Getting “Unstuck” from the Blues Scale

Q: How do I get myself unstuck from using the blues scale? Whenever I solo in fingerstyle or slap, I can’t help but to be stuck on the blues scale. I want to move on from it. Also, when I’m doing slap, I stick to octaves, but I want to be able to do different intervals and move around a lot more. Any tips?

A: My best advice is to remember that we tend to play how we practice. So if you want to stop doing something in a performance, you’ll have to practice doing something else in practice.

My approach to problems like this is to be as systematic as possible and break things down. The blues and pentatonic scales really do contain the bulk of the meat and potatoes for many styles of music. Other scales can be helpful though when you want to add a little bit of flavor to a line or lick. If you are playing styles of music that favor that scale (blues, rock, funk) then I would explore other scales that resemble that shape.

If you’re primarily working with the minor blues scale, you could practice playing exclusively in minor, dorian, phrygian, locrian, or diminished.

Really, when it comes down to it, you’ll likely be playing the same scale but with some chromatic approach notes added to the mix. You could also practice using the blues scale but approaching your target notes chromatically instead of scalarly.

As with most lines, the most important thing is rhythm and feel. Beyond that, it’s all about setting target notes and getting there in an interesting way.

When I practice chromatic approaches over jazz standards (the best way to practice scales and melodic concepts, in my opinion), I do so by setting a target note or multiple target notes for each chord and then decide on what melodic device I will use to approach those target notes. For example, if I want to play a simple arpeggio over each chord (1,3,5,7 of the appropriate scale), I might decide to play 8th notes and approach each chord tone by a chromatic step above or below (one chord per measure).

I could also play 8th note triplets and approach each note from both above and below or double up and have two chromatic approach notes for each target note (both from above or below). There are any number of combinations. The real key is deciding on a pattern and then working that pattern over various chord changes.

When doing this, I also usually allow myself some “free play” over a tune trying to make use of whatever it is that I’m working on. I will likely just pull up a tune to play over using “iReal Pro” (or make my own chord changes), set it to a slow-moderate tempo and focus on:

  • Setting a target note
  • Using chromaticism in my approach somehow
  • Always focusing on musical phrasing and interesting use of rhythm

Giving a note context is key to making it sound good (especially if it’s outside of the functional harmony). An example of context is a familiar pattern. A major arpeggio is a very familiar pattern.

If we have a G7 moving to a C chord of any type, for example, we could play a G diminished arpeggio and then land on a C.

This gives us a G Bb Db C. If we phrase it well rhythmically, it could sound pretty cool even though half of the notes aren’t technically in the functional scales of the chords (this would work especially well in a solo context or as a lick. I wouldn’t play that as just a walking shuffle bass line, though).

(And this could be a blues context, jazz context, funk… doesn’t matter).

Really, what it boils down to is experimentation and trying new things. Some things will sound bad while others will sound good. Much of it will have to do with you getting comfortable with your instrument, rhythm, and the shapes and sounds of your fretboard. Start stretching yourself and your scalar practice in the shed, and you’ll soon notice different types of lines and licks coming from your hands.

I’d answer similarly with regard to your slap question. If you can’t seem to get away from octaves when you slap, play anything but octaves when you practice. Practice slapping, popping and double thumbing through regular old scalar patterns, arpeggios, melodies that you like. Practice playing nothing but roots and 10ths… roots and 7ths… roots and 6ths… roots and 3rds…

With both of these topics, transcription can be a huge help. Finding lines that you aspire to and working them out, note by note, can really help you expand your palette. Pick out a Marcus Miller tune and take it slow. Louis Johnson, Larry Graham, Flea, Oteil Burbridge, Victor Wooten… whoever gets your pulse up. Pick a tune and slowly work it out and play it a hundred times over the course of a week. It can’t help but sink in to your overall approach, musical aesthetic and bag of tricks.

This is the stuff of growth and development and it takes time and concerted effort but dedication and hard work pays off here. Just dive in head first and push your boundaries. You’re bound to come out of it with some new ideas!

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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Share your thoughts

  1. Jason

    This is great info, but I’m too much of a beginner to visualize this information. I think that a video showing these concepts and demonstrating examples would be an absolute hit for beginner and intermediate players. This info is too good.

  2. burkey

    and being directed “ireal pr”
    what a fabulous bonus,
    from vancouver island

  3. Charlie

    I really like what Damian shares here. My “two cents”….I play so much that my hands go where my ears dictate to a large degree. At times, I am looking for a chord change coming up, and I cant remember what it is, but my fingers suddenly solve the problem for me. And that is how I solo. I explore the sounds in my ears/head and let my automatic navigator find the notes on my bass. When I find myself wandering into unknown, or unintentional “mistakes”, the challenge is to turn it into music!. It is the NOT knowing, the walking a tightrope, that stirs a creative process for me that is risky, and fresh. So I have to take a step back and not judge my solo, other than to ask if I turned the potential chaos into interesting and one of a kind expressions cooked up in the moment. It’s hard sometimes, to refrain from judging my solo; oh that sucked! No, it didn’t. I just didn’t find the thread, the flowing impulse of creative thought. But through trial and error, my success rate is improving, as I learn to get into the zone. It’s as though the music is speaking to me. Crazy, huh? But what a high!