Why do solos based
on Blues scales sometimes sound great, but other times sound terrible?
It’s all about playing “Blues Notes” at the right time and in the right place.
Using the great Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson’s solo on “Kidney Stew” as a practical example, we can
learn a simple and workable method to accomplish the same feat in our own solos.
Although the blues
scale, or any scale for that matter, might fit a certain chord or progression,
you also have to know when and where to play those notes.
Most of us
eventually work this out through a lot of trial and error and lots of
listening, but it doesn’t have to be that hard.
First, let’s have
a look at the “Kidney Stew” solo. It’s in Bb concert, so that’s C on your tenor
saxophone. For the purpose of this lesson, the solo has been kept in the lower
octave. To play along with the recording, you’ll want to either;
a) Transpose the melody up an octave
b) Use a software program to change the pitch of
the recoding down an octave. If you don’t have one already, try
downloading Audacity and the Lame Encoder. They’re free, easy enough to learn,
and very useful for transcribing and learning tunes.
“Downloads” area on the site for the lame encoder which enables audacity to
handle mp3 files.
c) Note also, that the solo upon which this lesson is based, was played
originally on the Alto saxophone. Alto players will have to transpose the
lesson to the key of G to play along with the recording.
Just to refresh your memory, we have three 7th chords to
deal with in a basic 12 bar Blues.
C7 F7 & G7
The seventh chord contains the First, Third, Fifth and flatted
Seventh of the corresponding Major scale.
So we get:
Root or 1
7b or Flat 7th
These chord tones, the 1, 3, 5, and 7b. Knowing these chord tones,
both mentally and on your horn, is very useful and important.
The chord tones are going to be our GOAL, or TARGET
notes. Practice these chords on your horn until you don’t have to pause to
think about them. You want to get to the point where as a C7 chord approaches, you
know instantaneously, “OK that’s C E G Bb” and are able to finger those notes without having to think about it.
The chord tones work well as GOAL or TARGET notes for our solos,
because they are the notes that make up the chords we are playing along with.
If we, in our solos, play a chord tone, it’s going to fit very comfortably with
the sound of the rhythm section. For example, if the rhythm section is playing
a C7 chord, and we play G for example, it’s going to sound very consonant and
But we want some grease and grit in there too, right? We want that
“Down Home”, “Gut Bucket”, “Bluesy” sound. That’s where the Blues Scales come
In the key of C for tenor sax, we shall use the:
C Blues Scale: C Eb F F# G Bb
The blues scale sounds “bluesy” because it contains notes that are dissonant, sour, and
“grate against” the sound of the chords.
If we take the C7 chord as an example, we have our Chord Tones
C E G Bb
which we know are harmonious, or consonant.
The C Blues Scale has the C G and Bb, but it also has the Eb which is the Flattened 3rd.
The F, the 4th note of the scale, is quite dissonant.
And finally the F#, or Gb if you prefer. The F# is the Sharp 4th or Flattened 5th
of the scale; it is a note that needs to be treated with care.
The Right Moments
What do I mean by “the right moments?”
Let’s take a look at our “basic” 12 bar blues progression. Don’t be put off by the word “basic”.
Substitute the word “old” or “early” or “devoid of pretentious substitutions”
if it makes ya’ feel better!
C7/// C7/// C7/// C7///
F7/// F7/// C7/// C7///
G7/// F7/// C7/// C7///
The /// are the beats of the bar or measure.
Beat 1 2 3 4
C7 / / /
The important moments, or “Beats”, in a tune are the 1 and 3. Beats 1 and 3 seem to want
chord tones. By playing a chord tone on beats 1 or 3 or both, your lines will
better fit the underlying chords, or harmony.
There are exceptions of course. There are no hard and fast “rules” in music, especially
the Blues. You can play a Bluesy or dissonant note on beat 1 or 3, but that
note is going to want to “resolve” or move, to a less dissonant note.
It’s also on beats 1 and 3, that we most often hear one chord change to another chord. In our
standard Blues progression, we only have one chord per measure, so the “changes,”
where one chord changes to another, all occur on beat one of the new
measure. By playing a chord tone on beat one, our solo will acknowledge the
change of chord. This is what’s often called “hitting the changes.”
With seventh chords, which is what we are dealing with here, the two notes that define
the sound of the chord are the 3rd and flattened 7th. On
a C7 chord, these notes would be E and Bb.
Although we can play any chord tone on beat one and/or three, if we play the 3rd or
7b, in this case E or Bb, we make it very clear to the listener that we are
playing a C7 chord.
