Do You Want To Know Why Your Blues Solos Do Not Resemble Those Of Your Blues Heroes?

May 05, 2015

Think back to the moment you started using the minor pentatonic scale. You uncovered the secrets of improvisation for the first time and before even realizing it you were off inventing your own blues phrases.

Although this way of improvisation gives you a lot of joy, it is essential not to stay in the stage of only applying the minor pentatonic. Playing over a 12 bar blues offers a range of possibilities to approach your solos with. In this article, we are going to lay out some of these possibilities so you will have a range of them to approach your blues lead playing. 

The Fundamental Ideas

Practically every guitarist that starts out is taught to apply the minor pentatonic scale for improvising solos in the blues. However, that's only one way to look at soloing. If you repeat that single idea over and over again, your solos will end up sounding very similar every time you play. Fact is that there are many more ways to look at soloing other than the minor pentatonic.

The Reason Why There Are Better Choices

A lot of mid-level guitarists do not get past using the minor pentatonic exclusively when they improvise over a blues progression. However, has anyone ever told you that there are better options than the minor pentatonic scale? In reality, several notes of the minor pentatonic cause dissonance when you play them against the dominant 7th chord. That's why the great blues players are not dependent on the minor pentatonic scale while playing blues lead.

Now, we're going to scrutinize what I have just explained in the previous paragraph. Music theory states that it is essential to compare the notes of the scale with the notes of the chord being played in the background. Let's illustrate: the A minor pentatonic consists of the A, C, D, E and G note while the A7 chord consists of the A, C#, E and G note. You must have noticed that there is no C in the A7. Now, it is the C# of the chord and the C in the minor pentatonic scale that cause dissonance.

Take a listen to the dissonance by playing the C and C# note at the same time on your guitar. There are more notes and scales to play in the blues, don't restrict yourself to the first scale you were taught.

What the Pro Blues Players Do With the Minor Pentatonic

You should not start thinking that the pros do not use the minor pentatonic at all in their solos; they just employ it in a different way. Several guitarists are even in favor of the dissonance created by the scale's C and the C# of the chord. Nevertheless, the majority of guitarists pick another route by:

Avoiding the minor pentatonic entirely. This is why a great deal of blues players in the initial stages of improvisation find their phrases not resembling the phrases of their idols. This is due to the fact that they do not realize their idols use other scales.

Changing some of the minor pentatonic scale's notes.

Make the C note (in case of the A minor pentatonic) a "passing note" by applying guitar phrasing methods to change the C note (for example, one could bend the C note a half step up to the C# note). 

Make sure you grasp that there is nothing wrong with using the minor pentatonic over a blues progression. The fact is that applying this scale is not the only way to approach blues lead playing. It would be beneficial if you had the ability to incorporate more melodious scales.

Don't restrict yourself to constantly using one single scale, because there are a number of scales to be used. Next level blues players combine a large number of diverse scales. That's why their solos seem to be so skillful and individual.

Now, what can be done to increase your inventiveness with diverse scales and take your blues lead playing to the next level?

Switching Back and Forth From Minor to Major Pentatonic

Switching between the minor and major pentatonic scale is one way to bring some change into your blues solos. If you were playing over a blues progression in A, you could use both the major and minor pentatonic scales. Always keep in mind though that you can only integrate the major pentatonic scale in case you are soloing over a major blues chord sequence, i.e. a chord sequence consisting of major dominant seventh chords (in the key of A those chords would be A7, D7 & E7). In case you are playing along with a minor blues chord sequence (in the key of A those chords would consist of the Am7, Dm7 & Em7), we can only play the minor pentatonic scale since we are in a minor key. 

The tablature underneath illustrate the A minor & the A major pentatonic scale. In case you solo over a blues chord sequence in the key of A, you could switch between these two scales. 

1st Position of Major Pentatonic Scale in the Key of A


1st Position of the Minor Pentatonic Scale in the Key of A

Attempt the following: put on a blues jamtrack in the key of A and try altering between both minor and major pentatonic. There is some nice stuff coming from it, no? However you might experience some trouble to let the transition between the scales really flow. In fact the transition comes across as to direct at times. Now I'm going to discuss some of the things you can do to let the switching flow.

Switching Between Minor & Major Pentatonic Smoothly

We're going to travel from minor to major pentatonic as you can see in the tab underneath. Pay attention to the 6th fret 3rd string in the second part of the lick, which is the C#. This note is a note that comes from the major pentatonic and it gives our lick a more major feel to it. All notes in the first measure are derived from the major pentatonic scale, while most notes in the other measures come from the minor pentatonic scale. But even when using the minor pentatonic scale, we can include a major feel by only including one note of the major pentatonic scale, as you see in the last measure of the lick. Applying notes from the major pentatonic scale to the minor pentatonic will make your solos sound more like the blues greats.

Take a listen to this blues lick:

Be inventive with switching from minor to major and the other way around. Begin with a lick in the major pentatonic scale and fluently travel your way to the minor pentatonic, but don't forget to do it vice versa, from minor pentatonic to major pentatonic.

Attempt to integrate these methods in your own solos. These methods will completely change the way your solos sound and you will be more inventive with your soloing ideas. You can take your blues solos to the next level by employing blues licks like the one I've just taught you.

Nevertheless, this is only the tip of the iceberg. There is a range of options to make your blues playing sound more diverse:

  • You can apply more sophisticated scales to give your blues playing a jazzy touch. For example, you could play around with the dominant pentatonic scale and the mixolydian scale. It comes across as more complicated than it really is.
  • You can start using the famous blues bends to fluently change minor pentatonic into major pentatonic.
  • Use both the minor & major pentatonic scale, but use a single scale on one particular chord. E.g. in the key of A, when D7 is played in the background you solo with the minor pentatonic and when the A7 and E7 are played, you play the major pentatonic scale. In terms of melody, this is a great option to make your blues solos sound great!

About the Author:
Antony Reynaert is a blues guitarist and teacher. His blues guitar teachings are done both locally in Belgium as well as online. On his blues guitar website you will find free resources such as a free Ebook in which you find all the methods described in this article laid out in-depth and explained lick by lick with tablature examples of the licks. Visit his Blues guitar lessons website.

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