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Blues 103

Back for more of the blues,

Good deal – let’s get crackin’…

As I sit here typing this, part of me already wonders if the whole ‘class 103’ school style of title is right for articles about blues guitar playing. Are we giving this massively important subject its due respect?

Maybe we should be taking a more reverential approach – preaching the blues gospel. “Welcome to the church, sisters and brothers – please open your hymn books to page 48 – the Reverend Blues will begin the service in a few moments – can I get an AMEN!?!”

AMEN!

Excellent! Let’s get started then…

We’ve previously discussed the 12-bar blues in some detail, which covers the most important structure and chord pattern you’ll need for blues playing. But that’s just the harmony side of things – what about the melody? What about the tune? What about those blues solos and riffs?

Solos and Riffs? What’s the difference?

Length.

That’s it?

Basically yeah.

If you’re throwing out a collection of your best riffs/licks/chops (use whichever term you like) over a nice long section of music, then it’s a solo. This could last for hours.

If you’re just throwing in a couple of nice little musical tricks in here and there, perhaps just filling in those breaks in the lyrics to keep things interesting, then it’s a riff.

But first let’s find out what notes to build our solos and riffs out of. And for that we need to understand the Blues Scale…

Introducing the Blues Scale

Wikipedia tells us that “a scale is any set of musical notes ordered by fundamental frequency or pitch. A scale ordered by increasing pitch is an ascending scale, and a scale ordered by decreasing pitch is a descending scale”.

Very academic – sounds like the sort of thing my old music teacher would bore me with. But unnecessarily complicated – let’s just call the blues scale “a collection of notes that, regardless of what order you play them in, will probably sound like the blues”. We’ll be asked to edit the next edition of the Webster’s Dictionary before long, just you wait and see…

The Blues Scale is built upon (and nearly identical to) the wonderfully simple Minor Pentatonic scale, shown here in E and G;

The guitar scale diagrams on the left show the ‘root’ notes (i.e. the key of the scale we’re playing) with an R, whilst the TAB on the right shows them in red.

If you have a play up and down this scale, it already sounds pretty bluesy – hard to believe you can achieve that with just 5 different notes. And we can enhance that with just one more note, adding in a sharpened 4th / flattened 5th that acts as a ‘blue note’;

Bingo – we now have a true Blues Scale. Again, have a play up and down to hear what we mean – that blue
note really makes a difference to the feel of the melody.

And don’t think that we’re restricting you to just playing the blues in 2 different keys here. Notice how the E scales feature lots of open strings, but the G scales don’t have any? This means that the diagrams for the G scales are completely moveable up and down the neck – simply change that root note on the low E string. This table shows you which fret to base the scale on for all different keys;

Putting it into practice

Learning the blues scale is one thing – turning it into a riff or solo is going to take some good old-fashioned practice. We certainly can’t cover it in just one article (it’d be hard enough in just one book), but these tips should steer you in the right direction;

  • Learn and practice the scale; The obvious starting point – get familiar with running your fingers both up AND down all the notes, both with the E and G versions. Then try the G version in some different places on the neck. The more you do this, the quicker your fingers will start remembering the positions for themselves – muscle memory in action.
  • Practice the scale some more, but differently; Once you instinctively know your way up and down through those notes, try starting and finishing at different points. Maybe pick a starting point – run up 4 notes, down 3, up another 4, down another 3, and so on…. this is you already starting to solo. Practicing along these lines can lead to some very inventive ideas!
  • Play along to recordings; This is what just about every rookie blues guitarist has done since recorded music became cheaply available – certainly over 100 years before the internet was invented. Use your ears to work out which root note to base your blues scale around and get jamming with your heroes.
  • Play along with internet resources; Have a look on YouTube, iTunes, Amazon Music, Spotify etc. – they’re absolutely littered with blues backing tracks in just about every key imaginable. Some websites can even run a user-programmed blues backing track that’ll repeat as long as you need it to.
  • Play along with other musicians; Probably the best method out there, and especially if you’re working with other learner guitarists. Jamming around over some 12-bar blues patterns (see our ‘Blues 102’ article) is a superb way to explore what you can do with the blues scale, and you’ll be getting useful experience working as part of a group.
  • Play along with yourself; Got a loop station? Play a 12-bar blues into that sucker, loop it and off you go! Many buskers make a living off this technique…

Having said all that, it’d be mean to not give you a few ideas. All of the following examples are in G (based on a 3rd fret root) so you can move them up or down to whatever key you want…

A short solo? Or a long riff?

We’ll let you decide. Either way, here’s three of them.

First a basic 4-bar play around the minor pentatonic scale, keeping the rhythm nice and simple. Give it a gentle swing if you can – most blues have that rhythmic feel.

Now we’ll throw that blue note into the mix for another 4-bar idea. Notice how it’s only being used as a ‘passing note’ moving up to the 5th or down to the 4th degree of the scale – this is fairly typical of blues solo playing. We’ll also add some triplets which should add to the swing feel.

How about a few tricks now? String bends and quickly-executed hammer-ons/slides are common blues stunts, and this final idea has them all!

Wrapping it up

And that concludes today’s lesson. Yes, it only just scratches the surface of this incredible topic, but (as mentioned earlier) there’s simply no way you can completely cover solo blues playing in one article – it really does come down to simply playing around and experimenting with the scale.

But a word of warning; you’ll find it very addictive. I had a guitar on my lap while writing most of this piece, jamming around with the musical examples, and managed to lose over an hour somehow…

So, with that, we’re done with our series on the blues.  A lot of info for sure, but it’s indispensable to learn for any self-respecting guitar-god-in-the-making.

Keep your eyes peeled for our next email, so until then…

Peace Out!

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  • Bob

    Where are the pictures?

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