I’ve presented classes at a number of conferences about playing improv solos. I like to show a little trick I discovered over the years that can make soloing easier and mistake free. It’s a system using just the simple blues scale based on different degrees of the key or chords, each offering different textures or favors.

The blues scale is usually the first scale guitar players learn along with the minor pentatonic scale. Let’s review the blues scale formula and apply it to the key of “A”. Check out the exercise below.

Even if this is too elementary for you, please read on…

If you play this scale over and over you’ll find that the first four notes have a pointing effect to the 5th. Try stopping on Eb and see how your ear wants to hear the E natural. This is important to remember because it’s the how the E natural relates to certain chord progressions that changes the sound or flavor of the blues scale.

If I play some lead riffs from this “A” blues scale over a rock progression in the key of “A” I’m going to get a hard bluesy/rock sound. Try playing some leads over this rock progression:

A5         D5         E5         A5
/ / / /    / / / /    / / / /     / / / /

This is blues based on the root and creates what I like to call the “Biker Bar” sound, which is caused by the tension of the b3 and b5 over major chords. It works great over dominant 7th and minor chords as well. However, playing this blues scale over other progressions can produce many more textures.

Next is blues based on the 6th degree. Here is a “Major” sounding progression like that of many songs in major keys. Play this chord progression:

C          G          Am          F
/ / / /    / / / /    / / / /    / / / /

and use the “A” blues scale over it (“A” being the 6th of “C”) to create some lead riffs. Don’t add any other notes to the blues scale. Notice how there’s a very “major sound” that focuses on the 3rd of the key, E. Most pop music is very major sounding so if you’re a lead guitar player, find the 6th of the key and build a blues scale from that note to create your solos. It’s fool proof as long as you stick to the blues scale. This also creates a country sound so I call it the “Barn Sound” Remember the 5th of the blues scale that the other notes are pointing toward (E) is now the 3rd of the key that is why it sounds so major.

Next is blues based on the 5th degree. When we play a blues scale based off the 5th of a dominant 7th or minor 7th chord we get a sound, which I like to call the “The Jazz Club” sound. This is that “smooth jazz sound” that accentuates now the 9th of the chord. Try playing the same riffs in the “A” blues scale but this time over a Dm7 vamp:

Dm7
/ / / /    / / / /    / / / /    / / / /

Hear how the blues scale focuses on the “E” which is now the 9th, this changes the whole flavor of our scale and is a trick of your favorite jazz player.

Our last application is blues based on the 3rd degree. This brings outs the major 7th of a chord progression and creates a sound, which I like to call the “Holiday Inn” sound.

This works well with songs that have a strong major 7th sound in their chord progression. Since “A” is the 3rd of the key of “F”, try playing riffs from the “A” blues scale around
this progression:

Fmaj7   Bbmaj7   Gmin7   C11
/ / / /    / / / /    / / / /    / / / /

See how the same blues scale takes on even another flavor? Amazing!

Lay down a backing in these four styles and experiment. Notice how the same blues scale changes its texture by the chords that are played in the backing track. Now lay down on your looper some blues riffs in “A”. Remember you can’t add any other notes to the blues scale, you only have six to work with. Then play the four different chord progressions and you’ll be amazed how it changes the texture of the riffs.

The exercise below shows a couple simple riffs that I want you to experiment over these four progressions.

I hope this helps you some fresh ideas for lead playing.

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