Ah, the blues scale.. I love it!
Do you listen to blues?
In my time as a guitarist I have always been a huge fan of the great blues heroes like B.B. King and Eric Clapton.
They have been able to play solos that aren’t necessarily difficult but they sound like a million dollars coming out of an amp.
It isn’t magic. You can learn it too!
These solos are often based on the blues scale.
This post will show you 6 tips on how to play blues solos and teach you the minor pentatonic scales as well as the blues scale!
- Become familiar with the 12-bar blues
- Learn the Pentatonic Minor Scale
- How to practice scales
- Learn the Minor Blues Scale
- Transpose the examples
- Use all your fingers
Since I started playing the guitar at the age of 10, I have tried my best to copy their licks and sound. This has led me to study the basics of the blues on a very deep level. Somehow I just can continue finding new stuff to learn. That’s the beauty of music – you’ll never stop learning.
I personally like the blues because of its ability to transform into so many different genres.
Just have a look at someone so popular as John Mayer. He is well-known singer and songwriter with tons of hits behind him AND he’s also a very talented blues guitarist. He has a way of mixing his pop songs with the blues that is just amazing. I love how teenage girls suddenly find the blues attractive again because of him!
So, what makes something “bluesy”?
Well, as you might have figured out certain scales and notes in a particular scale will create the blues-sound. But how do you produce this sound and use it in practice?
I will do my best to cover the basics of what you need to know in order to learn the blues.
With my 5 tips to improve your blues solo in the baggage you should be able to keep up with most musicians in a basic blues jam!
1: Become familiar with the 12-bar blues
One of the first things you need to work on is to become familiar with the 12-bar blues.
This is the most common blues progression and every blues guitarist knows how it goes.
When you get used to the sound of it you will notice how it’s the foundation of many of the songs you know.
The 12-bar blues consists of, well, 12 bars. It is based on three different chords:
- The I, IV & V chords of a key.
Also know as:
- The tonic, the subdominant & the dominant.
It get’s a bit theoretic now, but you’ll find this useful when you first understand it – so hang in there! Don’t worry if you don’t understand it right away. You can learn the blues anyway!
The tonic is the tonal center of the scale. It is the first scale degree of a diatonic scale.
The scales are named after the tonic. This means that if the tonic is A the scale e.g., A minor or major.
The subdominant is the fourth degree of a diatonic scale. It is the note right below the dominant – that’s how it got it’s name.
As you might have guessed, the dominant is the fifth degree of a diatonic scale and is right above the subdominant. This note creates tension, which requires a tonic for resolution. In other words, a melody or chord progression won’t sound finished before the tonic follows the dominant.
If you know your roman numerals you should have guessed that the I, IV and V stands for 1, 4 and 5.
Okay, so how can you use this information?
With this knowledge you can now find the different chords that we want to use when playing a 12-bar blues.
Let’s say we wanna play it in the key of A major.
The progression will then look like this:
- I: A
- IV: D
- V: E
A quick way to find these chords in any key is to remember the pattern when playing it with bar chords.
- Find the tonic with the root on the 6th
- Move down you chord so the root is on the A string to find the subdominant.
- Move the figure two frets up on the A string to find the dominant.
Try to do this in different keys. For example, if you wanna play a blues in G it will look like this:
- I: G
- IV: C
- V: D
Okay, so now you found the blues chords – how do you use them?
The 12-bar blues looks like this if we play it in the key of A:
|Bar 1||Bar 2||Bar 3||Bar 4|
|I (A)||I (A)||I (A)||I (A)|
|Bar 5||Bar 6||Bar 7||Bar 8|
|IV (D)||IV (D)||I (A)||I (A)|
|Bar 9||Bar 10||Bar 11||Bar 12|
|V (E)||IV (D)||I (A)||V (E)|
This information is useful to you when playing the rhythm guitar in a blues but also when you’re playing solos.
A lot of people don’t think about the progressions when playing solos. They just stay within a certain scale and mind their own business.
If you wanna be a great guitarist you should know what notes to play over a specific chord. This obviously makes it more difficult, but it also adds dynamic to the sound of your solo. I will cover this in another post, but be sure to remember how the chord progression looks.
Okay, first you should learn to master some simple scales!
2: Learn the Pentatonic Minor Scale
This is the most common used scale in blues. It’s build upon a regular minor scale, but some steps have been taken out and that makes the bluesy sound – it’s also the fundament for the blues scale!
This scale is probably one of the greatest “aha!” experiences I’ve had in my time of learning how to play solos. You can use it in many different ways. Rock, pop and blues!
