At BeginnerGuitarHQ, we want you to be able to approach music from just about every angle. While we have a lot of guides covering genres like metal and jazz, blues might be the ultimate entry-level guitar playing genre. It’s often simple, yet incredibly effective. One of its key elements is the blues scale.
In this important guide, we’ll be looking at how to play blues on guitar with the various versions of the blues scale, and where, when and how to use it in your own playing.
For the ultimate blues sound, look no further than this guide!
What Is The Blues?
B.B. King by John Mathew Smith / CC BY-SA 2.0
The blues is a wide-ranging term that covers a lot. To many, it has a relatively stereotypical sound and is commanded by lyrics like “woke up this morning, my baby left me.” The truth is that the genre has a rich history in African-American culture, stemming from the 1860s in the Southern USA.
African musical tradition and work songs were combined into a genre that paved the way for just about every form of popular music we’re familiar with today.
Obviously, when the style first emerged, sound recording wasn’t really an option, so simplicity and the aural tradition were at the heart of the blues. This meant songs and pieces could come about from improvisation, and could change massively from performance to performance.
Eventually, certain things that began to show up across the genre; call and response, twelve-bar-blues patterns, walking bass patterns and, of course, the use of the blues scales we’ll be looking at today.
Today, some of the most famous blues musicians of all time remain those from the early to mid 1900s. Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters and BB King, for example, have cemented themselves as icons. Despite this, there is still a lot of blues music made today, and its influence can be felt in just about everything we hear.
A Starter Blues Tone
Before looking at how to play the blues, it’ll help if you have a guitar tone that lends itself well to the feel of the genre. You can take a more detailed look at some specific guitars that should be able to help you out by clicking here, but a couple of basic tonal and performance things to look out for no matter the guitar you’re using include:
The first thing to note is that playing the blues is all centred on sensitivity and expression. You don’t want to be ripping through a flurry of emotionless notes, you want to be choosing each and every one with purpose. Blues is about feeling more than anything else. As such, tone is actually quite flexible, as you’ll want the sound of your guitar to be as authentic as the actual way you play it.
However, there are some key things to look out for. The first is an avoidance of too much distortion. You can certainly play the blues with some serious crunch, but you don’t want to be filling your music with a wall of fuzzy, unintelligible sound better suited for heavy metal.
You also want to make sure that your guitar still has enough dynamic response to feel emotive and personal. This means avoiding compression pedals, leaving the compression setting on your amp low, and steering clear of pickups that aim to even out your volume. When playing, the ability to switch from extreme lows and highs of dynamics will be able to help create that extremely expressive, interesting sound.
Your choice of amp is also extremely important. To get the crisp tone that comes from many blues guitarists, you’ll need something that does great things for the midrange, and boosts your highs while leaving a lot of headroom. It’ll also do well to cut out the most boomy frequencies; the blues is nothing if it isn’t delicate.
There are also a few bonus tips that can help you dial in on a certain tone, but might not be applicable to everyone. For example, using two amps at once can provide you with that beautiful, unique distorted-clean sound, while playing in Eb will introduce you to the key adopted so frequently by many blues legends. Even making your action higher (which is normally quite undesirable) is thought to help your strings vibrate in a more blues-like way.
You can also alter your approach via the types of strings you use, as well as the plectrum. While you might prefer something else, or even no pick at all, jazz picks are often the choice of bluesmen.
The Major Blues Scale
To many, the blues scale doesn’t have its roots in major or minor, it is simply ‘blues’. However, I think it’s far more beneficial to think of the two main types of blues scale as major and minor. This not only helps you choose which one to use in a certain context, but also helps you home in on the feeling you’re trying to create.
What is typically considered to be the major blues scale is made up of these degrees of the scale: 1, 2, b3, 3, 5, 6. If we use C as our starting point, this would be the notes C, D, Eb, E, G, A. One of the most interesting things about this scale, is that while it is major thanks to the major third towards the start, it also has a minor third. This minor third (in the case of C, this is an Eb) would be described as the scale’s ‘blue note’.
The major blues scale in its basic form
As such, there are few ways you’d approach using this scale in your music.
The first would be to play it literally. This would mean avoiding all chromaticism, as well as not adding any of the seventh degree of your scale into your playing. The Eb would be there in its full, normal form. While this isn’t particularly inventive, it’s a good way to get used to it. If you’re a beginner, I’d recommend practicing some exercises around the fretboard, so that you can get used to the shape of the scale.
