A Simple Blues Lesson

author: chris flatley date: 05/04/2012 category: soloing
rating: 8.8 / votes: 5 
The aim of this article is to show that licks that appear to be using the blues scale, are in fact simple chord tones in disguise. I once believed that harmony was for chords, and scales were for solos, but it isn't the case. Whenever we play a note over the top of another, we need always to be thinking harmonically. So let's get to the practical by taking a look at the opening verse fills from Albert King's "Crosscut Saw". Unfortunately I've chosen a version that doesn't seem to be available on YouTube. It's from the various artist's album "Beyond Mississippi". "I'm a crosscut saw" "Just drag me across your log"
|--------------------------------|--------------------------------|
|--------------------------------|--------------------------------|
|------------9b11----------------|7-------------------------------|
|--------------------------------|--9-----------------------------|
|--------------------------------|----9---------------------------|
|--------------------------------|--------------------------------|
"I'm a crosscut saw"
|------------------------10------|--------------------------------|
|---------------------------12---|12------------------------------|
|--------------------------------|--------------------------------|
|--------------------------------|--------------------------------|
|--------------------------------|--------------------------------|
|--------------------------------|--------------------------------|
"Just drag me across your log"
|--------------------------------|--------7-----------------------|
|----------------7---------------|----------7-10------------------|
|-----------9b11--10-7-----------|--------------------------------|
|---------------------9b11--7b8--|--------------------------------|
|-------------------------9------|--------------------------------|
|--------------------------------|--------------------------------|
"I cut your wood so easy for you"
|--------------------------------|7-------------------------------|
|--------------------------------|--------------------------------|
|----------------------------7b8-|--------------------------------|
|--------------------------------|--------------------------------|
|--------------------------------|--------------------------------|
|--------------------------------|--------------------------------|
"You can't help but say hotdawg"
|----------------7---------------|--------------------7\5---------|
|-----------------10-7-----------|--------------------7-----------|
|---------------------9b11---9---|7b8-----------------------------|
|--------------------------9---9-|------9-------------------------|
|--------------------------------|--------9---9-------------------|
|--------------------------------|--------------------------------|
Okay so it's in the key of B. we could look at these phrases from a blues scale point of view, and say, yep, he's using the B blues scale. And of course we'd be right. With the exception of the D note at the 7th fret being bent up to the D# at the 8th, all those notes can be found in the B blues scale. That D# is an important thing to notice though because Albert probably isn't thinking about the blues scale at all, but instead the dominant 7th chords, which are made of the degrees: 1, 3, 5, and b7. The thing is that the chord tones themselves, particularly the major triad 1, 3, 5, don't sound particularly bluesy, but all they need is a coat of blue paint. That's what the blues does. It takes major triads/dominant 7th chords, and blueses them up to create little melodic phrases. So how do we blues up the triad? By not playing the notes totally straight, but instead scooping and swooping in and around them. For instance the major 3rd of the I chord is hardly ever played straight. It's almost always slid, hammered, or bent in. In fact, depending on where in the phrase it appears, you can leave it completely flattened to a minor 3rd. Taking advantage of those areas between the major and minor, perfect and diminished is what the blues is all about. So the space between the root and the flattened 7th is fair game for scooping/swooping around in. Same goes for the gap between the minor and major 3rd, the major 2nd and major 3rd, and the perfect 4th and 5ht, which contains the diminished 5th. So even though the phrases are centred on the tones of the dom 7th, they're not hitting them bang on all the time; they're scooping in and swooping out of them; they're in and around them To demonstrate this, let's deblues Albert's fills. First we need to take a quick look at the chords used for the I, IV, V progression: B7, E7), F#7. The chord tones for each are:
B7. B, D#, F#, A
E7: E, G#, B, D
F#7: F#, A, C#, E
Remember that during the I (B7), the D# can be played completely flat in certain areas (more on that later). We're debluesing things, so during the I (B7) parts, we're going to be treating the 3rd degree as D# even when it's played as a D with only the merest suggestion of a bend toward the major, or even none at all. All we're going to do is write the straight notes beneath the tab, ignoring all scooping and swooping.
B7
|--------------------------------|--------------------------------|
|--------------------------------|--------------------------------|
|------------9b11----------------|7-------------------------------|
|--------------------------------|--9-----------------------------|
|--------------------------------|----9---------------------------|
|--------------------------------|--------------------------------|
              F#                 D# B F#        

