Blues Breakdown

Blues Breakdown

So, you want to play the blues…

In this lesson we're going to get you up and running with playing the blues in seconds flat. This article is going to focus on the “lead guitar” side of the blues and learning how to play solos like some of the greats. Hopefully this will help you to improve your own improvised solos and writing.

To get the most out of this lesson, you need to know a few basic parts of guitar/music theory, these include:

  • Diatonic (7 note) scales and Major and Minor Pentatonic (5 note) scales
  • The chord tones and the degree's of a scale – e.g. knowing what a b5 is
  • Harmony knowledge: Chords in a key – e.g. knowing what the I, IV and V chords are in the key of F

As we get into this lesson, it will be come clear that playing the blues can be as complex or as simple as you want it to be.

We aren't going to gloss over the tricky bits, but instead we're going to look at what sounds good over blues changes (chords) and why that might be.

Of course, theory is only good if you can put it to use, so I'd urge you to try out everything you learn in this lesson on your own instrument. This way you'll end up improving your playing and your understanding.

The secret

The secret to playing the blues is to be a copy-cat. Once in a while you might hear a blues player that is doing something otherworldly (Jeff Beck springs to mind), but the majority of the time, the greatest guitarists out there, aren't doing a whole lot more than copying the classic blues guys.

Of course, once you've cracked the code and worked out what the greats are actually doing, you can make up your own licks and that's where the fun really starts. But before you get to ahead of yourself, you should know about...

The Three kings

B.B., Freddie and Albert King (not related) are crowned as the three kings of the blues. Each had their own style, and each inspired other more contemporary musicians to a greater or lesser degree. For example, Stevie Ray-Vaughn, royalty in his own right, was highly influence by Albert.

Take a listen to Albert here:

Freddie can be heard here:

B.B. King:

To sound “bluesey” you really have figure out with what the classic blues players did, and from this, learn how to copy their licks, sound and style.

So what did these guys do and how can you start to copy it!?

Getting technical

For this article, I'm going to assume you know what the typical I-IV-V changes in the blues are and that you're aware of the basic 12-bar structure. We're going to base our blues progression in E major, but this lesson could apply to any key.

Guitar Lesson Image One

Now, the KEY to the blues is to recognise that each “change”, meaning a movement from the I chord (which in the above case is E major) to the IV (which is the A7 chord) can also be considered a key CHANGE. 

You might be thinking, hang on, if the song is a blues in E major, surely the whole song is in E major. Well, yes and no, and this all falls down to the power of the dominant 7th chord.

In any particular key, there are 7 basic chords which can be built using the notes in the diatonic scale (diatonic = 7 notes). The break down of this is given below in the table called “Chords in the E Major Scale”. The creation process of all chords in a given scale is known as harmonising the major scale. 

A bog-standard major triad chord is made up of the root, the 3rd and the 5th, when played in isolation, could be a I, IV or V chord in any given key. However, as soon as you play the 7 along side the regular triad, to make a dominant 7th, the chord screams “I'm a V chord!”.

Chords in the E Major Scale

Guitar Lesson Image Two

A regular “major blues” is usually made up of 3 dominant 7th chords, played in a 12 bar pattern, and this means there are actually 3 V chords! Obviously there can only be one V chord in a given key, so therefore the key effectively changes at each chord change! 

In the above table, you can see that the V chord in E major is actually B dominant 7. This means that when B7 is played, it indicates the key of E major. 

A break down of the indicated keys in a blues with 3 dominant 7 chords is shown in the following table:

Guitar Lesson Image Two

What does this all have to do with playing a blues… well, basically this means playing in a key which sounds good over one chord, might sound dissonant (not a compatible key) and weird over another chord.

Note: This idea is actually a key part of jazz harmony and if you're thinking of getting into jazz guitar, one of the first things you should do is to learn the indicated keys for all dominant 7 chords.

Playing over the I chord

A good deal of players have a go to scale when they play over the 1 chord. This is the 1st position minor pentatonic scale, shown here:

Now the funny thing with the 1st position minor pentatonic scale, is that it is totally OUT of key with the I chord in a regular major-blues progression. 

Most guitarists learn this scale when they start playin' the blues but then have go back and re-engineer their understanding later on. 

Guitar Lesson Image Two

In the case of a minor blues progression, the I chord, for example (Em7), IS compatible with the E minor pentatonic scale position 1, but this idea often gets mixed up with the major blues which, as we now know, is a much more complicated thing!

