Do You Want to Know Why Your Blues Solos Do Not Resemble Those of Your Blues Heroes?

In this article, we are going to lay out some of these possibilities so you will have a range of them to approach your blues lead playing.

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Think back to the moment you started using the minor pentatonic scale. You uncovered the secrets of improvisation for the first time and before even realizing it you were off inventing your own blues phrases.

Although this way of improvisation gives you a lot of joy, it is essential not to stay in the stage of only applying the minor pentatonic. Playing over a 12 bar blues offers a range of possibilities to approach your solos with. In this article, we are going to lay out some of these possibilities so you will have a range of them to approach your blues lead playing. 

The Fundamental Ideas

Practically every guitarist that starts out is taught to apply the minor pentatonic scale for improvising solos in the blues. However, that's only one way to look at soloing. If you repeat that single idea over and over again, your solos will end up sounding very similar every time you play. Fact is that there are many more ways to look at soloing other than the minor pentatonic.

The Reason Why There Are Better Choices

A lot of mid-level guitarists do not get past using the minor pentatonic exclusively when they improvise over a blues progression. However, has anyone ever told you that there are better options than the minor pentatonic scale? In reality, several notes of the minor pentatonic cause dissonance when you play them against the dominant 7th chord. That's why the great blues players are not dependent on the minor pentatonic scale while playing blues lead.

Now, we're going to scrutinize what I have just explained in the previous paragraph. Music theory states that it is essential to compare the notes of the scale with the notes of the chord being played in the background. Let's illustrate: the A minor pentatonic consists of the A, C, D, E and G note while the A7 chord consists of the A, C#, E and G note. You must have noticed that there is no C in the A7. Now, it is the C# of the chord and the C in the minor pentatonic scale that cause dissonance.

Take a listen to the dissonance by playing the C and C# note at the same time on your guitar. There are more notes and scales to play in the blues, don't restrict yourself to the first scale you were taught.

What the Pro Blues Players Do With the Minor Pentatonic

You should not start thinking that the pros do not use the minor pentatonic at all in their solos; they just employ it in a different way. Several guitarists are even in favor of the dissonance created by the scale's C and the C# of the chord. Nevertheless, the majority of guitarists pick another route by:

Avoiding the minor pentatonic entirely. This is why a great deal of blues players in the initial stages of improvisation find their phrases not resembling the phrases of their idols. This is due to the fact that they do not realize their idols use other scales.

Changing some of the minor pentatonic scale's notes.

Make the C note (in case of the A minor pentatonic) a "passing note" by applying guitar phrasing methods to change the C note (for example, one could bend the C note a half step up to the C# note). 

Make sure you grasp that there is nothing wrong with using the minor pentatonic over a blues progression. The fact is that applying this scale is not the only way to approach blues lead playing. It would be beneficial if you had the ability to incorporate more melodious scales.

Don't restrict yourself to constantly using one single scale, because there are a number of scales to be used. Next level blues players combine a large number of diverse scales. That's why their solos seem to be so skillful and individual.

Now, what can be done to increase your inventiveness with diverse scales and take your blues lead playing to the next level?

Switching Back and Forth From Minor to Major Pentatonic

Switching between the minor and major pentatonic scale is one way to bring some change into your blues solos. If you were playing over a blues progression in A, you could use both the major and minor pentatonic scales. Always keep in mind though that you can only integrate the major pentatonic scale in case you are soloing over a major blues chord sequence, i.e. a chord sequence consisting of major dominant seventh chords (in the key of A those chords would be A7, D7 & E7). In case you are playing along with a minor blues chord sequence (in the key of A those chords would consist of the Am7, Dm7 & Em7), we can only play the minor pentatonic scale since we are in a minor key. 

The tablature underneath illustrate the A minor & the A major pentatonic scale. In case you solo over a blues chord sequence in the key of A, you could switch between these two scales. 

1st Position of Major Pentatonic Scale in the Key of A

1st Position of the Minor Pentatonic Scale in the Key of A

Attempt the following: put on a blues jamtrack in the key of A and try altering between both minor and major pentatonic. There is some nice stuff coming from it, no? However you might experience some trouble to let the transition between the scales really flow. In fact the transition comes across as to direct at times. Now I'm going to discuss some of the things you can do to let the switching flow.

Switching Between Minor & Major Pentatonic Smoothly

We're going to travel from minor to major pentatonic as you can see in the tab underneath. Pay attention to the 6th fret 3rd string in the second part of the lick, which is the C#. This note is a note that comes from the major pentatonic and it gives our lick a more major feel to it. All notes in the first measure are derived from the major pentatonic scale, while most notes in the other measures come from the minor pentatonic scale. But even when using the minor pentatonic scale, we can include a major feel by only including one note of the major pentatonic scale, as you see in the last measure of the lick. Applying notes from the major pentatonic scale to the minor pentatonic will make your solos sound more like the blues greats.

Take a listen to this blues lick:

Be inventive with switching from minor to major and the other way around. Begin with a lick in the major pentatonic scale and fluently travel your way to the minor pentatonic, but don't forget to do it vice versa, from minor pentatonic to major pentatonic.

Attempt to integrate these methods in your own solos. These methods will completely change the way your solos sound and you will be more inventive with your soloing ideas. You can take your blues solos to the next level by employing blues licks like the one I've just taught you.

