Blues Scales And Progressions

Learn how to apply blues scales to simple soloing, and how to play the 12 bar blues progression.

Ultimate Guitar
Blues Scales And Progressions
This little document is mainly on how to solo using the blues pentatonic scales.

A blues pentatonic scale, from what I understand, is simply a minor pentatonic scale with a blues note between the 3rd and 4th tone.

Now, the scale is located on five places on the fretboard.

The first one is the simplest I think, as it is the one most popularly known. It goes like this:
 Ascending                         Descending                       

Box I

Obviously, seeing the tabs, this scale is in E. However, if you want to make it in, say, G, then all you have to do is transpose all the tabs up three frets... get it? Now then, while you can actually use just this little box to solo with (and quite nicely, too), I think that it would highly benefit you to learn the next four boxes, as well.

Now, all these are in E, so in order to make them into a different key, you must simply transpose them accordingly. Also, (and this refers to the previous scale as well), the fingers used really depend on your preference; I personally use my index and ring finger, and occasionally my middle, which leaves my pinky to be used only when holding a chord. So, it's all up to you.
 Ascending                           Descending                     

Box II

 Ascending                         Descending                       




Box IV



Box V

So, there's the boxes. Now, if you just didn't want to play those middle notes, and just use the pentatonic scale, well, that would be alright, but it wouldn't sound as... rich, for lack of a better word, when played with a blues song. It's a little difficult to incorporate that note into a solo, but when you find out where it fits, it adds a nice touch to the song. Oh, and let me throw in a hint for soloing: when I first started, I solo'ed only picking in one direction, which slowed down my tempo. If you alternate picking a string down and up, your speed could more than double. I dunno, that was just meant for beginners.

Now, onto the blues progressions. The 12 bar blues progression is simply made up of the first, fourth, and fifth tones in a major scale, and is spread over twelve measures (bars). For example, in E, the first tone would be E, then - (E, F#, G#, A) - A would be the fourth, and - (E, F#, G#, A, B) - B would be the fifth. Thus, the chords would be E, A, & B. Now, we know the chords... what about the progression? Well, let's say that each letter below is a whole note held in that chord (in 4/4 time, so whole note = 4 beats). In order to play just the plain old 12 bar, you would go:

E - E - E - E - A - A - E - E - B - A - E - E (end)
   E     A     B          
A|-2-|A|-0-|A|-X-| (muted)
Go on, play it. Get the hang of it. Now, most blues songs aren't in the major. Most are in seventh. So, try it in seventh now.

E7 - E7 - E7 - E7 - A7 - A7 - E7 - E7 - B7 - A7 - E7 - E7
   E7    A7    B7          
E|-0-|E|-0-|E|-2-| (Pinky)
G|-1-|G|-0-|G|-2-| (Ring)
D|-0-|D|-2-|D|-1-| (Index)
A|-2-|A|-0-|A|-2-| (Middle)
B7 is hard to go into, but it sounds nice.

Now, then... you've gotten this far. To make it a little better sounding, let's throw in an extra A7, for extra flavor:

E7 - A7 - E7 - E7 - A7 - A7 - E7 - E7 - B7 - A7 - E7 - E7

That's what the song, "Sweet Home Chicago" uses in its progression. Now, to finish it off, let's add another B7:

E7 - A7 - E7 - E7 - A7 - A7 - E7 - E7 - B7 - A7 - E7 - B7

Like it? I do. Now, to make it sound better, use this stroking technique, where the sound isn't like "one-and-two-and" but is instead, "one-a-two-a" so that you sound like you are actually playing blues rhythms (listen to a few blues songs to get what I'm talking about)

Up... and down... up... and down...

I'm sorry, I just can't think of any other way to describe it. I don't have access to note symbols... Well, anyways, on to the next step. Now, you have the chords... let's add a little riff in there to make it sound better. We're still in E7, so here it is.

This next chords are E7 and A7, with an extra note in there to throw in so that it sounds more complex:
   E7    A7 
Now, use these extra notes with your ring or pinky finger (whichever is easier). Hit them every other beat, and your sound will be a lot better! B7 doesn't have an extra note as far as I know, or at least one that is fairly simple to reach. And now you know the 12 bar blues progression! I will answer any questions on the comments board, or you can email me at Have fun!

