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Joey TheSaint
Joey St. John-Ryan

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Sax on the Web (SOTW) is a comprehensive saxophone site founded by Harri Rautiainen in 1996.
Created: October 18, 2006
Update: March 25, 2009

In Sax on the Web Rock'n Roll Saxophone series:

The Thousand-note Scale

by Joey St. John-Ryan

Joey "The Saint" St. John-Ryan has been a regular contributor to the Sax on the Web Forum since 1998. He currently resides in Seattle, Washington, where he plays for the internationally-acclaimed jump blues band Tim Casey & the Bluescats. Joey spent the 90's touring with various indie-rock bands out of Seattle, and has also performed with The Wailers, Charlie Musselwhite, Mitch Woods, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and The James Brown Band. He is a regular call for session work in Seattle and Los Angeles as a saxophonist and keyboardist, and was nominated in 2006 by the Washington Blues Society for Best Horn.

“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.”

I’ve 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.

Today 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.

We 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.

The “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. 

Read that again. I’ll wait. 

If 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 head.

Forget 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 blues scale.)

For 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.)

In 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.

Blues 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.”

You 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.

So 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.”

Try 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.)

Taking 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.

Experiment 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.

When 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.

The degrees of the blue notes are the key to the blues.

Our “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

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