Making The Blues Changes

There comes a time in most guitarists journey that they decide to take the plunge and 'play the changes' – that is to improvise over individual chords rather than a key. For this discussion today we're going to stay in the Key of A, and assume we're talking about improvising over the standard 12 Bar Blues chord changes (A A A A D D A A E D A E).

Most players start with improvising using the A Minor Pentatonic and most times people just mess around with the scale notes up and down, perhaps adding some random bends of vibrato but not really getting too far. 

Once they get to grips with the concept that a scale is just an alphabet, and people need words to communicate, things usually take a bit of a leap! It's a milestone and will enable real communication and a deeper appreciation of the language. I strongly recommend learning blues solos by ear (transcribing), so all the subtle but super important elements are also absorbed; dynamics, phrasing, bend inflexions, bend speeds and time feels are all things that will further expression. Learning licks (words) and using them to make up your own solos (stories) is very satisfying and as far as some people want to take it.

But there is another big step that some people seem to miss out on… it requires a little more thought, and a little theory (nothing too scary) and the benefits are great. 

Being aware of the notes you are playing is the important first step. If you have learned any Chuck Berry licks you are sure to have noticed that he uses the note C# (string 3, fret 6) a lot, but if you transcribe and write out solos, you'll find that he only uses it over the A and never the D chord.

Let's look at why that might be. The A Minor Pentatonic Scale Notes are A C D E G. The notes in an A7 Chord (in a blues you can almost always use A7, A9 or A13 rather than plain old A!) are A C# E G. Note that all the notes in the chord are already in the Minor Pentatonic except the C#. So playing C# over the A chord of the blues says to the listener that you know you're playing over the A. Play an A7 chord and note where that note falls under your fingers, use it for visualisation.

But why not over the D? Well, the notes in a D7 chord are D F# A C, so the C# that sounded great over the A will clash (in a bad way) with the C note in the D7 chord! It also introduces another non-pentatonic note (F#), and it sounds awesome if you can nail that note only on the D7 chord! Play a D7 Chord and see where this new note is.

Worth noting that both the C# and the F# work on the E7, and while it's possible to (and a lot of people do) 'make the changes' on the E chord, most times it's (surprisingly) ignored or just hinted at in Blues.

When I first discovered this little trick, I started revising all the solos I'd learned and realised that almost all the great Blues players use chord tones to highlight the chords they play over. The modern Blues players like Larry Carlton and Robben Ford use this stuff all the time, but so do the likes of BB King, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan. Even some of the early Blues artists that I suspect were not aware of theory often nail the changes – because it sounds right! Early players like T-Bone Walker who had some jazz influence play off the changes all the time and their musical influence travelled far and wide to people without an interest in the 'how it works' stuff.

Conceptually, 'playing the changes' is really a jazz thing due to the amount of harmonic movement, and I certainly found learning to make changes in Jazz helped me negotiate Blues songs which are comparatively simple harmonically, and it's something I would recommend if you're that way inclined.

But a fair question to ask is that if there are greats who do this stuff without learning the theory or understanding it, why is it important? And the answer is time! Understanding these basic theory concepts accelerate how quickly you can absorb the musical ideas. 

The scale pattern below shows the C# and F# shown in the place they are most commonly played in Pattern 1 of the Minor Pentatonic, the same notes are found in other places and other patterns of course, but these two are obvious, very commonly used and a great starting point.


Now you know about this C# on the A Chord and F# on the D Chord thing – have a look at some solos and see if it applies (you might need to change the key – so look at where these notes are in relation to the root note so you can easily recognise them).

Some classics that you are bound to find interesting would be Clapton's first solo in Crossroads, Chuck Berry's Johnny B Goode (intro and solos!) and Peter Green's Need Your Love So Bad (which ain't a 12 Bar but he makes the changes so sweet!). 

We're going to dig into some basic Harmonic Analysis next month, but best to get started with the playing, listening and understanding the founding elements before we get too technical. Happy trails!

Food For Thought