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Discussion Starter #1
I've got sheet music for "St. James Infirmary" that's in, I think, the key of B minor, or the key of D major (two sharps, F# and C#, first and last chords are Bmin), and I've got a book of exercises of licks using blues scales. Should I play the blues scale licks labeled "B minor blues scale licks" to go with this sheet music? Is that right? In the book, the licks with two sharps, like the sheet music for "St. James," are listed as E minor blues scale licks! Not D major. Not Bmin licks. And how does the minor key fit in? I'm lost. Which blues scale licks would go with that sheet music? Anyone? Help? Thanks if you can . . .

Jeff Lindholm, the confused . . .
 

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Yes, Mr. Neff. I just got your book and am trying to figure out how to use it.

So I'll try some B minor blues scale licks on this "St James" and have my wife play the sheet music with her horn (she's alto; I'm bari).

But in general, to use the blues scale licks with any song, do I use the relative minor blues scale? If, for some reason, someone is playing "Happy Birthday" in C (no sharps or flats), and I wanted to play a blues solo over it, would I use the A minor blues scale? Is that right all the time?

Thanks. This is dang confusing. But I want to get it.

Jeff Lindholm
 

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I've got sheet music for "St. James Infirmary" that's in, I think, the key of B minor, or the key of D major (two sharps, F# and C#, first and last chords are Bmin), and I've got a book of exercises of licks using blues scales. Should I play the blues scale licks labeled "B minor blues scale licks" to go with this sheet music? Is that right? In the book, the licks with two sharps, like the sheet music for "St. James," are listed as E minor blues scale licks! Not D major. Not Bmin licks. And how does the minor key fit in? I'm lost. Which blues scale licks would go with that sheet music? Anyone? Help? Thanks if you can . . .

Jeff Lindholm, the confused . . .
Normally when thinking about a minor blues scale, 2 sharps would mean B minor, E minor is one sharp. You are correct in that D major is also 2 sharps, so B minor is the relative minor of D major.

Blues can be a bit confusing, in that a minor blues scale can work over a major tune or a minor tune, so B minor blues scale can be used on a (blues) tune in B minor or B major, but with some caveats:

Often we can we choose the blues scale (or rather licks derived from it) to use over the entire tune (assuming it's not a tune with more complex harmony that goes through various key changes aka "key centres")

St. James Infirnary is an example of a blues minor tune that should be fine with a blues scale (and/or licks derived from that blues scale).

The reason you can also use a minor blues scale with a major tune, is that the blues scale licks provide some notes that are flattened, and this is a major aspect of the blues - aka blue notes. Often the major 3rd, 5th and 7th can be flattened, so for example you can play or sing a minor 3rd note one a major 3rd.

However this doesn't work so well on all major tunes, even with simple harmony, so a certain amount of taste, experience and judgment is necessary. In theory you can use a minor blues over an entire blues tune using one scale over all the chords (which in a trad blues are based around I, IV and V and/or some variations).

However Happy birthday in C you could possibly use a C minor blues scale, but IMO would sound a bit contrived unless you really have some skill with note placement. Basically you could just think of a C major scale for improvising (plus, ideally, basing it around the chord structure which is quite simple)

When you say use an A minor blues scale for a tune in C major, that is confusing, because the tonic is C, not A.

There is a major blues scale, and (as with major/minor scales) the C major blues scale is the relative major of A minor, so does have the same notes. But I believe it's best to think of it as a scale on its own, not a relative major.

Now then major blues scales are different, in that generally one scale (C major blues) won't work in most cases over a blues in C (as does the C minor blues scale) but will be best to just use over the I chord ( C )

You need to be careful when using either kind of blues scale over a tune that isn't blues oriented, for example if the I chord or IV chord have or imply a major 7, then it won't be so good to think of blues scales except possibly isolated short instances (an again, that comes down to experience, taste and context)
 

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Discussion Starter #5
Okay, folks. It's starting to make sense. Thanks.