The real turning point for beginning and intermediate players occurs when we learn to
hit these goal, or target notes and become adept at smoothly leading into them. That’s the point at which we begin to nail the changes and have
some control over our lines.
So how do we do it?
Enter Mr. Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson and his opening phrase or “lick.”
Eddie uses a triplet figure on beat 4 of the intro to “lead into” or “approach” or “target”
the “Goal Note”. In this case the E on beat one of the C7 chord. He plays the
E as eighth notes on beat one of the measure and then nuthin’!!!
(Just a quick note: On some recordings Eddie will play the E as 1/8th notes on beat one, and
other times as ¼ notes over beats 1 &2. Play ‘em however you wish, it’s no
Such a simple little phrase but within it are many lessons for the
beginning blues player.
- The triplet
figure on beat four gives the line a rhythmic kick start. I can’t stress
the RHYTHMIC aspect of playing enough. Everything I’ve said in
above about Chord Tones and Target Notes and Consonance and Dissonance is
important but it all pales into insignificance besides RHYTHM.
- Eddie uses this
momentum to “Target” or land on the E on beat 1 of the C chord. E is the 3rd
of the C7 chord. Remember, I said that the 3rd and flattened 7th
(7b) were the defining notes of a 7th chord? By leading into
and landing on the E, he clearly lets us know that we’re listening to a C
chord. The fact that he chooses the G A C notes to approach the E, just
makes it that much clearer. The G and C are chord tones (5th and
Tonic) and A is the 6th a pretty note. All these notes grouped
together like this, and the fact that he plays the E on beat one, tells
the listener it’s the C chord.
- He plays the
eighth note E’s and then stops! This is great! Such an easy thing to overlook.
We often get caught up in the chords and which scale to play over which
chord. We see/hear a chord and feel obliged to play something over it
right? And we get so caught up in playing something hip on each chord,
that we struggle when we have to change from chord to chord. “I can play
the chords, I just have a little trouble with the changes.” Sound
- Eddie Vinson doesn’t give himself that drama. He’s already done the important stuff.
He’s established a rhythm, got the swing and momentum going, and
established the harmony by leading into and playing the 3rd of
the chord on beat 1. That’s it! All the important stuff done and dusted
with 4 notes over 2 beats of music.
- Just remember not to make things harder than they have to be. Eddie could have used just
2 notes or shaped one note even, to achieve the same result. You don’t
have to play a million notes to sound great. By stopping Eddie has given
the music a chance to breathe. He’s using space. He’s also given
himself plenty of time to get ready to play his next phrase. The
changes (where one chord changes to another) are perhaps more important
from a playing perspective than the Chords themselves. Vinson makes
the change and doesn’t overplay his hand. He gives himself plenty of time
to get ready for the next change.
- We can hear this
as a smooth, flowing blues lick, and we wouldn’t be wrong, but we’ll learn
more from it if we dig a little deeper. I see three short phrases
skillfully put together to make one long flowing line.
- The first short phrase is the same as Eddie’s opening lick, only this time he’s leading
into beat 3 and playing the EE on the 3rd beat of the bar. He’s
achieving the same result, but using a little variety by landing on beat
three instead of beat one again.
- The second short
phrase begins with an eighth note on the “and” of beat 4 to anticipate or
lead into beat one of the next measure. This time, Eddie approaches the E
from Eb, a half step below. This is one of the strongest, most used, most effective ways to lead into, or approach a note.
It’s the bread and butter of Blues, Jazz, and music in
general. Leading into a Goal or Target note by a half step, or whole step,
gives a very smooth sounding transition, often called “smooth
- Have a listen to
another favourite tune, “Mustang Sally.” Listen to the Bari Sax and you’ll
hear this half step below to Chord tone approach. It’s a staple of Blues.
Jazz. R n’B etc., and something that you should know, hear, and be able to
use. It’s also a really handy way to come up with a background riff when
playing behind a solist or singer. For example;
- You can use this
half step approach on the Root of the chord, G in our example above. Or
you might use the same half step from below approach to the 3rd 5th
- If you are
playing with another horn player, try using the 3rd and let the
other horn use the 7b. Remember these were our defining tones of the 7th
chord? Just two horns playing these sorts of background riffs can state
the harmony very clearly. Try different rhythms. Mix it up and have fun.
Let’s now go back
to the 2nd part of this line.
We have the half-step from below, leading into
beat one of the next measure, where Eddie plays the 3rd again E,
then he descends via a C major pentatonic scale to land on G at beat three.
