale, the major pentatonic (the 2nd, Major 3rd, and 6th derive from this), the chromatic passing tones (#4) and the inclusion of chord tones (the Major 7th ). The final scale looks like this:

In scale degrees: 1 2 b3 3 4 #4 5 6 b7 7 8

In the key of C: C D Eb E F F# G A Bb B C

This may seem daunting at first glance, especially because we’re suddenly jumping from an easy to maneuver five-note scale to a scale that includes almost all of the notes in our 12 tone system. In the end, I hope you understand where and why these other notes work. Becoming familiar with the traditional blues scale is a great way to get started, but even if you’re using those five notes, learn which notes sound good over the chords in the progression. For instance, the b7 may not be an ideal place to end a phrase while soloing over the IV chord because it is the 4th scale degree in relation to that chord. The more you play with the notes in the scale, and the more you understand the alterations discussed above, the greater your “color palette” will be when you approach soloing. The best advice I can give is to think about your phrasing and remember that half step motion can be a useful tool when it comes to creating tension and resolution.

After all, what would the blues be without a bit of tension?

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and playing sessions, she fronts an original music project, The Interludes and teaches private lessons. Visit her website to learn more about her music or to inquire about lessons.

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