So, one more quick one: if I go to a blues jam at the local bar, and the guitar guy leading things calls for "Mustang Sally" in C, given that I'd be on a bari or an alto and his C would be my A, what blues scale licks would I play with that: A minor blues scale or would I have to transpose C to A, then go to the relative minor of A, which would be f# minor? And play F# minor blues scale licks?
 

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Okay, folks. It's starting to make sense. Thanks.

So, one more quick one: if I go to a blues jam at the local bar, and the guitar guy leading things calls for "Mustang Sally" in C, given that I'd be on a bari or an alto and his C would be my A, what blues scale licks would I play with that: A minor blues scale or would I have to transpose C to A, then go to the relative minor of A, which would be f# minor? And play F# minor blues scale licks?
No, you'd play A minor blues scale.

BUT once you are comfortable with that, and understand the concept, then on this tune it will be fine to also use major blues scale but need to follow the chords, ie A major blues with A chord, D major blues scale with D chord and E major blues scale with E chord. All thinking transposed for alto or baritone)


So for example over the A you might use A major blues. Then over the D use A minor blues (remember: the minor blues from the key works over the whole thing) and then over the E you might use E major blues.

Until you get comfortable with that concept there easy way is to just stick to the A minor. Will be OK but not so interesting.

Ideally (as I'm sure you are aware) it can be best to use licks or riffs rather than just going up and down the scales.

Note that for these types of blues jam sessions it's useful to be able to transpose and think in concert pitch, so you don't have to start doing calculations when the guitarist calls a tune in whatever key. Or they start playing and you find the key by ear.

Check out this page and others on the subject of blues saxophone for beginners:

https://tamingthesaxophone.com/rock-blues-beginners
 

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Discussion Starter #7
Pete Thomas:

Thanks for you clear and exacting reply. I think I understand enough now to proceed with some blues scale practice. I really appreciate the help.

Jeff Lindholm
 

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Discussion Starter #8
Mr. Neff:

Thanks for the helpful reply. Yes, I do have your book and am just dipping into it. It looks from you ID that you're in Vermont (if I'm reading it right). I'm in Montpelier; you?
 

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So while not nearly as helpful as the others here, I'm going to suggest you find "play along" for that tune - It's a fun song and lots of things work on it that may not be apparent in a book of scales. Good luck!
 

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The pentatonic "thing" can get very deep when applying it to individual chords, especially dominants.
An example from Charlie Parker:
E minor pentatonic with a flat 5 (Bb) over a C7, very bluesy.
 

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So while not nearly as helpful as the others here, I'm going to suggest you find "play along" for that tune - It's a fun song and lots of things work on it that may not be apparent in a book of scales. Good luck!
It may well be as helpful or more - it's all very well reading the theory, but practical playing (and recording yourself) is the best way to get in in your brain.

Minor blues and minor bluesish tune like St James Infirmaly, Summertime, I'm Coming Home - all good and simple tunes you can have fun just trying out licks with very few actual wrong notes possible when you stick to the minor blues scale.
 

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Jeffrey, here's an article I wrote some years back on this topic for the R&R teaching resource on this forum:

https://www.saxontheweb.net/Rock_n_Roll/RockSax05.html

Maybe that will help.

Are you familiar with the 'formula' for a (minor) blues scale? Here it is, based on the scale degrees of a major scale in any given key:

1 b3 4 b5 5 b7

Run that through 12 keys and you'll be on your way to learning the scale. Keep in mind this is only a start. Eventually you'll want to learn the chord changes to whatever tune you are playing.
 

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Discussion Starter #14
Mr. Neff:

Yep. I found your online videos while searching for info on blues scales and ordered your book from Lulu.com. No idea I could have driven over and picked one up!

Jeff
 

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So here are what I believe are the common vanilla chords for SJI, in Bminor.

Bm | F#7 | Bm %
Bm | G7 | F#7 %
Bm | F#7 | Bm %
G7 | F#7 | Bm | F#7

I am not sure blues scales are going to work very well except for certain short sections. You certainly can't just slather a blues scale over the whole thing.