The major pentatonic scale is a very useful
scale on any type of tune especially the blues. It’s made up of 5 notes
(Hey! Penta = 5…whadda ya know!?) Those notes are the 1st 2nd
3rd 5th and 6th of the major scale. So C major
pentatonic would be;
C D E G A
F major pentatonic would
F G A C D
G major pentatonic would
G A B D E
- You can see that in the 2nd part of the lick, Eddie leads into the 3rd (E) from a ½ step below, and then
descends via the C major pentatonic scale E D C A to land on G at beat three.
And we know that G is a chord tone (the 5th), so landing on the G is a good move.
- What Cleanhead has done so far, is to repeat his
first lick, then lead into the third again (this time from half a step below)
and walk down the pentatonic scale from the 3rd (E) to land on the 5th (G).
- With only the 4th beat left in the
measure, Eddie needs something quick and easy to lead into a chord tone on beat
one of the upcoming C7 chord. He’s only got one beat left to pull it off, and
has no time for anything too fancy. What does Mr. Cleanhead do? The “approach
from 1/2 step below” idea . He only needs one note to lead into beat one of
the next measure. and he can fit one note in.
- He leads into the E (3rd) again! From
the Eb a half step below again!!!. Do you notice anything? That’s right, he’s
played the E on the “and” of beat 4, rather than waiting to play it on beat 1
of the next measure. Anticipating (or playing it a bit early) the chord sounds
very effective here. It’s a cool little trick you can have up your sleeve from
Let’s review the
second “lick” or phrase.
We’ve broken it
down into 3 smaller ideas. What looks like a long and complicated line, is
really just 3 different ways of approaching chord tones, and 2 of those were
the same note, albeit in different octaves.
Eddie has used
three different rhythmic ideas to approach the chord tones, and once he’s hit
them, notice that he doesn’t mess around playing anything fancy. He concentrates
on setting up the approach to the next chord tone. By creatively linking three
of these simple chord tone approaches together, he makes a longer, hip sounding
He’s mixed up his
rhythmic ideas using triplets, syncopated 8th and quarter notes etc
to propel the line. This line is a great example of the whole being greater
than the sum of its parts.
The Next Phrase
Let’s move on now
to the next phrase, and a change from the I chord, (C7), to the IV chord (F7).
Notice again, that
Eddie doesn’t really play anything over the C7 chord leading up to the F7. He
nailed the E (3rd) and just sits on that E until he’s ready to lead
into the upcoming F7.
Take a good long
look at the “pick up” or “lead in” to the F7 chord. It begins on the and of
beat three and then a triplet on beat 4, before landing on the F at beat one of
the F7 chord.
The rhythm is a
very, very, common one and we’ll certainly add that to our rhythmic vocabulary,
but have a look at the four notes that Cleanhead chooses to use here.
F A C D
Although we are
still, strictly speaking, on the C7 chord, Eddie’s mind is already on the
upcoming F7 chord, and he leads into the F7 using the 1st 3rd
5th and 6th notes of the F major scale.
We know from our
earlier discussion, that the 1st 3rd 5th and
7b notes of a major scale make a 7th chord.
3rd 5th and 6th notes of the F major scale,
form what is called an F6 chord.
chord, is a favourite of Eddie Vinson’s and practically every swing, jazz, and
jump blues player . Lester Young, King Curtis, B.B
King, Louis Jordan, they all leaned heavily on the 6th chord.
You might have
already noticed that there’s not much difference between the F6 chord and the F
major pentatonic scale.
pentatonic = F G A C D
F6 = F A
I can’t emphasize
the importance of this chord enough. Eddie Vinson uses this chord in almost
every tune I’ve heard him play. For jump blues and swing, it could be called the
“bread and butter chord”.
Like the major
pentatonic scale, it has a bright, happy sound that fits beautifully over a
major chord, or a 7th chord as we have here.
But hang on a
minute! Aren’t we playing a blues here? Aren’t we supposed to be sounding down
and dirty? Why would we want to play a happy sounding chord or scale, when the
blues is supposedly meant to be full of sorrow and pain?
Those sorrowful, low down, dirty, blues notes are going to sound so much
more low down and dirty, if they have something with which to contrast.
I’m going to use a
gross example to make the point here, so bear with me. If you’re sitting around
with your buddies, watching the game, drinking beer and eating pizza, and
somebody burps or breaks wind, no one’s really going to raise an eyebrow and if
it’s a good game, no one might even notice right? Now picture
yourself doing the same thing at your mother in law’s 75th birthday
party. Right about the moment your wife is proposing a heartfelt toast to her
You see the
difference? The blue notes, in and of themselves, aren’t what gives you that
low down funky sound. It’s the contrast they make with the other notes you play
that makes them sound blue.
For a better
explanation of all this, check out Joey the Saint’s article in SOTW’s Blues,
R&B, and Rock n’ Roll Teaching Resource.
