Many of the greatest riffs and licks of all time were formed from the Blues scale. It is an essential tool for any musician – particularly guitarists. Whether it be Jazz, Rock, Funk, Pop (or indeed, the Blues), the Blues scale provides a fantastic foundation for any solo or riff. In this article, we will look at what the Blues Scale is, the history of the blues, its influence on different genres, how to play the Blues scale on guitar and some key tips for guitarists.
The Blues scale can be described as essentially any major or minor pentatonic scale with the addition of a flattened 5th. There are actually considered to be three different forms of the blues scale: hexatonic, heptatonic and even nonatonic. These just denote the number of notes in each scale, with hexatonic being 6, heptatonic being 7 and nonatonic suggesting that the Blues scale can even consist of 9 notes.
The most common form of the scale is the hexatonic scale:
The addition of what are referred to as ‘Blue notes’ (the flattened 3rd, 5th and 7th) give the Blues scale its distinctive sound. It sits in between two worlds of Western and African musical tradition.
Just to ensure that we all have the same understanding of the Blues, here are some key features of the genre.
As with most musical genres, the Blues has changed over the years – but many of the foundations in every song remain the same. A typical Blues song follows an AAB structure, with the first lyrical phrase sung over the first 4 bars, a repetition of the phrase over the next 4, followed by a concluding line of the last few bars. This is built around the 12-bar blues, one of the most prominent Blues chord progressions which generally uses I-IV-V chords.
The addition of 7th chords are often added to create a different flavour within the song, linking back to the appearance of the flattened 7th within the Blues Scale. This leads us to the final element of any Blues song: the Blues Scale. Aside from any typically used tonal keys (e.g. C major), the Blues Scale provides the melodic element of a song, giving the Blues its distinguishable sound.
The Blues rose out of America during the late 19th century and early 1900’s from former African-American slaves in the deep South. Its sound grew from the mixtures of African traditions and Western music being fused together. Faced with segregation and discrimination, many musicians within these communities used music to express how they felt. Though often thought of as sad music, the more apt description would probably be honest music. There was a rawness to the stories depicted by many Blues artists, particularly in the earlier forms of the Blues.
Places of particular significance for the Blues’ beginning are Memphis, Tennessee and the Mississippi Delta. Out of these areas came artists such as John Lee Hooker, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf and BB King, to name a few. As the popularity of the Blues spread, some musicians sort out to perform elsewhere throughout America, heading north to places like New York and Chicago where they might receive less discrimination as black musicians. This led to further derivations of the blues i.e. the ‘Chicago Blues’ and ‘Electric Blues’. It also helped steer the creation of other genres such as Jazz.
As Blues seemingly saw a decline in interest during the 1960’s, the genre found a new way of life through the likes of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Artists like Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry had grown up around the Blues, and so it seeped into much of their music making. In many songs today, we can still find an identifiable 12-bar blues structure. Additionally, the Blues scale appears time and again in some of the most well-known riffs from Rock to Jazz and Funk to Metal.
As stated previously, the Blues scale is best described as a minor pentatonic with the addition of a flattened fifth. Therefore, for guitarists, it would be a good suggestion to familiarise yourself with the Pentatonic scales before diving into the Blues Scale. Irrespective of this, the patterns below provide a method of how to play the A minor blues scale:
As this is in A minor, place your first finger on the fifth fret. The red here shows the root note of the scale, and the blue depicts the ‘blue’ notes in our scale. Personally, I find this to be the nicest one that fits under my fingers. However, it is sometimes less appropriate in other areas of the guitar, so here are some further examples of the patterns to follow:
If, like me, you struggle working from patterns alone, Justin Guitar (with 1.17M subscribers on YouTube) provides a great tutorial on how to play the Blues Scale that I would recommend checking out.
Now that you have an idea of the Blues scale and how to play it, let’s explore how it has been used in some well-known riffs. These could be used to further your practice with the Blues Scale and your familiarity with it.
Sabbath were notably influenced by Jazz in their music. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that some of their riffs are based around the Blues scale. The addition of flattened fifths really adds the perfect amount of tension, particularly for Heavy Metal music.
A classic riff from Eric Clapton. In this song, he essentially walks down the Blues scale. Hence, it is a great riff to learn for anyone trying to gain further understanding about the Blues Scale.
Aptly named ‘Roadhouse Blues’, it comes as no surprise that this song is based on the Blues scale. The open string notation of the riff means it is accessible to almost any player looking to practice Blues Scales.
Again, I would recommend checking out some tutorials for these riffs. There are some really good ones out there from YouTubers like Andy Guitar and GuitarJamz.
Now you might be thinking, “I’m not into Jazz, Rock, Funk or Metal. I’m more of a Pop artist. So, what good is the Blues Scale to me?” Though it is often thought that pop music stems from the use of common Western scales (i.e. major or minor), even this genre contains use of the Blues scale. Its appearances may not always be as obvious, but the inclusion of blue notes within songs occurs often within pop music. Besides, pop music simply means music that is ‘popular’ at any given time. Here are a couple of examples:
Though admittedly a rock song, the popularity of this tune and its riff cannot be understated. As the song says, ‘Walk this Way’, the riff from Joe Perry basically walks up the scale. It sounds simple – but the inflections he adds to his playing really make it stand out within the song.
A classic funk tune from Deee-Lite is next on the list. I have cheated a little as this is actually a bass riff. However, you can hear a clear example of the Blues Scale in use throughout this song. Additionally, it gives a nice idea of its uses in genres other than Rock and Blues.
Though not in the Pop world, the likes of Masego and French Kiwi Juice are doing great things and pushing Jazz into a modern era. I would highly recommend listening if you want to hear modern examples of the Blues scale in use. Additionally, the appearance of flattened 7ths and 7th chords in the music of artists such as Rex Orange County makes reference to the Blues scale, adding to his unique sound.
As a general rule for any musician (but especially guitarists), don’t neglect your scales. Often, the key to becoming a great musician is knowing your instrument inside out. Scales offer a fantastic gateway to get to grips with any instrument.
Once you have the Blues scale basics down, try playing around and forming riffs off your own. Don’t get bogged down with any particular way of playing the scale. Everybody is different, and if you may struggle with certain patterns. Try a different one until you find one that sits comfortably with your style of playing.
Finally, for any beginner guitarists, I would recommend finding a good teacher, or at least YouTube tutorials to learn from. I think for a lot of people, this is the best way to improve your playing. You will find that you pick things up quicker when shown the correct way to play, rather than figuring it out alone.
The Blues is everywhere! Its influence is extensive and seeps into much of what we hear today in modern music. As such, it is so important to be able to play the Blues Scale. It will lead you to master and even produce some of the greatest riffs of all time. Practice these guitar patterns, and once you become accustomed to it, you will find examples of it in most things you play. If you aren’t comfortable improvising, this is a great scale to learn. This is because simply playing this scale over tracks can lead naturally into fun improvisation.
So, now you have learned about the Blues scale, and are hopefully putting these tips into play and writing your own songs! Allow us to help you amplify your music, collaborate with others, and even get your music in TV, film and more. Why not try Music Gateway for free?