E7
|------------------------10------|--------------------------------|
|---------------------------12---|12------------------------------|
|--------------------------------|--------------------------------|
|--------------------------------|--------------------------------|
|--------------------------------|--------------------------------|
|--------------------------------|--------------------------------|
                         D  B     B 

B7
|--------------------------------|--------7-----------------------|
|----------------7---------------|----------7-10------------------|
|-----------9b11--10-7-----------|--------------------------------|
|---------------------9b11--7b8--|--------------------------------|
|-------------------------9------|--------------------------------|
|--------------------------------|--------------------------------|
            F#  B A F# F# B D#            B F# A    

F#7                              E7
|--------------------------------|7-------------------------------|
|--------------------------------|--------------------------------|
|----------------------------7b8-|--------------------------------|
|--------------------------------|--------------------------------|
|--------------------------------|--------------------------------|
|--------------------------------|--------------------------------|
                             D#   B

B7
|----------------7---------------|--------------------7\5---------|
|-----------------10-7-----------|--------------------7-----------|
|---------------------9b11---9---|7b8-----------------------------|
|--------------------------9---9-|------9-------------------------|
|--------------------------------|--------9---9-------------------|
|--------------------------------|--------------------------------|
                B A F# F#  B E B  D#    B F# F#      B/F# A 
So as you can see there were only a couple of notes that were taken from outside the dom 7th chords. These were used in weak beat' areas as passing tones between two harmonically stronger notes. They were the D# during the F#7 part, and the E during the final B7 section. The most common notes of all were the notes from the B major triad, B, D#, F#. No surprise as these are harmonically the strongest tones of the I chord, and the I chord is at the center of the progression. In fact provided you were good at bluesifying notes, you could almost get a way with doing a whole blues solo using just the 1, 3, and 5 from the I chord. You'd need to have great rhythm; you'd need to have a good ear for exactly where the pitches are while scooping up to them; you'd need good tight vibrato. A great way to juice up a note is to bend up to it from a degree below, then release just a tone or so, then scoop back up with vibrato. This all happens in one fluid movement so you need to have developed a good sense of exactly where the pitches are. Try playing the note straight for reference, then bend into it and try to stop at the same point. If you're going to miss the pitch, it's better to be a little flat, than to overshoot and go sharp. Exercises Your prime goal is to be both rhythmically and harmonically strong. If you get both of these right, you'll sound great. So the exercises "You" should create are very simple: spend heaps of time playing strong chord tones in a rhythmic way over a simple drum and bass track. "You" is emphasised because I believe that as guitarists we have to discover everything for ourselves. Years ago I heard a great guitarist talking about how chord tones always sound great within a blues solo. I tried it, and it didn't because I hadn't learned it for myself. That's been true of so many things. It's like even though people tell you stuff, you still have to discover them independantly. You have to find your own way there; no one can walk the walk for you. Your aim with the exercises isn't to be able to play great solos straight away, but to get experience playing strong tones rhythmically. This is done by having the drums give you something to base your grooves on, and the bass providing the tonal context from which to gain experience of what it's like to play mostly harmonically strong notes, and what they sound like so that you'll really notice when you place emphasis on weak ones. Playing strong tones on strong beats needs to become deeply ingrained in your playing. This tends not to happen when practicing scales. If we consider that the notes of the triad are the strongest, then we can see that randomly running up and down a 7 note scale without any consideration of which notes are landing where, there's a greater than 50%chance that we'll place the emphasis on a weak note. Add the remaining 5 tones from the chromatic scale, and we have a 75% chance of finding ourselves in harmonic no man's land. This is why earlier I mentioned that during the I chord section, in certain