Eddie has run up
the F6 chord and landed on F (the root of the F7 chord). Then, he just walks
down the F7 chord”
F F Eb
Eb C A
to land on F again
at beat one of the next measure, which is also an F7 chord.
He then pivots
back and forward between the Eb (7b) and the C (5th) of the F7
chord. Nothing fancy, just two notes, but Mr. Cleanhead makes it swing, before
hitting the E natural and the D to lead into the upcoming C7 chord.
The use of the Eb
here, the 7b, sounds great because of the contrast with all the E naturals we
heard in the first 4 bars. This is what I mean by contrast. Eddie
established a sound in our ears, and when he plays the Eb, it sounds bluesy
because our ear has been fed the E naturals previously. He returns to the E
natural and the D to anticipate or lead into the upcoming C7 chord.
Something to note!
Often when we are analyzing solos or whatever, we see something like that E
natural on an F7 chord, and then try to come up with all kinds of fancy
explanations and exotic scales etc., to try to justify the appearance of an
unexpected note. Here, we’ve got E natural when an F7 chord is supposed to have
an Eb right?
Now we could try
to second guess what Eddie was thinking, but the truth may be much simpler.
He’s on beat four of the F7 chord, and leading into the upcoming C7 chord.
Against the C7 chord, the E natural needs no explanation. It’s the 3rd
of the C7 right? Is it at all possible that Eddie was done with the F7 chord,
and was already thinking about the approaching C7 chord? Only Eddie knows for
sure, but it certainly makes our job simpler to believe so.
Contrast and Killer Blues Licks
into the C7 with the E and D, and lands on C, the root of the C7 chord. Yet,
again he lands on a chord tone on beat one of the chord. He descends down our C
major pentatonic scale:
C major pentatonic = C D E G A
Then, he hits the
Eb (flattened 3rd ) on the “and” of beat two.
Why not the E
By hitting the
flattened 3rd here, Eddie can lead into the E natural on beat 3 from
a half step below.
previously that chord tones sound good on beats one and three, and that leading
into the chord tones by a half step is desirable. And that’s exactly what Eddie
He then hits the G
and the C, two chord tones and holds the C into the next measure that is also a
C7 chord. Even though he’s played the Eb here, it doesn’t stand out or sound
incredibly bluesy, because he hasn’t “leant on it”, or held it. He played it on
the “and” or “up beat” of beat two, as a lead into the E natural on beat three.
The overall sound and feeling here is major and happy. This is exactly what
Eddie wants us to hear, because coming up next are the last 4 bars of the chorus;
that’s where Eddie wants to lay down some dirty nasty stuff. By preceding it
with a more happy, major sound, it’s going to sound all the more bluesy in
Eddie leads into
the G7 chord by playing G A G before landing on the Bb (flattened 3rd
) of G7. He then repeats it, and plays it against the G to really emphasize the
bluesy effect. He also gives it some growl and attitude to further make it
After the previous
two bars, which were relatively happy and upbeat, nailing that flat 3rd,
setting it up with the G A G, playing the Bb on a strong beat, repeating it,
and then playing it with attitude and contrasting it with G (the root of G7), all
add up to make a killer blues lick out of a simple rhythm on just 3 notes.
Nothing too fancy,
just the right notes at the right moment played with conviction and a little
continues the bluesy effect by choosing Eb, (the flatted 7th ), as
his target note for the next chord which is F7.
It’s still a chord
tone, and it does the job of sounding the change of chords while providing a
more bluesy sound than the root 3rd or 5th might have
Beats two and three are again made up of chord tones of the F7 chord, C (5th) and
A (3rd). The phrase is still bluesy, but not to the same extent as
the previous G7 chord. There’s a slight but perceptible easing of the tension
created in the previous bar. The triplet on beat 4 is a lead in to the C7
The notes, G E and
D, are common to both the F major pentatonic scale and the C major pentatonic
scale. It doesn’t really matter so much which scale or chord they belong to,
the important point is that the triplet rhythm again provides momentum or
forward motion to lead us into the next C7 chord. This major sound provides a further
relaxing of the tension built up on the G7 chord.
The final phrase!
Mr. Cleanhead resolves all of the previous tension by playing the 3rd
, Root, and 6th of the C chord in a simple swinging rhythm. He uses
the sweet, happy sounding 6th , rather than the flat 7th
, because the flat 7th would reintroduce tension. Here he wants to
resolve all the tension or “bluesiness.”
To close, I hope
this article gives you some solid ideas on how to play those chord tones and
blues scales that will enable you to hit the right notes at the right times.