If we call a Bm "blues scale" B, D, E, Fnat, F#, A, only the B, E, and F# exist in F#7, so I'm not sure how well that would bring out the V.

The G7 is an important part of this progression as it's somewhat unusual and gives the song much of its character. But the F# that's in the "Bm blues scale" and in the F#7, is a real clinker in G7 unless it's just a quick passing tone or you know how to emphasize it as a chosen dissonance.

Personally I would focus on the chord tones (especially the 3rds and 7ths) as below, with 3rds and 7ths in bold):

Bm = B, D, F#, A
F#7 = F#, A#, C#, E
G7 = G, B, D, F

An approach like this is more likely to give pleasing results, in my opinion.

Where the "blues scale" works reasonably well is on a straight 12 bar basic major blues. A non-12-bar-blues tune with an extra and important chord up a half step and in a minor key doesn't seem like the idea application to me.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QzcpUdBw7gs

Listen to the Armstrong rendition above. Note for example that the trombone and later bone and clarinet are playing in unison B for the Bmin, and then A# for the F#7 - the A in the "B minor blues scale" will probably clash badly with that. That's just one example.

Also note that Armstrong mostly plays the melody straight with a few little turns and a couple little three or four note runs up or down to melody notes. If you were to copy exactly what he does, with the same phrasing and timing, it would probably be the best solo played by anyone that evening.

To summarize: the blues scale is not an all-purpose tool you can apply just anywhere.
 

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I play St James regularly with a band I’m in - I always start my solo with the melody - its one of those catchy and recognizable tunes where the melody is a great foundation for a (IMO) killer solo....
 

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Where the "blues scale" works reasonably well is on a straight 12 bar basic major blues. A non-12-bar-blues tune with an extra and important chord up a half step and in a minor key doesn't seem like the idea application to me.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QzcpUdBw7gs

Listen to the Armstrong rendition above. Note for example that the trombone and later bone and clarinet are playing in unison B for the Bmin, and then A# for the F#7 - the A in the "B minor blues scale" will probably clash badly with that. That's just one example.
+1. My post was only in relation to the 'blues scale', but this is a very good, and important, point.
 

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Honestly I am not a big proponent of the "blues scale" at all, not even as a learning tool. Solos constructed by going around and around on the one "blues scale" over all the changes (even on a straight 12 bar major blues) tend to be really boring to my ears. I mean, the reason you have chord changes at all is because the changes in the chords introduce tension and resolution. I think in general you get much better results by doing the same with the notes you choose for your improvisation.

For something like a one chord vamp, you might think "oh, here's the place to just stay on the blues scale and wiggle my fingers" but that's even more boring because now you don't have any movement in the chords OR in the improvisation. That kind of thing is really where you want to go out of the prevailing tonality and back in.

Pretty much the only place where I use that "blues scale" sound is in short little licks here and there that I insert according to the situation, kind of the little "Yeah Baby!" momentary bluesy sound. Otherwise I think following the changes is the thing to do in the vast majority of circumstances.

Also, as a pedagogical tool, the blues scale seems to get used to "get students improvising"; but in my experience it seems like they then assume whatever they play that is in that scale is OK, and it (in my opinion) can hinder learning how to avoid the clinkers.

Again, all of this is situational. Certainly it's possible to get a great effect by using a static tonality in your solo over chord changes in the rhythm - classic example is any of Louis Armstrong's last choruses on uptempo tunes where he might well play one or two notes for the whole chorus. And I might do something like, taking three choruses of an uptempo tune, the first chorus at mezzo-piano and spare with lots of space, second chorus also mezz-piano but a bunch of double-timing stuff, third chorus loud high register, punching out the notes, lots of repeated patterns, "bluesy" blues scale licks, to the big finish and hand it off to the next guy. But that, which is a classic description of building a multi-chorus solo using various effects, is quite different than just deciding what "blues scale" to use and whanging away at it for a whole chorus.
 