You can use the Eb as a passing note to reach the E natural, adding a very temporary sense of unease and sadness to your playing, before resolving it on a positive note. This is quite a literal way to add ‘blueness’ to your style. After that, the rest of the scale is very major in tone, aside from the lack of a seventh degree.
The second way you could approach the use of the major blues scale is by adding in certain additional notes that aren’t part of the ‘official’ scale. This could include the seventh degree of the scale, as well as the fourth and raised fourth. This would mean that, at the top of the scale, you are given a leading note (in C, this would be B natural) to take you back to the root very clearly, while the addition of the fourth and raise fourth (in C, these are F and F#) will add a much longer chromatic run.
Because of the inbuilt blues feeling created by this scale, the addition of such a lot of chromaticism won’t actually impact the resolved, diatonic feeling of this scale. You could move quickly from D, to Eb, E, F, F# and land on G, and because of the blues context, this wouldn’t feel as jarring as it might sound, should you be in a normal C major scale.
These simple but effective additions to the scale are something I’d recommend for intermediate blues players. Once you’ve got the hang of the major blues, you’ll be able to add some simplicity that’ll go a very long way. You can also start experimenting with the intervals that are between the notes. Obviously, a lot of them are chromatic semitones, but if you start to explore, you can find things like tritones between some of the key notes of the scale.
In many contexts, dissonant intervals like tritones don’t really work, or have to be used in a certain way to sound ‘right’. In the blues, expression comes from many angles, and a lot of the time, extremely crunchy sounds are perfect. Plus, you can almost always use the tritone leap you’ve made as a starting point to resolve upwards to a more consonant note.
The final way I’d suggest using the blues scale in your playing, is as a more general starting point. Experienced players will be able to take the foundation of this major scale, and pretty much do what they want with it, without delving accidentally into atonality that doesn’t work.
This approach will mean that your C remains a very clear tonic at all times, while the all-round ‘majorness’ remains in focus. The risk comes when you start introducing minor intervals and degrees of the scale and focusing on them, thus turning your entire playing experience into something that sounds minor.
My advice in this situation would be to use your minor degrees of the scale as passing, blue notes. This will mean that, even if you bring a Bb into the C major blues, you can wander past it to the B natural (major) before resting on the C.
Furthermore, you can begin experimenting with things like quarter-tones. The guitar has the rare advantage of being able to operate in quarter (and even smaller) tones, thanks to its ability to bend strings. One of the classic ways to add a blue note into the major scale, is to bend a note halfway between two semitones, before resolving. This way, you’re adding expression and interest, but you aren’t wandering into dangerously microtonal territory.
The Minor Blues Scale
The minor blues is basically what it sets out to be: a minor scale, with blue notes. It also has some similarities to the major blues, especially some of the later ways to play it that I mentioned, but with a few key differences.
In its core form, there are actually a lot of key differences. The scale, in general, is made up of the following degrees of the scale: 1, b3, 4, b5, 5, b7, which in C would be C, Eb, F, Gb, G, Bb. As you can see, this is similar to the minor pentatonic, as it focuses on those key minor third and minor seventh intervals, but also adds the chromatic movement of the Gb into the mix. As such, the Gb is the blue note at the core of this scale.
The minor blues scale in its basic form
Just as above, there are three different ways you can approach the minor blues scale for use in your music.
The first is, again, through its literal notes. This would leave you restricted to what is, in effect, a minor pentatonic scale with a flattened fifth sandwiched into the middle. Now, this is good for beginners in many ways. First of all, one of the first things you ever learned on guitar was probably a minor pentatonic scale and how to play it in a number of ways across the neck. All you need to do now is work out the smoothest way to add the note in. When looking down at your guitar, this tritone lives one fret above the adjacent one to where your scale started. For example, if you played a C minor blues scale in first position, you’d start on the 3rd fret of the 5th string, and add the 4th fret of the 4th string in to give it the blues edge.
There are also two personal reasons behind why I’d recommend this scale as the best for beginner blues scales. First of all, I think minor keys are easier to play in. I think they have a much higher chance of simply sounding ‘nice’ than major keys, their chords are often more harmonious, and there is more of a chance to get away with an accidental chromatic note than in a major scale. Secondly, I think the flattened fifth blue note is far nicer to use than the flattened third. In some contexts, I think the flattened third sounds a bit out of place, possibly accidental and a bit too much like a false relation. The flattened fifth always sounds incredibly bluesy to me.
