How to Play Blues Scales

Blues GuitaristThe blues scale is widely used in jazz tunes and in jazz improvisation, as well as in other genres, including gospel, rhythm and blues, country, funk, bluegrass, and various other styles.

Whether you’re a newcomer to jazz improvisation, or a seasoned veteran, knowing how to play blues scales is a relatively quick and easy way to spice up your solo improvisation!

The blues scale can take a number of forms, but the most common are the Major and minor blues scales.

The Major and minor blues scales are six note scales that contain the notes of the Major and minor pentatonic (that is, five note) scales. They’re constructed by adding a chromatic passing tone to the pentatonic scale.

So let’s first look at the pentatonic scales.

Pentatonic Scales

The pentatonic scale is a five note scale, and it commonly takes two forms: Major and minor. The two scales come from the notes of the Major and minor scales respectively.

In the most common forms of the pentatonic scale, the strong “tendency” tones are eliminated… that is, the notes that create a sense of tension, tending to need “resolution” to an adjacent scale degree.

The Major Pentatonic Scale

Here is a Major pentatonic scale in the key of C.C Major Pentatonic ScaleThis scale contains the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 6th degree of the C Major scale.

The Major Blues Scale

Now if we take the Major pentatonic scale and add a flat 3rd, we get the Major blues scale. In the case of our C Major pentatonic scale, we’ll add an Eb between the D and E.

Here is a Major blues scale in the key of C.

C Major Blues Scale

The Minor Pentatonic Scale

Here is a minor pentatonic scale in the key of C

C Minor Pentatonic Scale

This scale contains the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 7th degree of the C minor scale.

The Minor Blues Scale

Now if we take the minor pentatonic scale and add a flat 5th, we get the minor blues scale. In the case of our C minor pentatonic scale, we’ll add an F# between the F and G.

Here is a minor blues scale in the key of C.

C Minor Blues Scale

What Are Blue Notes?

When we play a minor interval (flatted 3rd, 5th, or 7th) where a Major interval would be expected, we get a “blue note.”

Blue NoteIf we look at the Major blues scale, there is both a major and minor 3rd above the root – the Eb and E in the C Major blues scale example above. In this case the Eb is a blue note.

Looking at the minor blues scale, there is both a perfect 5th and a diminished 5th above the root – the F# and G in the example above.

Now strictly speaking, the diminished 5th is not called a “minor” interval. But the point is that it’s a ½ step below the perfect 5th in the minor scale. So in the case of the minor blues scale, the flatted 5th is a blue note.

Now consider a Major scale. If we play a major scale (for instance, over a C major chord) and lower the 7th scale degree, the lowered 7th is considered a blue note.

Playing Blue Notes over a Major Scale

Now let’s say we have a C Major chord in the changes, and play a C Major scale over the harmony.C Major Scale

Now let’s play that again, but this time substitute blue notes for the 3rd and 7th degree of the scale, and also add a “blue 5th” (but still keep the regular 5th scale degree).

C Major Scale with Blue Notes

Now we’ll remove the 2nd and 6th scale degree.

Blues Scale Over C Major Harmony

So what we have now is a C minor blues scale. But we’re playing it over a C Major chord.

Adding Blue Notes in a Major or Minor Key

The point I wish to make is that the minor blues scale can be played over a MAJOR chord. When you improvise, you can generally add blue notes in your solo lines, in both major and minor keys.

If you happen to be in a major key, you can add a blue 3rd, 5th, or 7th pretty much wherever you wish. If you’re in a minor key, the minor scale already has a minor 3rd, and (in the case of the Aeolian or “pure” minor scale) a minor 7th. But you can still add a lowered 5th in lieu of, or in addition to, the perfect 5th of the scale.

Using the Minor Blues Scale Alone

In the case of a 12 bar blues progression, you can sometimes play the entire tune using the blues scale only. This works very well if the chord progressions are very basic and simple. Not so much if you’re playing Charlie Parker style bebop blues changes.

But if you have a simple I – IV – I – V – I blues progression, you can play your entire solo improvisation using the minor blues scale based on the tonic note of the key you’re in.

Here’s an exercise to illustrate what I mean.

Let’s take a simple blues in C Major and play the c minor blues scale through the entire piece. Have someone play the chord changes on a keyboard or guitar, while you play the c minor blues scale over top of the harmonies.

12 Bar Blues Line 112 Bar Blues Line 212 Bar Blues Line 3

Not a very exciting jazz solo, but you get the point. You’ll hear how the minor blues scale just “fits” right into the harmonies.

Mixing the Minor Blues Scale, Major Scales, and Blue Notes

So when you’re improvising, either in a major or minor key, you can “spice up” your solo by adding blue notes, and/or by mixing in phrases using the appropriate minor blues scale.

So why haven’t I said more about the Major blues scale? Well, I’ve talked about using blue notes within a major key. So let’s look once more at the Major blues scale.C Major Blues Scale

So if you play a C Major scale and add a blue 3rd in addition to the major 3rd, you essentially have the C Major blues scale shown above (minus the 4th and 7th degrees of the C major scale). However, by deliberately leaving out the 4th and 7th degrees of the Major scale, you get a unique sound and “feel.”

So learning the Major blues scales can be worth your while. But I think you’ll find that you’ll use the minor blues scale much more often.

In Conclusion

So in conclusion, I definitely recommend you learn the minor blues scales in all 12 keys. And experiment with adding the occasional blue note, and snippets of the minor blues scales within your improvisation. Over time you’ll get a good feel for when and where to play blues scales.

And please leave your comments below. 🙂

Author: Jim Eastman

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