114 comments sorted by best / new / date

    oh, yes... very diplomatic, AnthonyZ.... you stated your reasons very efficiently and have proved your point beyond a shadow of a doubt. You know, it's arses like you that deserve to watch their own guitar get run over by a Mack truck. What is the point of your statement? Why bother writing that at all? You just make yourself look like an imbecile, you know that, right? I don't care that much, but one of these days, you're gonna do something ignorant like that and completely throw off a potential guitar star from ever posting a lesson again, simply because you wanted to make a little two word mark on a comments board. Real smooth, you ass.
    that is alright to play with some basic blues progressions but i still love KRISPY KREAM DOUGHNUTS
    nicely done, i just had the greatest burrito. Congrats. One of the best lessons iv seen
    Very good article, it was really easy to understand. I learned alot from it. Great job!
    I liked a lot off this lesson, thank you for posting, I know somethongs about blues but this explain very cleared come aspects. keep going
    I have a question, it said all those scales you put up were in E, but if, like, the second one started on the third fret of the E string, wouldn't that make it be in G?
    sorry, I dont know how to explain. I think your talking about key of E But I don't know the difference between scales and keys. could someone explain please? Just looking for a quick answer for now not the whole sha-bang
    beginner question: how do you come up with the boxes? I see they move up the neck but what makes them stay in E? when you say "in E" are you talking about key of E major or minor scale? I know these are newbie questions, just starting to get into scales and such.
    Thank you for the lesson. Helped out a lot. Question, Playing in the key of "F" I assume would start on 6th string 1st fret right?
    Haha... yeah. Looking back, I now see how very little I knew at that point. : )P Although I think instead of a dotted quarter note with an eighth note (which would amount to 2 beats), you might be thinking of a triplet set with the first two triplets tied. That's how it's written on jazz transcripts, anyway.
    By the way... the rhythm you're trying to describe is "swing". It's a dotted quarter note followed by an eighth note. You know... just thought I'd expound on the lesson you posted three years ago...
    Yeah, it would be in G. The whole deal with the boxes is that the root note's position determines the key; if the first box starts on the third fret as you said, for example, then the key would indeed be G. Fifth fret, A; tenth fret, D; and so on. : )
    Yeah, "F" would start on the sixth string, 1st fret. As for your question, Can8ian, a scale defines how many intervals the notes in said scale are separated by. The key determines what the first note, and thus the other notes, are. Now, the scale you are referring to is in E minor, but it's a pentatonic scale because it has five (penta) notes (tonic). So it's Em pentatonic. It could also be called G major pentatonic because that scale could be used to solo over a G major progression (try it! it's true). I have another couple of lessons in UG limbo, since the staff at UG hasn't updated any lessons since last October, but one of them goes a little more in-depth about soloing with the pentatonic scales, and maybe throwing in some chromatics in there.
    Yeah, this is just a very basic intro to what will hopefully evolve into insane solos. The pentatonic scale is easier to be expressive with, so it's a good place to start!
    Thank you very much! I liked the first bit, it helped me expand on the basic pentatonic scale and that's what I was looking for. But then I got to learn some fun new chords! I knew A7 and E7, I just never knew any songs that used them. B7 was tricky for a minute or two but it's fun! And THANK YOU SO MUCH... B was the only major chord I never learned... I feel so stupid for not realizing all I had to do was move the A shape up two frets and barre it... I knew you could do that but it never occurred to me.
    Wow, you have no idea how much this article cleared up for me. I'm giving this a 10.
    ive learned all scales really in a half an hour.good job!
    Hey, thanks guys. Check out Irish Blues on my profile for a utilized blues scale. I'm also on MySpace:
    This is an excellent article. It's very concisely written, and it's informative. I learned a couple of new things, even though I've been playing blues for a while.
    Boom patta tchak, boompta boom tchak, Waka Boom patta tchak, boompta boom tchak! WOO HOO!
    man this helped a lot im just a beginer at blues but i already know so much 5 stars!!!
    Not bad man, not bad. All the beginners out there, learn the damn scale and just play the scale around your favourite songs( even rock will do). And try to create a few licks of your own. If you cant figure out what scale the song is in, look at the chord progression and see in which major scale it fits.
    I think this was a fairly helpful article. Being a more seasoned player (blues in particular), I didn't find it that insightful. It was pretty much just showing you that you can play notes that you would normally bend to reach a certain pitch, rather than just playing the note. Blues is all about feel, so I'd say incorporate more "kickassery" rather than plain, normal, text book scales.
    I didn't read all the comments to see if this was covered already, but anyways... When the author writes about the blues rhythms -- "Now, to make it sound better, use this stroking technique, where the sound isn't like "one-and-two-and" but is instead, "one-a-two-a" so that you sound like you are actually playing blues rhythms (listen to a few blues songs to get what I'm talking about) Up..and down..up. and down.. I'm sorry, I just can't think of any other way to describe it." -- he means to use a swing 8ths feel. Look that up on the internet and you'll get it, cuz I don't feel like explaining. Hope this helps.
    Great post. It taught me a lot. I'm 50 and it's getting harder to learn stuff, but this explained it really well. Thanks
    this was an amazing lesson, truly awesome. i went in not knowing any blues, but being a proficient metal guitarist, but now i can play the blues. not like the pros, but enough that im proud of it. =] kudos.
    well I just want to say thank you for sharing. I wish I would have had your dedication and mind when I was fifteen. Keep up the good work.
    oh my goodness man thanks soooo much a simple lesson that teaches you not only the scales but how to transpose them greatt lesson man
    man, it's interesting thinking that I'm still answering comments four years after I posted this, haha. for shreddar: if you play with the Em pentatonic scale over E7, that dominant seventh makes it alright, apparently. You can't argue with the sound, you know? If you wanna get fancy with it, you can play the EM pentatonic over the E7 and the B7, and play with the Em pentatonic over the IV, the A7. It sounds a lot jazzier that way. of course, if you're just playing the chords without making it sound raunchy tone-wise, you'll want to just use a Dorian or Mixolydian mode to get a fuller solo sound.
    a good article, but during the jazz pentatonics, you gave us the eminor pentatonic scale, and then gave us chords from E Major. could you explain?