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Rock'n Roll Saxophone

PENTATONIC AND BLUES SCALES

Rock & Roll Sheet Music



John Lull

By John Lull

Long a part of the Oakland California Bay Area rhythm & blues scene, John Lull has played in numerous blues and R&B bands, including Drivin’ Wheel, Good Life Band, Third Street Blues Band, and Souled Out, with appearances at local clubs, including Eli’s Mile High Club, JJ’s Blues Club, Old Princeton Landing, Biscuits and Blues, Lou’s, Half Moon Bay Brewing Co, the Boom Boom Room, and the Blue Lamp. He now plays with the South City Blues Band* and is a guest artist in several other local bands. John currently lives on the coast south of San Francisco, California.

Pentatonic and blues scales are used extensively in blues, R&B, rock & roll, funk, and some, but not all, jazz. 

Many musicians will say these scales are overused and that’s true that if you rely exclusively on them; your improvisations will get somewhat repetitive and boring.  The trick is to use the scales creatively by playing fragments of the scale and rearranging the notes to get different effects.  Don’t just run up and down the scale; try to play something that sounds musical.  The best way to use pentatonic and blues scales is to use them sparingly, interchanging them with chord tones and chord scales derived from the chord changes.

Important Note: All numerical terminology used below is derived from the major scale, using a number for each scale degree.  For example, a C major scale can be spelled as follows: C=1, D=2, E=3, F=4, G=5, A=6, B=7.  So in the key of C, the “1” is C, the “6” is A, etc.

An altered major scale degree (flattened or augmented) is indicated by a flat or sharp sign.  In the key of C, the b3 is Eb, #4 is F#, b7 is Bb, etc. 

Keep in mind that the numerical designations are specific to a key.  In the key of G, for example, all the numbers will be based on the G major scale.  The 1 is G, the 3 is B, and the 7 will be F#.  Note that in this case, the b7 will be F natural.

Pentatonic Scales

Pentatonic scales are 5 note scales; there are many possibilities.  The two most common pentatonic scales are:

Major pentatonic scale: 1 2 3 5 6.  Example (in C): C D E G A.

Minor pentatonic scale: 1 b3 4 5 b7. Example: C Eb F G Bb

Other pentatonic scales can be derived from the above two. Here’s a derivative minor pentatonic scale: 1 2 b3 5 6. Example: C D Eb G A.  I call this scale minor because of the b3rd, but you could view it as the major pentatonic with the 3rd flatted. Play this scale in descending fashion down from the 6th to get an idea of how good it can sound.

As with all scales, you need to do more than just run the pentatonic scale up and down.  Do some experimenting to find out which rhythmic patterns and note choices work best.  Listen to how blues and jazz artists use pentatonic patterns.

The Blues scale

The blues scale is simply a minor pentatonic scale with the b5 (#4) added:

Blues scale: 1 b3 4 b5 5 b7. Example (blues scale in C): C Eb F Gb G Bb.

This scale is very useful. It can be used throughout a blues progression and will fit over all the basic chords in a blues progression.  The b3, b5, and b7 all contribute to a “bluesy” sound.

Another blues scale can be derived by adding the b3 to the major pentatonic scale:

“Major” blues scale: 1 2 b3 3 5 6 (i.e. C D Eb E G A). This scale has a brighter, sweeter sound with the major 2nd, 3rd and 6th in the mix.  However, unlike the blues scale built on the minor pentatonic, you have to be careful in how you use it over the chords.  The major 3rd will clash if played over the IV chord (unless used as a passing tone).  You can leave that tone out when playing over the IV chord, in which case you’ll be using the derivative pentatonic listed in the previous section (1 2 b3 5 6).

Using Pentatonic and Blues Scales

Because these scales tend to fit over several different chords, they are very useful when improvising.  You do have to be careful not to overuse them or you risk sounding bland and uninteresting.  As a general rule it is best to use pentatonic and blues scales in conjunction with other scales or chord tones that fit the chord changes.  If you do use a blues or pentatonic scale exclusively over one or more choruses, keep the following in mind:

1)      Work the notes of the scale into licks or short musical phrases rather than running the entire scale up or down.

2)      Use various rhythms and syncopation (accent upbeats) to add interest.

3)      Use phrasing to give your solo structure.  To get an idea of how to do this in a blues tune, listen to how blues singers phrase.  With a 12-bar blues, there are usually three 4-bar phrases.  The first two phrases are identical or very similar, and the third phrase answers the first two.  This is a form of call-and-response.  Consider the following, from “Black Mountain Blues,” by J.B Lenoir:

I’m bound for Black Mountain, me my razor and my gun…

I’m bound for Black Mountain, me my razor and my gun…

I’m going to shoot him if he stands still and cut him if he runs.

Here’s another from “Overhauling Blues” by Big Joe Williams:

Drop down baby; let me overhaul your little machine…

Drop down baby; let me overhaul your little machine…

Well, you know you got a loose carburetor; you been burning bad gasoline.

The lyrics are interesting, but check out how the phrasing fits over a 12-bar structure.  If you get this phrasing implanted in your mind, your blues solos will make more sense and sound authentic.  This is especially important when you are using the blues scale instead of playing the changes.

4)      Blues and pentatonic scales are also very useful for deriving riffs.  A riff is a short rhythmic phrase that can be repeated through an entire chorus.  It is usually used as a background line to the vocal or lead soloist.  Listen to blues bands that feature a sax or horn section to get ideas for various riffs and how to use them.

As stated earlier, it is most effective to alternate blues or pentatonic scales with playing over the changes (sounding the harmony by emphasizing chord tones, especially the 3rd and 7th chord tones).  There are a number of ways to do this:

1)      Alternate choruses.  Play the chord changes over one (12-bar) chorus, then play the blues scale over the next.

2)      Alternate 4 or 8-bar phrases.  Play over the chords for the first 8 bars; then play the blues scale over the final 4 bars.  Or play the blues scale over the first 8 bars and hit the chord tones on the V7-IV7 changes.

3)      Alternate between chord changes, blues scale, and pentatonic scales somewhat randomly.  You can throw in a blues scale fragment, or even just the b5, whenever it feels right.  It is still necessary to pay attention to phrasing and rhythm when doing this.

4)      Use a composite scale, based on the blues scale and the mixolydian (dominant) chord scale:  1 2 b3 3 4 b5 5 6 b7.  Example (in C): C D Eb E F Gb G A Bb.  This scale has to be used carefully.  Some of the tones function best as leading tones (i.e. Eb leads into E) or passing tones.

Final Note

It will take time, a lot of listening, and practice to put these ideas into use.  Trust your ear above all. 

First, become familiar with the scales, then experiment a lot, using different note groupings and rhythmic figures to find what sounds good.Listen to how blues musicians employ the blues and pentatonic scales. You’ll notice a lot of blues “heads” (melody lines) are derived from a blues scale. In time you’ll have a reservoir of licks and riffs to choose from.

As you get comfortable with the blues and pentatonic scales, be sure to move on and incorporate playing over the chord changes.


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nextBlues and the Dominant Chord

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Created: October 18, 2006.
© 2006, Harri Rautiainen and respective authors
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