Now, having knocked guitarists who use this scale over the I chord in a blues, it does sound GOOD and can be used to great effect, we'll get on to why this might be the case in a moment.

So if the 1st position minor pentatonic is not the “correct” scale to play over chord I, what is I hear you ask….

The answer comes down to what we talks about earlier regarding the dominant 7 chord.

Our I chord, for example, E7 (R-3-5-b7) is actually the V chord in the key of A major. Therefore the “correct” scale to play over a E7 chord in a blues is actually the A major scale.

Getting to the ROOT of the problem

Before we move on, it's important to note the distinction between ROOT and KEY.

As previously mentioned, the KEY is in A major when a E7 is played, but the ROOT note is E, because this is the root of the chord being played. 

This means that in musical terms, we would talk about the D note being the b7 when played over an E7, where E is the root (E = 1, F# = 2, … D = b7).

Note: the key is A major, so we have a D natural (not a D# which is in E major).

Less is more

Before we get get into “less is more” I want to talk about sandwiches.

Sandwiches are a good analogy for music in several ways. Stay with me…

Say you're making a sandwich. First of all you choose your bread. That's the easy part. Next up you choose your filling. Fortunately you've just been to the shops and you're kitchen is packed with every type of filling under the sun. In the fridge you've got cheese, tomatoes, eggs, ham, peanut butter, jam, nutella, prawns, pate and lettuce.

Now it's decision time...

Do you:

A. Make a cheese/tomato/egg/ham/peanut butter/jam/nutella/prawns/pate/lettuce sandwich


B. Carefully select complimentary ingredients to make your sandwich

Hopefully, you answered B.

Well choosing the notes to play over a chord is like choosing ingredients in a sandwich. 

Now that we've identified the correct key/scale to play in over the I chord (A major), we can select the best sounding (tastiest!) bunch of notes from the scale to sound as “musical” as possible.

If you try and play every note in the key, you'll notice that not only does it sound a boring, but it does not sound like the blues. A bit like adding peanut butter to a ham and cheese sandwich, playing every note mixes up the flavours to a point where the ear doesn't really know what's going on. 

Conversely, playing so that every single note means something should be the ultimate goal. This is what is meant by “musical”.

There are two basic ways which guitarists use to sound more musical over chord changes.

Chord tones

One method is to play the chord tones of the underlying chord. For example, in the E7 chord, there are the notes E-G#-B-D. Great guitarists such as B.B. King played simple licks using only these chord tones, with the exception of a some string bends.

Pentatonics – 5 notes scales

The other method is to play in “pentatonic” scales, which effectively means cutting down our standard 7 note scale, into 5 notes. You'll see in the fretboard diagram below, an E major pentatonic scale, over the top of the A major scale. This is just one of several pentatonic options over the A major scale, but it's probably the most commonly heard. 

Blues greats like Albert King and B.B. King use this shape for most of their licks over the I chord.

Secret sauce

Of course, as guitarists, we like to “bend” the rules. Therefore we can add a couple of ingredients to sound more “bluesy”.

The Minor 3rd

A key note which you can experiment with is the b3rd. 

The b3rd note isn't technically in the same key as the rest of the notes in the major key, so you can't stay on it too long, but it sounds great if you bend the b3rd a semitone up to the major 3rd. As you should be beginning to see, the major/minor relationship is really utilised in the blues, therefore the b3rd is a very important part of the blues sound.

The b3rd in over the E7 as the I chord (which as we know gives the impression of an A major key), is actually the b7 in an A7 chord when played as the IV.

This means that we can introduce an A7 sound, over the E7 chord, making the transition from I-IV at bar 5 smoother. This is actually a jazz technique called super-imposition and is a powerful technique for adding complexity to the overall sound.

The Blue Note

The second element which we can add in, is the b5th, also known as the “blue” note. Again, this isn't part of the same key as the rest of our notes, but sounds cool if you use it sparingly.

Guitar Lesson Image Two

The chart above shows an A major scale, with the notes of E major pentatonic over the top + the two secret sauce notes (b3 and b5). 

If you've learnt about the modes, you'll recognise that this shape, starting on the E, is E mixolydian.

The IV chord

Next up we have the IV chord. Again, we can work out the indicated key when we play the dominant 7 IV chord.

For example, when we play A7, it has the effect of changing keys to D major, because A7 is the V chord in a D major key.