It consists of 5 different notes – a full minor scale is based upon 7 different notes.
The scale tones are: 1,3,4,5 and 7.
The scale can be played on the guitar in five different patterns.
Even though you can play decent solos by only learning the first position of the minor pentatonic scale, I suggest that you take the time to practice all five positions.
This will open your soloing and give a lot of opportunities to improve your sound!
The first position in A minor looks like this:
The patterns I’ll show you uses the two-notes-per-string rule. This enables you to play the whole scale without moving your hand up and down the fretboard.
Learn the scale so you’re capable of playing it in your sleep and then move on to the next position!
The second position:
When you practice scales it is important to do it at a slow pace. There’s no need to rush it.
Start out by playing a steady stream of eighth notes. Set your metronome to 100 BPM and make sure that you keep good time. When you got that down boost the BPM with 10 and play it again. Keep going until you feel like you know the scale well enough to move on.
Start at the root and then play both up and down. When you feel confident with the eighth note you should move on to a sixteenth note pattern.
Also try out different starting positions: Run the scale from the lowest note to the highest and then back. Then run the scale from the highest note to the lowest and then back.
You can also try to combine it with hammer-on and pull-offs. Just try out different things to become completely familiar with the scales.
When you got them down you should play along to some backing tracks and use the scales for soloing.
This part is tricky, but just try to combine notes from the scales in different ways.
Here’s an example of how you could do it:
Also, try using the scales in other contexts than the blues. Maybe you can find a rock song that you can improvise over – use your imagination!
4: Learn the Minor Blues Scale
You don’t need to learn a completely new scale to know the minor blues scale. It is almost the same as the pentatonic minor scale except one note that has been added. It is the flatted fifth (bV).
In other words, this means that if you play an A minor pentatonic scale you can add the Eb note to make it a minor blues scale. The flatted fifth is also called the “blue note”.
Try to play it when playing blues solos – it really gives the solo a bluesy sound.
With the blue note added to the first position, the neck diagram will look like this:
Fool around with the scale and try to come up with a few licks like you did with the minor pentatonic scale.
Here’s an example of a simple lick I made for you using the blues scale:
5: Transpose the examples
Now you should have an idea of what to do when playing the blues scale and solos – especially in A minor since this is the key I’ve used in my examples.
However, a great guitarist knows how to play these scales in every single key you can imagine.
This takes a lot of practice and many hours of your time, but it’s worth it!
Just think about how cool it would be if you were able to take the stage at any jam-session and just play great solos!
Even though it takes time to learn all the different keys it is on the other hand quite simple to do on the guitar. You just have to move the scales up and down the fretboard.
Let’s say you want to play in the first position of a minor pentatonic scale in G minor. All you have to do is move the scale you’ve learned from A minor (with a starting point on the 5th fret) to G minor (with a starting point on the 3rd fret.
A way of learning to play in every key is to play the first position in every different key along with a backing track. Then move on and add the four remaining positions.
After a while you are able to play wherever you want on your fretboard.
Here’s a quick test to see if you have figured it out:
- Play the E minor pentatonic scale within the 7th and 10th
- What position are you playing in?
You should be playing the forth position of an E minor pentatonic scale and it should look like this:
I’ve got one last tip for you. Remember to use all four fingers when playing scales.
I also told you this in my beginner’s guide for guitarists
A lot of my students tend to skip the little finger and instead move their hand up the fret in order to reach the note. This destroys the intention with the two-notes-per-string system, which is made to move your hand as little as possible.
I’ll say it again: use all four fingers!
Place your index finger on the lowest fret you will use in the scale and the assign a finger to each fret afterwards.
For example, in the first position of the A minor pentatonic scale you should use your fingers like this:
- 1st finger for every note on the 5th
- 2nd finger for every note on the 6th fret (No notes here in the first position).
- 3rd finger for every note on the 7th
- 4th finger for every note on the 8th
Even though it may seem easier to just move your hand you should try not to give in and do it. You will be able to learn a lot of things way faster if you know how to use all four fingers.
So don’t give up on your pinky!
This guide is made to show you the basics of the blues solo. However, as I mentioned earlier you can always learn new things. I’ve played the blues since I was 12 and I still have a lot to learn.
What’s really important is that you practice every single scale in every single key.
When you feel confident in the different keys you are much more likely to develop your own sound – like the great blues guitarists! I can assure you that Eric Clapton knows his scales! And because he knows them so well he can get the best out of them and make it simple and yet so effective. That is art! And that is blues!
Good luck with your practice.
Leave me a comment to let me know if you have any struggles with the blues scales.