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By John Lull

Longa 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 appearancesat local clubs, including Eli's Mile High Club, JJ's Blues Club, OldPrinceton Landing, Biscuits and Blues, Lou's, Half Moon Bay Brewing Co, theBoom Boom Room, and the Blue Lamp. Henow plays with the South City BluesBand* and is a guest artist in several other local bands. John currentlyliveson the coast south of San Francisco, California.

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

Manymusicians will say these scales are overused and that's true that if you relyexclusively on them; your improvisations will get somewhat repetitive andboring. The trick is to use thescales creatively by playing fragments of the scale and rearranging the notes toget different effects. Don't justrun up and down the scale; try to play something that sounds musical. The best way to use pentatonic and blues scales is to usethem sparingly, interchanging them with chord tones and chord scales derivedfrom the chord changes.

ImportantNote[/I]: All numerical terminology usedbelow 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 keyof C, the "1" is C, the "6" is A, etc.

Analtered major scale degree (flattened or augmented) is indicated by a flat orsharp sign. In the key of C, the b3is Eb, #4 is F#, b7 is Bb, etc.

Keepin 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 Gmajor scale. The 1 is G, the 3 isB, and the 7 will be F#. Note thatin this case, the b7 will be F natural.


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

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

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

Otherpentatonic scales can be derived from the above two. Here's a derivative minorpentatonic 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 themajor pentatonic with the 3rd flatted. Play this scale in descendingfashion down from the 6th to get an idea of how good it can sound.

Aswith all scales, you need to do more than just run the pentatonic scale up anddown. Do some experimenting to find out which rhythmic patterns andnote choices work best. Listen tohow blues and jazz artists use pentatonic patterns.

TheBlues scale

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

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

Thisscale is very useful. It can be used throughout a blues progression and will fitover all the basic chords in a blues progression.The b3, b5, and b7 all contribute to a "bluesy" sound.

Anotherblues 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 6thin the mix. However, unlike theblues scale built on the minor pentatonic, you have to be careful in how you useit over the chords. The major 3rd will clash if played over the IVchord (unless used as a passing tone). Youcan leave that tone out when playing over the IV chord, in which case you'llbe using the derivative pentatonic listed in the previous section (1 2 b3 5 6).

UsingPentatonic and Blues Scales

Becausethese scales tend to fit over several different chords, they are very usefulwhen improvising. You do have to becareful not to overuse them or you risk sounding bland and uninteresting. As a general rule it is best to use pentatonic and bluesscales in conjunction with other scales or chord tones that fit the chordchanges. If you do use a blues orpentatonic scale exclusively over one or more choruses, keep the following inmind:

1)Work the notes of the scale into licks or short musical phrases ratherthan 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 bluessingers phrase. With a 12-barblues, there are usually three 4-bar phrases.The first two phrases are identical or very similar, and the third phraseanswers the first two. This is aform of call-and-response. Considerthe following, from "Black Mountain Blues," by J.B Lenoir:

I'mbound for Black Mountain, me my razor and my gun…


I'mbound for Black Mountain, me my razor and my gun…


I'mgoing to shoot him if he stands still and cut him if he runs.


Here'sanother from "Overhauling Blues" by Big Joe Williams:

Dropdown baby; let me overhaul your little machine…


Dropdown baby; let me overhaul your little machine…


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


Thelyrics are interesting, but check out how the phrasing fits over a 12-barstructure. If you get this phrasingimplanted in your mind, your blues solos will make more sense and soundauthentic. This is especiallyimportant when you are using the blues scale instead of playing the changes.

4)Blues and pentatonic scales are also very useful for deriving riffs. [/I]A riff is ashort 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 forvarious riffs and how to use them.

Asstated earlier, it is most effective to alternate blues or pentatonic scaleswith 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 thechord changes over one (12-bar) chorus, then play the blues scale over the next.

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

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

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


Itwill 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 notegroupings 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 derivedfrom a blues scale. In time you'll have a reservoir of licks and riffs to choose from.

Asyou get comfortable with the blues and pentatonic scales, be sure to move on andincorporate playing over the chord changes.

The Thousand-note Scale

Blues and the DominantChord
Created: October 18, 2006.
©2006, HarriRautiainen and respectiveauthors

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