Several weeks ago we discussed the 12 Bar Blues Form and its universality in pop music. Now letís look at another feature of the blues genre, the Blues Scale. The Blues Scale is a six-note non-diatonic scale consisting of the root, minor third, fourth, minor fifth, fifth, and minor seventh degrees of the major scale. In the key of C the blues scale consists of the notes C, E flat, F, G flat, G, B flat, and C (again). Go ahead and play this scale on the keyboard, and you should find the sound to be quite familiar. In a sense what you are hearing is the harmonic basis of all blues music.
This blues scale is quite versatile, and weíll keep covering it in greater detail in future installments. But in the meantime you would do well to learn this scale in this fashion:
- Memorize the notes of the scale.
- Practice playing it in the RIGHT HAND until it feels comfortable.
- Get used to playing it in several octaves and in both directions, up and down.
- Learn to change directions at random. Donít assume the Blues Scale always has to start on C. Donít assume you have to play every note in succession.
- Ultimately try playing the Blues Scale with the right hand while playing the 12 Bar Blues Progression with the left. (Click below for Past Facts of the Week, and refer to weeks three, four, and five.)
Notice how the one blues scale seems to fit all three of the chords in the 12 Bar Form. Keep practicing and experimenting.
The symmetrical nature of this scale (consistent alternation of white and black keys) makes for a simple right hand fingering pattern. For the time being, simply use your thumb on all the white keys and your third finger on all the black keys. Thus, the fingering pattern is 1-3-1-3-1-3-1-3-1-3-1-3-1-3-1-3, etc, etc, etc.
Assuming you have learned the blues scale from last week, letís now see if we can put it to good use.
We mentioned you can play this blues scale with your right hand while playing the 12 bar blues form from several weeks ago with the left hand. We also stated this one blues scale works very well with all three chords of the 12 bar blues form (C7, F7, and G7). Yet if you tried combining your hands, you may have experienced some problems because:
Itís very hard to put these two ideas together unless and until you know both hands separately very well.
Even if you can put the two hands together successfully, you may not have a good sense of blues phrasing with the right hand.
Fortunately, we can solve both problems rather easily.
There are literally thousands of blues recordings out there. Why not find some recorded blues and play along, using only the blues scale in your right hand? This way you donít have the problem of having to juggle two opposing rhythmic ideas simultaneously. Plus you get to hear expert phrasing ideas based on the blues scale. Plus itís fun.
Hereís the big limitation, however. Until we learn to transpose the blues scale into other keys, we have to find blues recordings in the key of C. Fortunately, blues pianists tend to favor the key of C. Therefore, on any given album by a blues pianist, youíre apt to find many of the songs in the key of C. You may have to experiment with the recordings on your own piano until you find the songs that ďfitĒ your blues scale. Use your ear. And use your imagination.
Of course, if you have an electronic keyboard with a transposing feature, youíll be able to play along with any recording (if you already have a sense of how transposing works).
Otherwise, visit a record store WITH A KNOWLEDGEABLE STAFF, and start collecting some blues piano recordings to play along with. After all, they are good to have in your collection anyway.
The blues scale isnít just for blues players. Once you master this simple little scale in a few keys, you can use it to add flavor to all kinds of songs. Jazz pianists have used the blues scale throughout the years with great frequency and effect.
One handy trick is to play the blues scale against minor chords. One might think that one of the minor scales we are all expected to know ó pure, harmonic, or melodic ó should or could be used as improvising material against minor chords. Yet try them, and youíre almost certain to be disappointed. The three minor scales you learn about in theory class tend to sound outdated with modern sounding tunes of Twentieth Century pop and jazz music.
What sounds better? The blues scale.
Remember the blues scale contains a minor third, just like all the minor scales. But unlike the traditional minor scales it also contains a flat fifth (G flat in the C blues scale). Hereís what the whole scale looks like.
C - E flat - F - G flat - G - B flat - C
Those three flatted notes are what gives this scale its charm and sets it apart from the minor scales of classical music.