Anyway, moving on to slightly more complex territory. The intermediate version of the minor blues scale is centred on adding a few extra notes. Controversially, I won’t be recommending that you add D or Ab to your scale, even though these might be considered the logical next steps for expanding the minor blues.
I’d suggest working your way towards the addition of the E natural and the B natural. Yes, I did indeed say that the mixture of major and minor sounds a little too like a false relation to me, but that’s when their presence is reversed. Bringing a temporary major note into a minor key is usually a winner for my blues playing.
So, in this context, you’ll pass through the E and B, without allowing them to become key components of your scale. Just like hanging around on that Gb for too long will start to sound dissonant, hanging around on the E or B will start to sound major (or also dissonant, depending on your accompaniment). For example, you could be playing the Eb, and then reach your F via the E natural. This will give a chromatic edge that makes a lot of sense in context. However, you’ll want to make sure the listener is reminded that this is a minor blues scale, by allowing that Eb to appear more often than its major cousin.
Just like with the major blues, the final way I’d suggest using the minor blues scale is as a starting point for chromaticism. Again, the blues is a diverse genre. When starting out, these sort of pre-planned scales are incredibly helpful to judge the tone you need in certain situations, but eventually, you simply need the freedom to make whatever sound that feels right.
As such, you’ll keep the C at the top and bottom of whatever you play, meaning you won’t sound like you’re in the wrong key, but you will be able to make your way through pretty much whatever chromaticism you desire.
This means that here you can start to work in the D and Ab (which are a tritone away from each other; if you’re feeling adventurous, this can be a seriously interesting dissonance in the right context). One of my favourite chromatic notes to add to the minor blues scale is actually the b2nd. In the context of C minor blues, this would be a Db. It gives a surreal feeling, which comes from that Phrygian interval. At the same time, it provides a great leaping off point for some cool intervals, while also allowing you to resolve to the tonic from a completely unexpected place.
Within this more free version of the minor blues scale, you can also experiment with those microtonal bends we discussed earlier. However, make sure (unless this is where the piece takes you) to keep the minor intervals more prominent than the major ones, because eventually your playing could start to sound like it’s in the wrong key, especially if your accompaniment is minor.
A Few Other Blues Scales
While the standard major and minor blues scales might be the easiest and most common way to bring the blues to your playing, they aren’t the only options. The two scales we looked at above are, in their most basic form, versions of the pentatonic with an extra note added. This makes them ‘hexatonic’ scales (six notes).
There are heptatonic scales that are filled with bluesy moments. For example, a Dorian b5 is made up of the notes C, D, Eb, F, Gb, A, Bb. You’ll notice that this is effectively a natural minor scale, but with the flat sixth changed to a flat fifth. It doesn’t seem like much, but it completely changes its character.
A Dorian b5 scale
Not only do we now have the chromatic move from F up to the unexpected Gb, it is followed by an endearingly bluesy leap of an augmented 2nd that brings us to A natural. Of course, the expectation after that tritonic Gb is that we’d resolve to the G. Not doing so creates a sound that is both complex and confusing, while also sounding incredibly expressive, depending on how you use it.
You can make this scale octatonic by adding that resolving G. It might interfere with the character of the scale somewhat as it allows you to avoid the jarring augmented 2nd, but I think that it just sounds a little better like this in most cases.
There are also a few ways to add in just about every note to a blues scale you could ever want, and almost completely do away with the notion of major or minor in blues. My feelings on this division were made clear above, but there are countless guitarists who don’t think that major or minor should really come into play in blues music.
A nonatonic blues scale might consist of the notes C, D, Eb, E, F, G, A, Bb, B and thus leave you with very little notion of major or minor, except for the remaining A natural. This scale is great for those who want to freely alternate between major and minor, while using the remaining note as a blues note.
This scale can become decatonic (ten notes!) through the addition of a flat fifth degree. I think that this is probably the most all-encompassing blues scale. It gives you both those temporary minor movements on the Eb and Bb, but also the most powerful blue note of them all, the flattened fifth. As such, you can go on some crazy chromatic runs without feeling as though you’re in the wrong key, but also play some great melodies.
My personal favourite blues scale; decatonic.