Now that we know the key, we can simply find out which notes in that key sound the best.

Like we did for the I chord, we can play the chord tones. These are going to be A-C#-E-G. This is a safe choice as you're never going to sound “out” if you stick to the same notes as the backing chord.

Again, like we did for the I chord, we can find out which 5 note, pentatonic scales sound best over the IV chord. 

Weirdly the major pentatonic, based on the root of the IV chord, is not the best sounding choice when it comes to playing over the IV chord.

I say this is weird because it was our equivalent scale of choice for the I chord because we played the E major pentatonic over E7.

Instead, a common choice is to play the minor pentatonic over the IV chord that is based off of the root of the I chord. So, for a blues in E, this is actually the G major/E minor pentatonic scale when we play over the A7 (IV) chord.

We could probably go on for days about why this particular 5 note scale sounds good over the IV chord but to be honest, I think you're better off trying it out yourself!

Note that the root note is still A, even though we are playing an E minor pentatonic shape!

Guitar Lesson Image Two

The above fretboard digram shows an E minor pentatonic shape, over the top of the D major scale, where A is the root!

So now we have our basic pentatonic shape for the IV chord, we can add our secret sauce notes to add “flavour” to our playing. 

There are 3 notes I would urge you to experiment with over the IV chord. These are the b9, the #9 and the major 3rd, relative to the root of the IV chord.

The b2/b9

You might have spotted in the fretboard digram, the b9 is in the spot where we find the b5 or blue note in a minor pentatonic. I'm calling it the b9 because I want to keep consistency though this lesson and until now, everything we've talked about has been relative to the underlying chord.

If we were playing the I chord in an E blues (E7), we would call this same exact note the b5 or blue note. However, this section of the lesson is all about the IV chord (A7) and this means that to be correct, we should be calling it the b9.

Note: The b9 is the same note (different name) for the b2.

The #9/b3

The #9 is an interesting note to play with over a dominant 7 note. If you've ever learnt a Jimi Hendrix tune, you might remember playing an E7#9. It's the Foxy Lady chord. 

The #9 gives a really jazzy and interesting sound over a dominant 7 chord. A nice trick is to quickly slide up one semitone (fret) from the #9 to the major 3rd.

Note: The #9 is the same note (different name) for the minor 3rd.

The major 3rd

The last secret sauce note isn't really a secret as it's one of the chord tones from the IV chord! Adding this note to our bog standard minor pentatonic shape (it's the C# in an E minor shape – see above) can sound really good over the IV chord.

The V chord

Finally we get to the V chord.

Hopefully, by now you should be familiar with the process of working out the actual key from the chord played.

For a blues in E, the V chord is a B7, which is the V chord in an E major key.

Therefore the “correct” key to play in is E major!

Now the first thing to mention is that either of the two basic shapes above, E major pentatonic (as shown for the I chord), or E minor pentatonic (as shown for the IV chord) will work over the V chord, so if you want to stop at this point, fine!

However a really nice scale choice which isn't one of the above is to play the minor pentatonic based on the root of the V chord, which for a blues in E is B minor pentatonic.

You don't have much time in a 12 bar blues to play over the V chord, so to make it count, changing to this minor pentatonic based on the root of the V can sound really effective!

Let's take a look at what this shape looks like below:

Guitar Lesson Image Two

Just like the scales used in the I and IV chord, to get the “blues” sound we are adding in the minor/b3 note.

Note: This is the same note relative to the root note as the #9.

Putting it all together

So, we've learnt all of the tools we need to play over the entire 12 bars!

The final step is to put all of those tools to work and make them sound good. Below I've annotated the 12 bar blues progression with the right scales for the job.

If you need to jog your memory, simply look through the steps above to see the fretboard diagrams with the scale shapes.

Time to get some backing tracks out and put what you've learnt to good use.

Before you go, I urge you to check out this beautiful performance by B.B. King where he near perfectly follows the above format for his playing.

Happy playing!

Alex Fixsen

Resident Online Guitar Tutor

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I cover all styles on both electric and acoustic guitar, enabling my guitar students to learn through the playing the songs that they love. Whether that is rock, pop, jazz, funk, blues, folk or anything in between we can cover it in our lessons. I have taught many beginner students over the years, developing a fantastic course of foundation lessons to enable my students to learn how to play the guitar at a pace that suits them. 

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