So where do you use this blues scale? How about with just about any pop tune written in a minor key. Thatís a lot of songs. Go ahead and try it with the chord progressions to such tunes as Summertime, Autumn Leaves, Blue Skies, Feelings, Blue Bossa, My Funny Valentine. The list is endless.
So what blues scale do you use in these situations? Good question. For starters use the same blues scale as the minor key. If the tune is in C minor, use a C blues scale. If itís in A minor, use an A blues scale. You get the idea.
Can we expect this blues scale will sound great throughout all the chord changes in the song? Of course not. But weíll leave it up to you to determine how far you can go with it. Itís all a matter of using your own good taste.
If all you ever want to do is play piano blues in the key of C, you can conceivably get away with playing the Blues Scale exclusively in the key of C. But if you ever have occasion to play the blues in a different key OR YOU WANT TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF USING THE BLUES SCALE IN OTHER SITUATIONS LIKE WE DISCUSSED LAST WEEK, youíll have to learn to transpose it. Hereís how.
As you may remember, these are the notes of the Blues Scale.
C ó E flat ó F ó G flat ó G ó B flat ó C
To transpose this to any other key, weíre going to memorize a formula. Simply what we do is note the interval or distance between each successive pair of notes in this scale. For example, the distance between C and E flat is three half steps (minor third in music lingo). From E flat to F is two half steps (major second). From F to G flat is one half step (minor second). Likewise G flat to G is a minor second. G to B flat is three half steps (minor third). And from B flat to C is two half steps (major second).
Thus to restate the scale above in general terms, the sequence goes
Root ó minor third ó major second ó minor second ó minor second ó minor third ó major second (root)
Thus, start on any note of the keyboard and recreate the interval pattern above. You will then have a blues scale in the key based on the start note (root). Therefore, the F blues scale is
F ó A flat ó B flat ó B ó C ó E flat ó F
Try a few other keys on your own.
Hint: Keep a notebook of Blues Scales. As you figure out a new key, write it down. Use music notation if you can, or simply write it out as we did in this example. Now you can refer back to your notes whenever you need a blues scale to use.
Important: Always verify your accuracy by listening to the scale carefully. Make sure it sounds like a Blues Scale. If youíve played the C Blues Scale with any regularity, you should know what itís supposed to sound like by now. You probably will make some mistakes. Rely on your ear to correct them.
This leaves us with a few unanswered questions. Most important right now is how do we make a blues scale in another key? And where else can we use the blues scale? Can it be used in songs in major keys? Absolutely.
Weíll address these concerns in an upcoming installment. In the meantime, you have something to work on.
In the last few installments we covered the Blues Scale and its various uses. Primarily itís used in blues songs. But itís also used with great effect in songs in minor keys. The blues scale is a type of minor scale and seems to work better than the various minor scales you might have learned in your classical studies (natural minor, melodic minor, and harmonic minor).
Will the Blues Scale work in non-blues songs in major keys? Definitely, if you know how and where to use it. Hereís some ideas.
Many songs in major keys have minor chords in them. Other songs in major keys drift into the minor mode for a significant number of measures (the bridge to Georgia On My Mind, for example). Hereís where you have some great opportunities to use the Blues Scale.
We analyze the above mentioned Hoagy Carmichael standard at length in our cassette program Continuing Chord Piano. Youíll find a copy of the tune there too. In the tune (key of F) you find a Dm chord in measure three. Here a D Blues Scale works wonderfully for right hand improvisation. The bridge centers around the key of D minor. Here the D Blues Scale works well for all the measures up to the G7 chord (seven measures worth).
Hereís another idea. For a gospel sound you can play a Blues Scale based on the sixth of the key when you come across a II7 chord. This means in the key of C you can play an A Blues Scale against a D7 chord. Try it and see if you like it.
There are many times a blues scale isnít the best choice to be played against a minor chord. For example, donít play a Blues Scale against a minor sixth chord. It also is not too effective in a ii - V - I situation.
But the only way to tell ultimately is to experiment. Try out the Blues Scale in situations where you think it might work. If it doesnít sound all that good, donít use it. Once again, let your ears be the judge.