“Man, that cat may know
what notes to play, but he has no idea why he’s playin’ ‘em.”
These words ring in my head to this day,
uttered by a bandleader from years past when I was just cutting my teeth on the
Seattle blues scene. The sax player in question plays well enough, but in the
scores of times I’ve seen him, he’s never once moved me. Never once did he
cut a solo that had me gnashing my teeth, saying Yeah, I feel that way, too.
A related story involves a guitarist some
time ago whom I played with in a rock band who had a degree in Jazz Studies. He
was musically brilliant, and a heck of a great guy, but he had no tolerance for
blues. None. “You’ve only got six notes,” he’d say, “I’d go
crazy.” He never understood how I could play blues all night and not get
bored. He once referred to blues as “the wheelchair ramp of jazz.”
never thought of the blues as constraining, and the reason for this is the same
reason why some blues players make me weep and some blues players make me yawn.
I want to talk about the placement of the blue notes. This applies to
traditional blues, jump blues, rock and roll, and even jazz, as the blue notes
and the blues scale are used extensively in all these styles.
all know the blue notes, right? In the key of C, the Blues Scale is C, Eb, F,
F#, G, Bb. The blue notes are the minor third (Eb in the key of C), the flat five (F# in the key of C),
and the dominant seventh (Bb in the
key of C.)
Wrong. Close, but wrong.
Stick with me on this.
“blue notes” are not the minor
third, the flat five, and the dominant seventh. The
blue notes are the spaces between the minor and major third, the flat five and the five, and
the dominant and major seventh.
that again. I’ll wait.
you’re like me, you’ve spent countless hours with a tuner practicing long
tones, practicing runs and holding one note at random and checking your
intonation. You know all the tricks, right? Intonation, intonation, intonation.
Your teacher, if he’s like my first teacher, drilled this into your
all you’ve learned about intonation when you’re playing blues. If you hit a
flat five or a minor third dead on the mark, you’ll get dissonance, but
that’s it. Dissonance is the sense of discord and unpleasantness that results
from hearing two musical tones that are not harmonious. C and E, for example,
are harmonious. C and C# are dissonant. There’s a place for dissonance in
blues, but blues is not merely dissonance. Blues
is sadness. (When I
refer to blues, I’m also referring to the elements of blues that comprise rock
and roll, jump blues, and even, to some degree, jazz; anywhere you’ll use a
this lesson, we’re going to concentrate on the blues third. That’s the note
Eb, in the key of C. (Assume the key of Bb concert for tenor, Eb concert for
alto and baritone.)
Western music, major intervals sound happy, while minor intervals sound sad. No
one knows why this is; we’ll leave it to the interstellar musicology commandos
to slug that out.
is an emotional state. As Bleeding Gums Murphy said, “Blues ain’t about
making yourself feel better; it’s about making other people feel worse.”
need to take people into your emotional realm, and that means first meeting them
in theirs. Most people in your audience will be having a good time. Or at least,
so you hope.
when you hit a blues third, hit the major third, E in this case, which is
“happy sounding,” against C, and then bend it down
toward the minor third, Eb, which sounds “sad.”
playing the third – we’ll stick with Bb Concert, so we’re talking about E
on tenor – but bend the E down toward Eb progressively with each note, so that
eventually, you’re still fingering E but you’re playing Eb. Make it
“sadder” – i.e., flatter – with every note. If you do this right, it
will evoke the sound of someone sobbing. (It takes some practice and some chops
to control this.)
something “happy” and making it “sad” is far sadder-sounding than
starting with sadness itself. Blues guitarists get paid to do exactly this.
Watch a blues guitarist playing the third – when he plays an E in the key of C
and wants to make it a blue note,
he’ll play an Eb but he’ll it bend it up
toward E. Not all the way to the E,
just somewhere in between.
with this; the degree to which you flat the third will establish the emotional
tone of the lick, or the line, or the entire solo if you can hit the third at
the same degree all throughout. You can make it happy, or slightly sad, or
downright dismal. Or take yourself – and the audience – through a roller
coaster of all three. You decide.
I hit my blues thirds in my solos or leads, I rarely play them as minor thirds.
I’ll play the major third with a semi-tone lip down toward
the minor third (in other words, I’ll play an E, but “flatted” toward the
Eb to some degree) or the
minor third (Eb) with a semitone lip up toward the E natural. Sometimes
I’ll move it around, depending on what I want to say and how I want to say it
– how “sad” or “happy” I want the line to sound. It may just be a
fraction of a tone that I’m varying; a few cents, the same as pulling your
mouthpiece out a millimeter or pushing it in the same amount.
degrees of the blue notes are the key to the blues.
“six note scale,” which my guitar-playing buddy shakes his head at, just
opened up to a thousand notes. Which is how I can play “those six notes” all
night long without going crazy.
~Joey St. John-Ryan