Improvise with the blues scale




How to improvise on a blues tune

When you start learning jazz and try to improvise on the changes of a tune, it’s possible to come up against the difficulty of not being able to follow all the chords right away. There are certain structures, like for example the blues, on which it is possible to stay on the same scale throughout the piece! This can come in very handy!

The blues is a 12-bar structure that you obviously have to know, but you can always improvise on the blues scale, as well as on the pentatonic scale!


Blues scales and blue notes: a bit of history

Pentatonic scales are the scales that gave birth to blues and jazz. At the end of the 19th century, these scales were mainly sung by African Americans working in the fields and exploited by wealthy white landowners. The transmission of these scales was done mainly orally, by singing.

When it was necessary to transcribe blues solos at the beginning of the 20th century, attempts were made to adapt the sounds of these African scales to the Western tonal system. We thus obtained the pentatonic scale, contained in the diatonic scale. But certain notes sung by the blues men did not correspond to those of the diatonic scale. It was therefore necessary to add additional notes to the pentatonic scale: the blue notes.








What is the blues scale?

The blues scale is the pentatonic scale to which we add a note. This note is known as the “blue note.” In the case of the minor pentatonic it will be the diminished fifth, and in the case of the major pentatonic it will be the minor third. For example, for the A minor pentatonic scale it will be E flat, and for the C major pentatonic scale it will also be E flat, since C major is the relative major of A minor!

In summary: The blues scale = minor pentatonic + the blue note (diminished fifth)

Example: Blues in F

F minor pentatonic = F – A flat – B flat – C – E flat

(We can already use this scale to improvise on the structure of the blues in F. See the example in the video!)

blue note = B

Blues scale = F – A flat – B flat – B natural – DO – E flat

At the bottom of this page, you can receive the score by email with all the pentatonic and blues scales in all keys!

Here is the first video of the series where you can listen to all this and understand better:










Some examples and tips for practicing the blues scale

Create your own riffs with the blues scale, either in tonal context or in Blues context. Practice the scale by changing the order of the notes! It’s worth practicing this scale, because the blue note gives a particular color in the interpretation of the blues, but also of the jazz standards!! When you master it, you will really enjoy it… You can use it with glissandi, without overdoing it of course… It’s all a question of dosage! Of course, it is important not to play only with this scale, because then you will always remain in the same style…. Indeed, this scale sounds good! But be aware that this scale has been reproduced millions of times by musicians all over the world. It is therefore important to work with other improvisational tools as well, such as arpeggios and scales of each chord that make up the blues and other standards.








The blues scale on Minor Swing

For example, this scale can be used throughout the Minor Swing piece. We use for this the blues scale in the key of A, composed of the A minor pentatonic to which we add the blue note E flat. Here is the example with the second video of the series:







The practical side of the blues scale

The blues scale really works throughout the song, so it’s very handy! Indeed, if you start to improvise on Minor Swing using the arpeggios of the chords, but after a while get lost, you can improvise on the blues scale, the time to find your bearings, and then go back to the arpeggios! And if you’re completely lost… you know you can always hang on to that blues scale that runs throughout the song!









Stéphane Grappelli uses it on Minor Swing!

Listen to Stéphane Grappelli’s solos on Minor Swing: you’ll see that he uses this blues scale a lot! And not just on Minor Swing, but on many other non-blues tracks! All jazz players use it: the more you practice it, the more you will hear it and come to identify it when listening to the great jazz soloists!





Blues scale on Rhythm Changes in C major


If we take the blues scale from A used on Minor Swing, but play it from C, that gives us the relative major. We have a 6-note major scale widely used in jazz as well! For example, it can be used on Rhythm Changes in C. Of course, the C major pentatonic scale can also be used on Rhythm Changes!

You can also use the C blues scale: the notes will be C-Eb-F-F#-G-Bb. This one sounds great too! We can therefore use the two blues scales (A and C) and the two corresponding pentatonic scales to improvise on the Rhythm Changes.

However, beware! The form of the Rhythm Changes is an AABA. These scales can only be used for the A parts; on part B, you will have to learn the arpeggios of each chord.

Here is the third video where I show you the examples:







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