Once you’ve become an expert in playing the blues, I’d suggest that learning how to use this decatonic blues scale with a little bit of extra freedom (so that you can stick within it, but not completely avoid all chromatic passing notes) will be the icing on the cake. I don’t think a more all-encompassing, interesting and versatile scale exists to play the blues.
That said, there are certain more experimental blues scales that start to introduce quarter-notes and microtonality as part of their core makeup. While this can sound nice, I think here is where we start to move into the territory of ‘what is a scale?’. Quarter notes are great decoration for the blues, and have a long history in the genre. However, their use comes from a place of emotion and feeling. Formalising them as part of a theoretical model is where this feeling starts to be lost.
I appreciate the irony of this guide being centred on formalising a feeling-based genre, but most of it is made up of simple, common musical theory. Quarter-notes are rare and almost never used; their presence in blues is almost never pre-meditated by players, and should remain that way.
Examples Of Blues Scales In Action
As mentioned above, musicians like BB King, Stevie-Ray Vaughan and Muddy Waters remain some of the biggest names in blues today. We’ve collected a few of their best uses of blues scales below.
BB King – The Thrill Is Gone. This is one of the most famous blues tracks in the world, and shows BB King at the top of his game, as both a vocalist and guitarist. It wasn’t written by BB, and only became a hit and a blues standard after his version in 1970. However, there are a lot of the markers of a classic use of the blues scale present within. It is played in B minor over a 12-bar blues pattern, and, in general BB and his band stick to a relatively standard minor blues scale. Listen to his opening solo for example. There are some moments of chromaticism that you can pick out from his use of the flat fifth, but they don’t sound dissonant over the accompaniment at all. Furthermore, there are bends everywhere. These don’t come across as pre-planned parts of the melody, but actually just brief emotional hints towards blue notes. You’ll find a similar approach to the scale in the fills of his keyboard player, who will brush past certain blue notes to resolve onto a note that is part of the traditional blues scale.
Stevie-Ray Vaughan – Texas Flood. The Stevie-Ray Vaughan cover of ‘Texas Flood’ is an interesting one. It could be argued that Stevie was a much more technically virtuosic player than BB King, so while his playing was emotive, it sometimes leaned towards showing off virtuosity more than pure feeling. As such, ‘Texas Flood’ takes many more chromatic liberties in its diatonicism. It is performed in Gb major, but the frequent blue notes he uses do well to make it almost feel like it is minor. The bass is actually what keeps the major key clear. Some of the most interesting moments come in the first few seconds of the track. The main riff centres around two great sliding chords that sound so natural because they’re built on blue notes that work perfectly in context. Some of his bends sound almost out of tune simply because he takes them into the realm of microtonality. He seems to have the built-in knowledge of exactly when to move away from a bent note, as he seems to resolve just before things start to sound concerningly dissonant. Finally, in the fastest flurries of performance, he takes full advantage of the advanced level blues scales I mentioned above, diving into deep, complex chromaticism without sounding as though the Gb tonal centre is missing.
Muddy Waters – Hoochie Coochie Man. At the front and centre of ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ is the stop-start riff that has become synonymous with the blues. By now, it is a bit of a cliché that very few bands (except AC/DC) would use without irony. However, it was a staple of the blues from this point onwards. While the track isn’t as guitar centric as the two above, it does have an iconic solo in the middle full of feeling and very forward thinking. Like BB King, though, Muddy Waters was a more straightforward player. He allowed his improvisation to follow the chord sequences behind them quite rigidly. For example, moves up to a new position with each change in the 16-bar pattern, while performing a turnaround at the end of it. His playing doesn’t move towards the levels of speed or chromaticism as Stevie, but Muddy Waters still manages to get a lot from the simplicity of the b3rd and b5th in his scale. He also doesn’t shy away from bends, but in a way, his usage is more of a ‘wobble’ than a bend in the sense of Stevie or BB. Either way, his approach to the blues is classic and completely iconic, and can have a huge impact on the way you play in just about any genre.
The beauty of the blues scale is that it really isn’t that hard to pick up on, in pretty much all of its forms. Once you’ve mastered the idea behind the major and the minor scales, you’ll get used to adding in one or two extra notes to create that standard blues sound. Beyond that, adding things like blue notes and microtonal bends will start to come naturally.
Remember to combine your use of blues scales with the use of a classic blues guitar tone, and possibly take a look at getting yourself a guitar that can help with that.