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In SOTW Blues, R&B, Rock n' Roll SaxophoneTeaching Resource series:

The Right Notes At The Right Time

Andrew Campbell

Why do solos basedon 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 canlearn a simple and workable method to accomplish the same feat in our own solos.

First Chorus

Although the bluesscale, 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 useventually work this out through a lot of trial and error and lots oflistening, but it doesn’t have to be that hard.

First, let’s havea look at the “Kidney Stew” solo. It’s in Bb concert, so that’s C on your tenorsaxophone. For the purpose of this lesson, the solo has been kept in the loweroctave. 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 ofthe recoding down an octave. If you don’t have one already, trydownloading Audacity and the Lame Encoder. They’re free, easy enough to learn,and very useful for transcribing and learning tunes.

Check the“Downloads” area on the site for the lame encoder which enables audacity tohandle mp3 files.

c) Note also, that the solo upon which this lesson is based, was playedoriginally on the Alto saxophone. Alto players will have to transpose thelesson to the key of G to play along with the recording.
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Just to refresh your memory, we have three 7th chords todeal with in a basic 12 bar Blues.

C7 F7 & G7

The seventh chord contains the First, Third, Fifth and flattedSeventh 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 TARGETnotes. Practice these chords on your horn until you don’t have to pause tothink about them. You want to get to the point where as a C7 chord approaches, youknow instantaneously, “OK that’s C E G Bb” and are able to finger those notes without having to think about it.

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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 withthe sound of the rhythm section. For example, if the rhythm section is playinga C7 chord, and we play G for example, it’s going to sound very consonant andharmonious.

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 comeinto play.

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 5thof 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!

We’ve got:

C7/// C7/// C7/// C7///
F7/// F7/// C7/// C7///
G7/// F7/// C7/// C7///

The /// are the beats of the bar or measure.

Beat1 2 3 4

C7 / / /

The important moments, or “Beats”, in a tune are the 1 and 3. Beats 1 and 3 seem to wantchord tones. By playing a chord tone on beats 1 or 3 or both, your lines willbetter fit the underlying chords, or harmony.

There are exceptions of course. There are no hard and fast “rules” in music, especiallythe Blues. You can play a Bluesy or dissonant note on beat 1 or 3, but thatnote 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 ourstandard 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 newmeasure. By playing a chord tone on beat one, our solo will acknowledge thechange 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 definethe sound of the chord are the 3rd and flattened 7th. Ona 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 or7b, in this case E or Bb, we make it very clear to the listener that we areplaying a C7 chord.

The real turning point for beginning and intermediate players occurs when we learn tohit 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 havesome control over our lines.

So how do we do it?

Enter Mr. Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson and his opening phrase or “lick.”
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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 theE 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, andother times as ¼ notes over beats 1 &2. Play ‘em however you wish, it’s nobig thing.)

Such a simple little phrase but within it are many lessons for thebeginning 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.
  • Look again at the 1st phrase. Try playing it on your horn at a comfortable tempo. Swing it! Doesn’t have to be played fast. Hear how the triplet adds a sense of Forward Motion, or Propulsion to the phrase. Now play it again, but this time, leave out the triplet anticipation and just play the E E on beat one of the C7 chord. Hear the difference?
  • 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 familiar?
  • 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.
Second Phrase
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  • 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.
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  • 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 voice leading.”
  • 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;

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  • 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 or 7b
  • 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 backto the 2nd part of this line.

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We have the half-step from below, leading intobeat 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 usefulscale 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 2nd3rd 5th and 6th of the major scale. So C majorpentatonic would be;


F major pentatonic wouldbe;


G major pentatonic wouldbe;


  • You can see that in the 2nd part of the lick, Eddie leads into the 3rd (E) from a ½ step below, and thendescends 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 hisfirst 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 themeasure, Eddie needs something quick and easy to lead into a chord tone on beatone of the upcoming C7 chord. He’s only got one beat left to pull it off, andhas no time for anything too fancy. What does Mr. Cleanhead do? The “approachfrom 1/2 step below” idea . He only needs one note to lead into beat one ofthe next measure. and he can fit one note in.
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  • He leads into the E (3rd) again! Fromthe Eb a half step below again!!!. Do you notice anything? That’s right, he’splayed the E on the “and” of beat 4, rather than waiting to play it on beat 1of the next measure. Anticipating (or playing it a bit early) the chord soundsvery effective here. It’s a cool little trick you can have up your sleeve fromnow on.

Let’s review thesecond “lick” or phrase.

We’ve broken itdown into 3 smaller ideas. What looks like a long and complicated line, isreally just 3 different ways of approaching chord tones, and 2 of those werethe same note, albeit in different octaves.

Eddie has usedthree different rhythmic ideas to approach the chord tones, and once he’s hitthem, notice that he doesn’t mess around playing anything fancy. He concentrateson setting up the approach to the next chord tone. By creatively linking threeof these simple chord tone approaches together, he makes a longer, hip soundingline.

He’s mixed up hisrhythmic ideas using triplets, syncopated 8th and quarter notes etcto propel the line. This line is a great example of the whole being greaterthan the sum of its parts.

The Next Phrase

Let’s move on nowto the next phrase, and a change from the I chord, (C7), to the IV chord (F7).

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Notice again, thatEddie doesn’t really play anything over the C7 chord leading up to the F7. Henailed the E (3rd) and just sits on that E until he’s ready to leadinto the upcoming F7.

