The Blues Scale in Synth Soloing

October 10, 2014

Adding some blues licks to a solo is a sure way to connect to your audience, and for many genres of music is the essential vocabulary you should be drawing from. But did you know that there’s more than one blues scale?

First, CLICK HERE for a downloadable PDF of all sheet music for this tutorial. Then, read on! 

The Blues Scale

The common blues scale that students are taught is shown in Ex. 1. It consists of the root, flat third, fourth, sharp fourth (a.k.a. flat fifth, tritone), fifth, flat seventh, and back to the root. You’ll notice that unlike the scales and modes we have discussed over the last two columns, the blues scale only has six distinct notes, or seven if you include the repeated root/octave. These notes clearly outline a minor seventh chord based on the root, with the added fourth and flatted fifth, so it works well against a minor seventh chord, or a dominant seventh with a sharp ninth. When you listen to blues and rock guitar players, organists, and synth players like George Duke, you will hear how they can play blues licks over both minor and major chord vamps, the blues changes, and other chord progressions; imparting a lot of feeling and expression from their lines. In Ex. 2 I show a couple of simple blues licks, which can work against a single chord, or some varying progressions. 

As a synth player, integrating bends is essential to “speaking the blues.” So in Ex. 3 I take those same licks and show how you might integrate some well-placed bends into the phrases. As we discussed way back in February and March of 2012, you can really get emotional when you bend slowly and play a bit more “between the cracks” of the notes, especially when bending up into the fourth, flatted fifth, and fifth of the key center (in this case, the F, Gb, and G notes in the key of C). Be sure to use the whole vocabulary of bends: don’t just always bend up into a note, bend up and down, scoop into a note, and do a slight “fall” or “doit” off when releasing a note (by bending down or up slightly as you release the key). Set your bend range to a minor third (or higher!) and practice bends from within the scale note choices as shown in Ex. 4.


The Major Blues Scale

Relying solely on the blues scale can get a bit monotonous after a while, especially when used over a major or dominant seventh chord or progression. One reason is that the major third of the root key chord (E if in the key of C) is never played . When you want to play bluesy but in a more major-sounding way you can use the major blues scale. As shown in Ex. 5, it consists of the root, second, flat third, major third, fifth, and sixth of the scale. As you play the notes you’ll start to hear that this scale is the basis for a lot of rock and soul licks, horn lines, boogie-woogie piano riffs and more. If you play rock ’n’ roll piano, this is one of the fundamental scales to draw on when in a major key.

The only really “bluesy” note in the scale is the minor third, and the area that you center on to play between the cracks is now between the second, minor third, and major third. Ex. 6 presents a few simple licks using the scale, and Ex. 7 integrates bends into them. Unlike the “regular” blues scale, you can’t keep playing this same blues scale over a whole blues progression; when you move to the IV chord (F7 in the key of C) that E note (the major third of the key) really doesn’t work. So you’ll want to use the F major blues scale, or the C blues scalesee Ex. 8.


Drawing from Both Scales

Since each of these scales can work on a dominant seventh chord, why not just merge them together? That would give you the scale shown in Ex. 9, consisting of the root, second, flat third, major third, fourth, flat fifth, fifth, sixth, and flat seventh. All the notes will sound good against the chord, but when you play the scale up and down it doesn’t sound very bluesy. As I’ve been saying, scales are good for showing note choices, but just running up and down them is not the answer. The approach I use (I certainly didn't invent it!) is to create groupings of note choices from this scale, not use all of them all the time. Ex. 10 shows some common choices here. See you next month!

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