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Honestly I am not a big proponent of the "blues scale" at all, not even as a learning tool. Solos constructed by going around and around on the one "blues scale" over all the changes (even on a straight 12 bar major blues) tend to be really boring to my ears. I mean, the reason you have chord changes at all is because the changes in the chords introduce tension and resolution. I think in general you get much better results by doing the same with the notes you choose for your improvisation.

For something like a one chord vamp, you might think "oh, here's the place to just stay on the blues scale and wiggle my fingers" but that's even more boring because now you don't have any movement in the chords OR in the improvisation. That kind of thing is really where you want to go out of the prevailing tonality and back in.

Pretty much the only place where I use that "blues scale" sound is in short little licks here and there that I insert according to the situation, kind of the little "Yeah Baby!" momentary bluesy sound. Otherwise I think following the changes is the thing to do in the vast majority of circumstances.

Also, as a pedagogical tool, the blues scale seems to get used to "get students improvising"; but in my experience it seems like they then assume whatever they play that is in that scale is OK, and it (in my opinion) can hinder learning how to avoid the clinkers.

Again, all of this is situational. Certainly it's possible to get a great effect by using a static tonality in your solo over chord changes in the rhythm - classic example is any of Louis Armstrong's last choruses on uptempo tunes where he might well play one or two notes for the whole chorus. And I might do something like, taking three choruses of an uptempo tune, the first chorus at mezzo-piano and spare with lots of space, second chorus also mezz-piano but a bunch of double-timing stuff, third chorus loud high register, punching out the notes, lots of repeated patterns, "bluesy" blues scale licks, to the big finish and hand it off to the next guy. But that, which is a classic description of building a multi-chorus solo using various effects, is quite different than just deciding what "blues scale" to use and whanging away at it for a whole chorus.

To go back to Saint James, it occurs to me that a good effect would be to use the Bb/A# note in places over the Bminor chord, which is a high tension "harmonic minor" sound and could work really well here and there. Also I would probably, at some point, use the "ascending melodic minor" form of B minor as well; the two major scale tones create an interesting kind of dissonance. these two things would just be for momentary seasoning, of course, if you have LISTENED to a lot of recordings your ear will tell you where these would make sense. Again, if you just pour the "B blues scale" all over the whole thing, your fingers will probably be reluctant to follow your ears and insert things like that, even if you do hear them in your mind's ear.
 

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Solos constructed by going around and around on the one "blues scale" over all the changes (even on a straight 12 bar major blues) tend to be really boring to my ears. I mean, the reason you have chord changes at all is because the changes in the chords introduce tension and resolution. I think in general you get much better results by doing the same with the notes you choose for your improvisation.

Pretty much the only place where I use that "blues scale" sound is in short little licks here and there that I insert according to the situation, kind of the little "Yeah Baby!" momentary bluesy sound. Otherwise I think following the changes is the thing to do in the vast majority of circumstances.

Again, all of this is situational.
I totally agree. Of course that doesn't mean to never use it. The 'blues scale' (or 'blue notes') is best used as a spice ('short little licks' as you say) and can be very effective when used well. Like any spice, a little bit goes a long ways and too much can ruin the dish.

I look at it as a tool. It's a specific sound quality that sounds great when used well, in small doses. If you want to use it, at some point you have to learn it in 12 keys so it's at your disposal. So no reason to avoid it and every reason to learn it well (along with pentatonics and other scales), but also keep in mind not to overuse it.

Even on a blues, unless it's a specific head based on the blues scale, I find it almost impossible to just play (notes from) the blues scale over the whole progression. I want to hear the maj 3rd on the I chord and go to the V chord* (or ii-V change) on the turnaround, etc. Otherwise it's just too static.

*It can sound fine to use a blues scale lick on the V chord, IF you don't play it on the rest of the progression, sounding the I7 & IV7 chords clearly instead. In this case, you are using the blues scale to introduce tension, but only if you don't use it through the rest of the progression.
 
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