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What scales do you use for blues jams

1660 Views 10 Replies 8 Participants Last post by  Drew
I was at a blues jam last night at Sam Ash and I was playing with another guitarist and bassist. We were mostly playing blues progressions (1 4 5-7th) and I didn't know what scales to use to solo.

I know the pentatonic scale which has a minor 3rd so I decided to try a minor scale. Nope, that didn't sound right. I tried a major scale instead. That didn't sound good, either. I gave up and went back to playing the pentatonic scale which I don't reaaly dig and I'm not good at doing it.

I hear blues guys jamming all awesomely with what I assume is a pentatonic scale but what do you guys use?
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Over a major blues? Mixolydian, blues, melodic minor modes, diminished. You can use whole tone, but I don't. You can play basically anything over dominant 7 chords and make it sound pretty good with the right phrasing, especially if you like outside playing.
As said above you can play a ton of stuff but here is the most common stuff I found people doing.

Also you said minor pentatonic sounding wrong? Did you notice if maybe it was just a note or two or did it all sound wrong? If just some notes sound way off maybe you were just playing the wrong patterns? If everything sounded wrong either you were in the wrong key or they rhythm section wasn't doing well :lol:

Here's my tips over Blues:

-The Blues scales is the most common. So if the Key is A, you'll play the A Blues Scale over everything. The pattern I like for it is 3 notes per string since it's more ergonomic than just cramming the #4 into the normal minor pentatonic shape.

-You can just play the minor pentatonic if you want to simply it and not bother with the #4. Rick Graham's video is also great on getting the most out of the minor pentatonic: The video

-You can play the matching Mixolydian scale over each chord since every chord in a blues progression is a dominant 7. So for example in the key of A: A Mixolydian over A7, D Mixolydian over D7, and E Mixolydian over E7.

-For more outside stuff that is common is using the half-whole tone scale. It gets more complicated but its common with guys like Robben Ford. Here is a video on it, while the tone sucks ass everything he states is on point. The video

Edit: Not sure why the videos aren't showing up.
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Wirelessly posted

I play whatever I want, then I resolve it haha
Blues harmony is very much up in the air...

As a starting point, I'm usually working loosely around either the major or the minor pentatonic - which depends on the "feel" of the piece and the mood I'm going for. That said, this is VERY much just a starting point. One, you're going to be throwing in a lot of outside notes, and two, there's no reason you have to stick to one (more later).

Next, remember the two basics of blues harmony. First, it's largely about so called "blue notes" that fall between pitches - in particular, the minor and major third, but also to a lesser extent the minor and major 6th and blurring the line on either side of the flat 5th with the perfect 5th and perfect 4th. Second, it's largely based on 7th chords - even if you're soloing in a "minor" feel, the odds are good that the implied harmony of a one-four-five progression is really I7-IV7-V7.

So, start off your solo... But remember that if you need chord tones to resolve to, if you're playing in E, when you're on the I chord dropping in a major 3rd in a minor run and a minor 7th in a major run is totally fair game. For bonus points, try bending the minor 3rd anywhere from slightly sharp to all the way up to major. When you hit the IV chord, again, think in terms of a dominant harmony - if you're playing in E with a minor feel, the C# (the major 3rd of A) is now a great "color" note.

Another thing to keep in mind is that there's no reason you can't move between "major" sounding passages and "minor" sounding passages in the same solo to add tension. One of my favorite examples is Jimi's excellent instrumental cover of "Born under a Bad Sign." Listen to it - for one, I think damned near everything you need to learn about modern electric blues can be deduced from this solo, but in particular he really gets a lot of mileage out pushing the tonality. In particular, the second chorus, starting at 0:48, is fascinating - he's pretty rooted in the minor key for much of the chorus, with a brief nod to major around 1:06 or so, but then he hits the turnaround at 1:11 or so and goes into very major territory, which contextually sounds VERY tense against the V7 after establishing such a solid minor feel (worth considering - this is in B, I think, and the M3 in B is D#, which against the F#7 is a major 6th), before closing the turnaround back in minor. It's absolutely brilliant.

Anyway, some thoughts... Basically, this doesn't sound helpful perhaps, but it's really not so much about scales. Think about chord tones, think about tension and release, and let the scales follow from that, but only look at the scales as a rough outline, and don't feel the need to stick to just one.The nice thing about blues is it's often pretty sparse so it gives you plenty of time to think about how you can add and bring back in slightly tense notes.
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Blues players mix the major and the minor pentatonic. You should listen to some BB King to get a sense of the sound. The blues emphasizes the1-3-5-7 (as in dominant 7) of each chord. You can learn the theory to it or memorize the sound by ear. Other notes you can add, include flat 5 and chromatic passing tones. It is advised to start your phrases on a chord tone.

Now when you play, you have to change the tonal center as the chords change. This means you should be emphasizing the notes 1-3-5-7 of the I chord and change the focus on the IV and V chords, respectively.

While you can technically play the pentatonic minor over all the changes, it is not as musical. I suggest getting some free backing tracks and playing over them. Stress chord tones and not blindly playing a scale will make your improve a lot better. And do a lot of listening and learn some other people's solos to develop your vocabulary.
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If you are fairly new to improvising, a good place to start would be to hit the changes. Play lines that end on a note that is within the chord you are playing over.

Before you do that, practice playing the A7, D7, E7 arpeggios (assuming you are in A blues) in the same place on the neck. Eventually you will see these arpeggios without relying on the root note as a starting point. You should apply that way of learning to any chord progression.

You will be able to branch out to other parts of the neck, but don't do that until you have one area on the neck that you are super comfortable. You will then always have a safe place to play convincing lines without a lot of guess work and over thinking, which can lead to robotic playing and bad phrasing.
Jeff McErlain has a pretty good series of youtube videos about this very thing:

He's also got a couple courses on Truefire called "Blues Guitar Survival Guide", both Rhythm and Lead versions, that are pretty good.
What blues scale has 3 notes on each string? I only know the one with 2 notes:


Is that minor or major? Minor, right? Cuz it has a flatted 3rd? I didn't know there was a major pentatonic.

The chords are usually all 7ths in blues, right?

The chord progression we were doing was like:


For A, D, and E. So pretty simple but nothing really fit over it or sounded right.

I'm also not really a fan of blues but I'm trying to get more experience.

Normally what I do if it is in the key of A is just play an A pentatonic scale. I know you can move the scale to match the underlying chord but that always sounds weird to me. What is outside playing?

I also figured that since it was A Minor (based on the flat notes in the scale I was using) that F Lydian would work because F lydian = A Minor. Nope. I guess that doesn't work for blues music.
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In a MINOR blues context, I like using the Dorian Mode a 4th above the root.
Ironfistx, that's a minor pentatonic, because of the minor 3rd. That said, just like the diatonic scale, each minor scale also has a relative major - if you play an E minor pentatonic from G to G and play it over a G harmony, it's a major pentatonic scale.

Also, that's a pentatonic scale, not the "blues" scale - the blues scale adds a flatted 5th to the pentatonic scale, so to edit your pattern, you'd be looking at this:


The addition of a b5 is cool in a couple ways - off the top of my head, it's a nice passing tone, it turns a 5-note scale into a 6 note scale which lends itself very nicely to 3-against-2 phrasing which is ideal since blues is usually written out in 12/8 time. I wouldn't necessarily play it slavishly, though - you're almost better off as looking at this is just one of many potential "outside" tones to add into the pentatonic scale while playing, rather than a scale in its own right.
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