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Scale Choices For Blues

The Blues Guitar Lessons

Options you have for improvising solos over a blues sequence.

I just did a twitter request to decide what to do for the subscriber only lesson this month and "samsh" suggested that I write about the scales that you can use over a 12 Bar Blues chord sequence.

So I'm going to do a little bit on that. I will base the options on the standard progression in the key of A:

12 Bar Blues Sequence
A7 (I) D7 (IV) A7 (I) A7 (I)
D7 (IV) D7 (IV) A7 (I) A7 (I)
E7 (V) D7 (IV) A7 (I) E7 (V)


Scale Options

There are quite a few different options when playing over a blues, many of which I discuss in detail as part of my Blues Lead Guitar course, so I'm not going to repeat too much of that here, but will mention the topics anyhow. There are two main ways of looking at a blues, The Key and The Changes, and both of these methods require very different thinking.

If you choose to think about The Key, you will play just one scale for the whole solo, and this is the best approach for a beginner player and should be mastered before moving onto any other approach.

If you choose to think about The Changes, then you will think about each chord individually, which will greatly expand your option and allow you to use substitutions, altered harmony and all sorts of cool tricks. But the further you move away from basic harmonies the more "jazzy" your``````````` blues will sound. That can be both good or bad, depending on what you want to hear!!

The Key

If you are playing a blues, the easiest way to approach improvising is to just think of the key and play your scale and just go for it! My Blues Lead Guitar Course covers how to use these in all 5 positions. You need to learn licks of course, but these scales are the foundation for all blues playing, but particularly The Minor Pentatonic. There are a few different options though:

Minor Pentatonic
This is the easiest and most common scale to play over a blues. Many traditional players will use nothing but notes from this scale and play awesome solos! Not to be dismissed for being too easy, it sounds great when you use it right!

Blues Scale
The Blues Scale adds just one note (the b5, the note Eb in the key of A) to the Minor Pentatonic and this one note works well over all the changes, though it must be used with caution, stopping on it on on either the IV or V chord will usually sound a bit rubbish.

The Dorian Mode
The Dorian Mode contains all the notes from the Minor Pentatonic and adds two notes, the 6th and the 9th (notes F# and B in the key of A). These added notes sound great over all the chords and so this is a very popular choice to add some funky sounds to your blues playing without having to worry about The Changes!

The Changes

After a while it is likely that you will tire of playing the one scale for a whole blues sequence and you might like to explore some other options, and this is what I will explain to you a bit here. I will put them in an order too - because some are a lot easier than others and you don't want to try starting with the hard ones!

"Making the changes" is about treating each chord individually, and it can get quite difficult because you will be changing the notes you have to choose from with every chord change!

The best place to start "making the changes" because they have less notes than scales do. You will play the arpeggio that relates to each chord. So when the band is playing A7, you will use notes from the A7 arpeggio. When the band moves to the D7 chord you will change what notes you are using to notes from the D7 arpeggio. Sound tough? Well it is! I really struggled with this idea when I first started, but it's not too bad once you get the hang of it, but you will have to learn your arpeggios very well. I talk about how you should learn to do this in the Jazz Up Your Blues series. You just have to take it slow. It's a LOT easier than working on the scale approach...

Mixolydian (Mixo) Mode
So once you have mastered "making the changes" with the arpeggios then you might like to start using the full scales. Remember the 7th arpeggios have 4 notes, and the scales have 7 notes. Those added 3 notes are the ones that are hardest to use right, and without having your ear switched on you will probably just make them sound well strange! Over the A7 chord, you would play the A Mixolydian Mode (Parent Major Scale of D Major). Over the D7 chord you would play D Mixolydian (Parent Major Scale of G Major) and over the E7 chord you would play the E Mixolydian Mode (Parent Major Scale of A Major).

It's not that easy until you realise that each of the major scales only changes a note or two at the most... check this out (it was a revelation to me!)

Chord Scale Notes in scale
A7 A Mixolydian A B C# D E F# G
D7 D Mixolydian D E F# G A B C
E7 E Mixolydian E F# G# A B C# D

What I have done is made all the common notes bold... see how many of them are common! A Mixo to D Mixo there is only one note change and D Mixo to E Mixo is only ne note change as well.

Why is this important? Well for two reasons.

One: if you are struggling to do this then you know all the "common tones" that you can play for the whole thing and not hit a bad note.

Two: if you want to "make the changes" then the "not bold" notes are obviously the most important because they are the ones that will signify the change!

This is not an easy topic to get your head around, but if you take my advice and start by learning to make changes with arpeggios first then it will be a whole lot easier. The other thing to work on is just to take two chords at a time, say A7 to D7, and record a backing track that just goes between these two chords (or check out the jam track on Really Useful Play Along Tracks) and then work on getting that one change right before moving on. It will take quite a lot of work, but it's fun and well worth the effort.

Major Pentatonic
The other common scale to use is the Major Pentatonic scale starting from the root of each chord. So for the the A7 play A Major Pentatonic, the D7 play D Major Pentatonic and the E7 play E Major Pentatonic. This can sound pretty funky too, and you will be making changes and it should sound hip. Modern Blues players use this type of trick and it sounds pretty cool. Easier than using the Mixo Modes and sounds a bit more traditional, but you still make the changes. Guys like Albert King and BB use these scales a lot to great effect.

Blending Scales

The most important thing to remember though is that all this is about making music, and the great players are not thinking much, they are feeling. Learning about new flavours is really good fun, but don't forget to really listen to them and try and work on them until they start to come out naturally and you don't have to think about them any more!

What you want to aim for long term is to be able to play a mixture of scales in The Key, and then move into playing The Changes for a bit and moving between them all effortlessly and fluently. Make music out of it all. Express yourself. Try not to get too hung up on what you should be playing and try and feel it.

I hope that has given you some food for thought ;)


Please check out my Blues products :) they're real good!

Justinguitar Beginners Songbook

Solo Blues Guitar

This DVD collection will teach you 9 Blues arrangements for Solo guitar where you will play a melody and a rhythm element together or alternately, so they work as complete pieces! They're all great fun and start very simple (beginner) and get right into pretty tricky alternating bass lines!

Check out Solo Blues Guitar in

Justinguitar Beginners Songbook

Really Useful Blues Solos

This download (mp3 and pdf) contains 5 tracks in the styles of Clapton, Hendrix, Albert King, SRV and Chuck Berry for you to learn. I've extracted their most common licks for you to transcribe yourself - however you get full transcriptions to check against too. Old School transcribing made easier.

Instant Download Really Useful Blues Solos here

Justinguitar Beginners Songbook

Blues Lead Guitar Solos

This is a paper book contains detailed transcriptions of 18 of my favourite Blues lead solos - with tips on how to play them and some harmonic analysis. If you getting into the blues you'll find this a LOT of fun, they're not 'in the style of', these are the real deal - see the songlist in the store!

Check out Solo Blues Guitar in

Justinguitar Beginners Songbook

Jam Blues 1

Check out my awesome backing track collection - loads of fun blues to jam along with, I play rhythm guitar my pal Dave Marks plays bass and produces - so come jam with us! also available on iTunes,

Instant Download Jam Blues 1 here

Justinguitar Beginners Songbook

Jam Blues 2

The first volume was so popular (and so much fun) we made another one! :) also available on iTunes!

Instant Download Jam Blues 2 here




Lesson ID: BL-102