Nevertheless, this is only the tip of the iceberg. There is a range of options to make your blues playing sound more diverse:
  • You can apply more sophisticated scales to give your blues playing a jazzy touch. For example, you could play around with the dominant pentatonic scale and the mixolydian scale. It comes across as more complicated than it really is.
  • You can start using the famous blues bends to fluently change minor pentatonic into major pentatonic.
  • Use both the minor & major pentatonic scale, but use a single scale on one particular chord. E.g. in the key of A, when D7 is played in the background you solo with the minor pentatonic and when the A7 and E7 are played, you play the major pentatonic scale. In terms of melody, this is a great option to make your blues solos sound great!
About the Author:
Antony Reynaert is a blues guitarist and teacher. His blues guitar teachings are done both locally in Belgium as well as online. On his blues guitar website you will find free resources such as a free Ebook in which you find all the methods described in this article laid out in-depth and explained lick by lick with tablature examples of the licks. Visit his Blues guitar lessons website.

10 comments sorted by best / new / date

    I think most blues heroes actually stick to the pentatonic, with the ocassional blues note here and there, their true art lies within their choice of intervals, thats what cuts the amateurs from the real pros, because thats what creates true phrasing.
    This. Also, little stuff like picking dynamics and how much space you leave in between phrases (look no further than David Gilmour for mastery of leaving space). Little details like this are what give each player his own distinct touch and sets him apart from other guitarists playing the same notes
    While I agree with both of the above comments, I still found this article quite helpful. Thank you for sharing!
    Yeah. It's not that much about what scales you use. It's more about how you use them. Of course different scales are going to give you a bit different sounds, but mixing the major and minor pentatonic is not going to make you sound awesome, unless you can use them well. Beginners usually tend to play a lot of notes. They tend to overplay. It's important to remember that there are rests in music. Many beginners lack musical ideas. They just play the scale up and down, and maybe some licks they know. But they don't think in sound. They don't really know what they are after. Especially in blues it is really important to think in sound. You can't really play the blues well if you just shred the scales up and down. That doesn't sound anything like blues. It may work in thrash metal, but not in blues. I think in a good solo there's no rush. The player knows what he is after and doesn't play too much. Blues is all about the "feel". (I'm not saying that fast playing has no "feel" in it. I'm just saying a blues guitarist should pay close attention to how they feel and what they hear in their head, not just let their fingers do the job without paying any attention to the sound. This of course applies to all genres, but it is very important in blues. And you can play fast and still feel it. The difference is that if you feel it, you don't just let your fingers go randomly up and down the scale - you actually think what you are doing. Don't play with your fingers, use your ears.) I think the main point is not to learn more and more scales. It is to learn to use them. You can make the minor pentatonic sound great if you can use it. You don't need to learn all the exotic scales. Of course there's nothing wrong with learning exotic scales, but the scale itself won't sound good. Mixing major and minor sounds bluesy, and I think it's important in blues. Just knowing one scale can be pretty limiting. So yeah, learning minor and major pentatonic scales is a good idea. But the most important thing when learning the scales is to listen to the sound. Sound is the most important thing in music. By listening to the sound it becomes easy to mix minor and major. Learn to recognize the scale degrees by ear.
    I can tell you got the fingertips, but you ain't got no concept of the blues
    This is a good lesson, and doesn't deserve that response. It's also bit coincidental that the smmybllr didn't join till yesterday, same day as publication of this??? Nice one, Anthony.
    Could anyone explain to me why the pentatonic minor sounds good over the D7/IV chord, and why a major pentatonic would sound good with the I & V chord?
    There are several reasons, but I'll keep it simple and try to explain the big one (for me). Firstly, the notes of the D7 chord are: D = root F# = 3rd A = 5th C = (minor/dominant) 7th If you play A major pentatonic over D7 you are using the C#. This note is the major 7th of D, and does not (usually) sound bluesy. Playing C# implies the chord Dmaj7 - not D7. If you play A minor pentatonic over D7 you are using C. This is the dominant, or minor, 7th of D. This sounds bluesy, and it also reinforces the chord D7 - which is what you are playing. Essentially, the 3rd and 7th notes of any scale or chord are the most important, as they give the scale/chord it's quality. The 6th also sounds good when used in the right place. I'm aiming to keep this simple so I'll just focus on the previously mentioned C#: Over an A7 chord C# is the major 3rd - good Over a D7 chord C# is the major 7th - not so good Over an E7 chord C# is the major 6th - fine Remember that in a twelve bar blues in A: The E7 is only played for one bar at a time (and the second time not always for a full bar) The E7 is functioning as 5th (V) chord, so allows for a bit of tension/craziness - because after the 5th (V) chord you are 'heading back home' to the first (I) chord, where the tension will likely be resolved. There is more to it than that, but for now try playing A major and A minor pentatonic over the D7 chords. Listen to that C#. If you like the sound, great - use it. There are no 'rules'. But if you think it doesn't sound quite right, you might now hopefully have some insight into why. I hope this helps in some small way. It's harder to explain than it is to show or hear! But actually it's quite simple - that C# is (usually) the 'wrong' sound over D7. C - and A minor pentatonic - usually works better over that D7.