Take a good longlook at the “pick up” or “lead in” to the F7 chord. It begins on the and ofbeat three and then a triplet on beat 4, before landing on the F at beat one ofthe F7 chord.

The rhythm is avery, 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.


Although we arestill, strictly speaking, on the C7 chord, Eddie’s mind is already on theupcoming F7 chord, and he leads into the F7 using the 1st 3rd5th and 6th notes of the F major scale.

We know from ourearlier discussion, that the 1st 3rd 5th and7b notes of a major scale make a 7th chord.

The 1st3rd 5th and 6th notes of the F major scale,form what is called an F6 chord.

This 6thchord, is a favourite of Eddie Vinson’s and practically every swing, jazz, andjump blues player . Lester Young, King Curtis, B.BKing, Louis Jordan, they all leaned heavily on the 6th chord.

You might havealready noticed that there’s not much difference between the F6 chord and the Fmajor pentatonic scale.

F majorpentatonic = F G A C D

F6 = F AC D

I can’t emphasizethe importance of this chord enough. Eddie Vinson uses this chord in almostevery tune I’ve heard him play. For jump blues and swing, it could be called the“bread and butter chord”.

Like the majorpentatonic scale, it has a bright, happy sound that fits beautifully over amajor chord, or a 7th chord as we have here.

But hang on aminute! Aren’t we playing a blues here? Aren’t we supposed to be sounding downand dirty? Why would we want to play a happy sounding chord or scale, when theblues is supposedly meant to be full of sorrow and pain?

Good question.Those sorrowful, low down, dirty, blues notes are going to sound so muchmore low down and dirty, if they have something with which to contrast.

I’m going to use agross example to make the point here, so bear with me. If you’re sitting aroundwith your buddies, watching the game, drinking beer and eating pizza, andsomebody burps or breaks wind, no one’s really going to raise an eyebrow and ifit’s a good game, no one might even notice right? Now pictureyourself doing the same thing at your mother in law’s 75th birthdayparty. Right about the moment your wife is proposing a heartfelt toast to herdear mum.

You see thedifference? The blue notes, in and of themselves, aren’t what gives you thatlow down funky sound. It’s the contrast they make with the other notes you playthat makes them sound blue.

For a betterexplanation of all this, check out Joey the Saint’s article in SOTW’s Blues,R&B, and Rock n’ Roll Teaching Resource.

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Eddie has run upthe F6 chord and landed on F (the root of the F7 chord). Then, he just walksdown the F7 chord”

F F EbEb C A

to land on F againat beat one of the next measure, which is also an F7 chord.

He then pivotsback and forward between the Eb (7b) and the C (5th) of the F7chord. Nothing fancy, just two notes, but Mr. Cleanhead makes it swing, beforehitting the E natural and the D to lead into the upcoming C7 chord.

The use of the Ebhere, the 7b, sounds great because of the contrast with all the E naturals weheard in the first 4 bars. This is what I mean by contrast. Eddieestablished a sound in our ears, and when he plays the Eb, it sounds bluesybecause our ear has been fed the E naturals previously. He returns to the Enatural 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 Enatural on an F7 chord, and then try to come up with all kinds of fancyexplanations and exotic scales etc., to try to justify the appearance of anunexpected note. Here, we’ve got E natural when an F7 chord is supposed to havean Eb right?

Now we could tryto 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 3rdof 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 forsure, but it certainly makes our job simpler to believe so.

Contrast and Killer Blues Licks

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Eddie’s tippedinto 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 Cmajor pentatonic scale:

C major pentatonic = C D E G A

So going down, we get C A G E D C

Then, he hits theEb (flattened 3rd ) on the “and” of beat two.

Why not the Enatural?

By hitting theflattened 3rd here, Eddie can lead into the E natural on beat 3 froma half step below.

We’ve mentionedpreviously that chord tones sound good on beats one and three, and that leadinginto the chord tones by a half step is desirable. And that’s exactly what EddieVinson does.

He then hits the Gand the C, two chord tones and holds the C into the next measure that is also aC7 chord. Even though he’s played the Eb here, it doesn’t stand out or soundincredibly bluesy, because he hasn’t “leant on it”, or held it. He played it onthe “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 whatEddie 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 itwith a more happy, major sound, it’s going to sound all the more bluesy incontrast.

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Eddie leads intothe 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 thebluesy effect. He also gives it some growl and attitude to further make itstand out.

After the previoustwo 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), alladd 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 littleattitude.

Eddie Vinsoncontinues the bluesy effect by choosing Eb, (the flatted 7th ), ashis target note for the next chord which is F7.

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It’s still a chordtone, and it does the job of sounding the change of chords while providing amore bluesy sound than the root 3rd or 5th might havedone.

Beats two and three are again made up of chord tones of the F7 chord, C (5th) andA (3rd). The phrase is still bluesy, but not to the same extent asthe previous G7 chord. There’s a slight but perceptible easing of the tensioncreated in the previous bar. The triplet on beat 4 is a lead in to the C7chord.

The notes, G E andD, are common to both the F major pentatonic scale and the C major pentatonicscale. 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 orforward motion to lead us into the next C7 chord. This major sound provides a furtherrelaxing of the tension built up on the G7 chord.

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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 usesthe sweet, happy sounding 6th , rather than the flat 7th, because the flat 7th would reintroduce tension. Here he wants toresolve all the tension or “bluesiness.”

To close, I hopethis article gives you some solid ideas on how to play those chord tones andblues scales that will enable you to hit the right notes at the right times.

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