circumstances the 3rd can be played as a minor, but there are other times when it has to be major. If, while playing over the I chord, you want to use it to end a phrase, then it's best to bend, hammer or slide it up to the major tonality because it's harmonically stronger in that tonal context. However, if it's played as part of a phrase that ends on the 1 or the 5, it's more of a passing tone, and can be played as a minor 3rd. When played over the IV it should always be played as a minor 3rd because the tonality has changed, and that note is now functioning as a 7th. This means that in the key of B, you can play D or D# over the I chord (B7), but it has to be D over the IV (E7). If you bend it up to the major 3rd over the IV bit, it's going to sound a major 7th not a dom. This alone is a good example of how the blues scale will let you down if you use it as a map on which to base your solos. To practice playing harmonically strong notes, you don't necessarily need to have your backing track play a I, IV, V 12 bar progression or whatever. In fact it's better at first if the backing doesn't keep changing. Best not to have things feel as if there always getting away from you. Just having the bass play a single note that you can treat as a root is enough to get good practice playing chord tones in a rhythmic way. Remember your prime goal. For example, if the bass loops a B note, then this will allow you to get to grips with the B7 tones. Then have the bass play just an E note on a loop, and do the same for the E7 tones. Gaining experience in the nuts and bolts of soloing is different from soloing itself. Another thing to remember is that even though you're playing only the chord tones, that doesn't necessarily mean arpeggios. Look at some blues solos, chord tones they may be, but arpeggios they ain't. So groove around on the B note for a bar, then the D#, then the F#. If you try to play long arpeggios before having developed the string crossing rhythmic skill required, the likelihood is that your rhythm will suffer, and so you're failing in your prime goal. When you do start to try out your newly developed harmonically strong chord tone approach over an actual progression, try playing with a plain drum track, and make sure that the chord changes can be heard just from the exercise/solo itself. This can only be done if you're giving high priority to chord tones. Most importantly of all is the rhythmic aspect. Be a great rhythmic player. Do this by mastering dynamic/volume ebb and flow. Without great rhythm, there will be no strong and weak beats, and without strong and weak beats, there will be no rhythmic context for strong and weak harmonic tones. Mute off the strings of your guitar and spend some time as a percussion player because that's essentially what the guitar is after you take away the specifically tuned tones. Playing phrases that aren't underpinned by great rhythm is like building a house on sand. When it comes to adding "non chord tones", it's hard to say where you should and shouldn't use them. After all every note could be considered a chord tone of some sort, and every tone has its place in the harmonic hierarchy. If every note always served the same function, and were always in the same place, then creativity would be out of a job, and it would be a case of compose by numbers. All I can say is that if you spend lots of time playing just the tones at the top of the harmonic hierarchy, the 1, 3, 5, and in the case of blues, the b7, then it should make things easier for you to determine where the other tones do and do not sound "right". Within the context of a standard 12 bar blues, the fourth degree is probably the most commonly used "non chord tone", so maybe add that one to the mix first, just don't end a phrase on it. If I ever understand jazz, I might be in a better position to write about this sort of stuff. Finally I'd like to end by giving another great example of a solo played over an I, IV, V progression, and that almost exclusively sticks to the triad chord tones from the three chords. It isn't a blues solo so doesn't rely so much on all those neat tricks to make things interesting, and yet it still manages to sound great. It's the solo from Floyd's Mother. Too tired to tab it out here, so look it up if you're interested. It's a great example of a guitarist who's not thinking about scales but chords. Hope this has been a help and not a hindrance.
More chris flatley lessons:
+ Improving General Rhythmic Coordination For Beginners 12/04/2012
+ Relieving Fretting Hand Tension Correct Practice 08/01/2012
+ Useful Exercises For Chicago Blues And Old School Rock Soloing 07/30/2012
+ Picking And Fretting Fundamentals Correct Practice 07/17/2012
+ How Well Do You Know Your Stuff? Correct Practice 06/29/2012
+ Interesting Patterns Scales 04/30/2012
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