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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 theSax 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.[/QUOTE]

“Man, that cat may knowwhat 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 theSeattle blues scene. The sax player in question plays well enough, but in thescores of times I’ve seen him, he’s never once moved me. Never once did hecut a solo that had me gnashing my teeth, saying Yeah, I feel that way, too.[/I]

A related story involves a guitarist sometime ago whom I played with in a rock band who had a degree in Jazz Studies. Hewas musically brilliant, and a heck of a great guy, but he had no tolerance forblues. None. “You’ve only got six notes,” he’d say, “I’d gocrazy.” He never understood how I could play blues all night and not getbored. He once referred to blues as “the wheelchair ramp of jazz.”

I’venever thought of the blues as constraining, and the reason for this is the samereason why some blues players make me weep and some blues players make me yawn.

TodayI want to talk about the placement of the blue notes. This applies totraditional blues, jump blues, rock and roll, and even jazz, as the blue notesand the blues scale are used extensively in all these styles.

Weall 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 thekey of C.)

Wrong. Close, but wrong.

Stick with me on this.

The“blue notes” are not the minorthird, the flat five, and the dominant seventh. Theblue notes are the spaces[/I] between[/I] the minor and major third, the flat five and the five, andthe dominant and major seventh.

Readthat again. I’ll wait.

Ifyou’re like me, you’ve spent countless hours with a tuner practicing longtones, practicing runs and holding one note at random and checking yourintonation. You know all the tricks, right? Intonation, intonation, intonation.Your teacher, if he’s like my first teacher, drilled this into yourhead.

Forgetall you’ve learned about intonation when you’re playing blues. If you hit aflat five or a minor third dead on the mark, you’ll get dissonance, butthat’s it. Dissonance is the sense of discord and unpleasantness that resultsfrom 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 inblues, but blues is not merely dissonance. Bluesis sadness. (When Irefer to blues, I’m also referring to the elements of blues that comprise rockand roll, jump blues, and even, to some degree, jazz; anywhere you’ll use ablues scale.)

Forthis lesson, we’re going to concentrate on the blues third. That’s the noteEb, in the key of C. (Assume the key of Bb concert for tenor, Eb concert foralto and baritone.)

InWestern music, major intervals sound happy, while minor intervals sound sad. Noone knows why this is; we’ll leave it to the interstellar musicology commandosto slug that out.

Bluesis an emotional state. As Bleeding Gums Murphy said, “Blues ain’t aboutmaking yourself feel better; it’s about making other people feel worse.”

Youneed to take people into your emotional realm, and that means first meeting themin theirs. Most people in your audience will be having a good time. Or at least,so you hope.

Sowhen you hit a blues third, hit the major third, E in this case, which is“happy sounding,” against C, and then bend it downtoward the minor third, Eb, which sounds “sad.”

Tryplaying the third – we’ll stick with Bb Concert, so we’re talking about Eon tenor – but bend the E down toward Eb progressively with each note, so thateventually, you’re still fingering E but you’re playing Eb. Make it“sadder” – i.e., flatter – with every note. If you do this right, itwill evoke the sound of someone sobbing. (It takes some practice and some chopsto control this.)

Takingsomething “happy” and making it “sad” is far sadder-sounding thanstarting 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 Cand wants to make it a blue note[/I],he’ll play an Eb but he’ll it bend it up[/I]toward E. Not all the way to[/I] the E,just somewhere in between.

Experimentwith this; the degree to which you flat the third will establish the emotionaltone of the lick, or the line, or the entire solo if you can hit the third atthe same degree all throughout. You can make it happy, or slightly sad, ordownright dismal. Or take yourself – and the audience – through a rollercoaster of all three. You decide.

WhenI 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 towardthe minor third (in other words, I’ll play an E, but “flatted” toward theEb to some degree) or theminor third (Eb) with a semitone lip up toward the E natural. SometimesI’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 afraction of a tone that I’m varying; a few cents, the same as pulling yourmouthpiece out a millimeter or pushing it in the same amount.

Thedegrees of the blue notes are the key to the blues.[/I]

Our“six note scale,” which my guitar-playing buddy shakes his head at, justopened up to a thousand notes. Which is how I can play “those six notes” allnight long without going crazy.
~Joey St. John-Ryan

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