The Blues Alphabets

A few days ago I have a workshop at the awesome UK Guitar Show, and in it, I explored the various scales (alphabets) of the Blues and how it affects the language (words), and I got a lot of positive feedback on it and thought I’d share it with the wider readership! All of this lesson is in the Key Of A.

The Minor Pentatonic is the alphabet people from which most people learn their first Blues words. Many times they do a whole lot of scale playing and not enough word learning – so if there is where you are at – be sure to spend the majority of your time learning your words and practice playing them along with backing tracks or jamming with your friends. The key thing to be doing on the Minor Pentatonic is to explore the Curl (a ¼ tone bend) on the b3 (the note C) – getting that right is a real important part of the accent.

Many times the next scale people encounter is adding in the b5 degree (note Eb) which turns the Minor Pentatonic in The Blues Scale.

But don’t be afraid to step outside that Minor Pentatonic Pattern. If we add in the 6th and 9th scale degrees to the Minor Pentatonic we end up with a Dorian Mode, but don’t let the name scare you – just think of it as adding a couple of notes to the Minor Pentatonic. The 6 and 9 are really hip tones, and you should explore using licks you know already and just changing some of the notes that were in the 8th fret (in the key of A) down a semitone to the 7th fret and seeing how the sounds change! It’s a lot of fun.

The two notes ‘behind’ the Minor Pentatonic (in the 4th fret) can be awkward and so many times I recommend beginner and intermediate players mix the Blues and some notes from the Dorian Mode into the Blues Hybrid Scale. This is super easy under the fingers and can help a player stuck in the “Pentatonic Box” break out and explore more cool sounds!

All the above scales work over all the chords in a standard Blues progression, but there are other things to explore too. The Major Pentatonic Scale is a really cool sound to explore and has a country flavour to it – many people know that moving a Minor Pentatonic down three frets gives the Major Pentatonic Scale pattern – but DO NOT use the same pentatonic licks because it sounds awful! Even though the pattern of the notes looks the same, they have different functions and need a different treatment and different licks!

You are better of using Pattern 2 of the Major Pentatonic which is easier to see in relation to the Minor Pentatonic – it’s the 6 and 9 that we used in the Dorian mode and the note C# - found in the A7 chord but is a really bad sound over a D7 chord. So, the Major Pentatonic is Chord Specific, and you must use it only over the I chord in a Blues (The A7 Chords in an A Blues) and over the IV and V Chords (D7 and E7) you change back to using the Minor Pentatonic. It’s possible to follow the D7 and E7 by using the D and E Major Pentatonics, but that is very much more a country thing and less a Blues approach.

Once you get comfortable changing your note choice depending on the chord, you might like to go full ninja on it and start using the dominant 7 arpeggios for each chord. If you play them too strictly then it can sound very mechanical – so I recommend mixing in your Blues licks with them too – and if you learn them in relation to the notes in the Minor Pentatonic (as shown) it can really help you work them into the things you know already and not stay too separated.
That was a whole lot of scale talk, so don’t forget that the words (licks) are a really key thing to learn – not to mention dynamics, phrasing, time feel and putting some expression into your playing. Hope this look at the alphabet helps you explore the Blues language, and you find some cool new words! Happy Trails! J.

Food For Thought