The blues scale is one of the most important scales in guitar playing, and one of the first that many guitarists will learn.
It’s essential to stylistically authentic soloing in all forms of blues guitar playing, as well as adding a bluesy twist to many other styles too.
Below is some information on what the blues scale is, how it’s constructed and how and when to use it.
Good luck, and have fun!
What Is The Blues Scale?
The blues scale is a 6 note scale used primarily for solos, melodies and riffs in the playing of all forms of blues guitar, and some related genres.
For those of you who know the minor pentatonic scale, the blues scale is simply this, with one additional note. This is further explained and demonstrated below.
Note: For those of you who don’t know the minor pentatonic scale – it’s probably time to learn it! (It’s also depicted below for convenience and as a stepping stone to explaining the blues scale.)
Firstly – here’s a table showing the difference between the minor pentatonic and blues scales.
|Example – In key of A
|Minor Pentatonic Scale
|1 – b3 – 4 – 5 – b7
|A – C – D – E – G
|1 – b3 – 4 – b5 – 5 – b7
|A – C – D – Eb – E – G
This demonstrates how the blues scale works. It’s the minor pentatonic scale with an additional note – the b5 (flattened fifth).
Let’s demonstrate this now with diagrams. First up, here’s the simple A minor pentatonic scale:
A minor pentatonic scale
And now here’s the A blues scale. Notice the additional note.
A Blues Scale
A couple more quick points to note on these diagrams:
- These show the scales across 2 octaves, i.e. the scale sequence is played twice in succession, so that it covers all 6 strings. Generally speaking, nearly all guitar scales are played this way.
- The root notes (in this case ‘A’) are in black rather than red. Useful to know for playing licks that start or finish on root notes, as we very often do, but also these indicate where one octave of the scale ends and the next begins.
How Do You Use The Blues Scale?
First things first – learn it. Play it through start to finish, ascending and descending, with alternate picking, until the pattern and the shape sticks and it’s committed to memory.
Remember that this scale, like all scales, is a formula and as such can be played anywhere. So our example shows the ‘A’ blues scale, because it starts on fret 5 at the note of ‘A’.
If you move it to fret 6, and play the same pattern, suddenly you have the ‘A# / Bb’ blues scale. From fret 7 it’s the ‘B’ blues scale, and so on.
The Blue Note
You may notice when playing the scale that this additional note (known as the blue note) sounds a little off, or ‘outside’ the key. In short, that’s because it is!
The reality is that this is one of the things that makes blues distinctive. In fact, many musical styles seem to be defined more by how they break the rules than follow them, and this is a great example of that.
In extremely simplistic terms, a rock guitar lick that roughly descends the minor pentatonic scale, with the blue note factored in, makes a blues lick!
Licks & Runs
This is a great starting point. Take some minor pentatonic licks and runs from your bag of tricks, and add in ‘the blue note’ where possible. Notice the difference it makes, stylistically and aurally. And there you have it – a whole bunch of blues licks!
The Blue Note = A New Note!
This is the other main approach. Start soloing with a brand new attitude – it just so happens that you now have 6 notes to choose from rather than 5. Improvising over a bluesy backing track is an ideal way to put this into practice and get to grips with it all.
The best approach is one that combines both of these above methods so that the blues scale is absorbed into your sense of ‘what you can do’ as a guitarist, rather than remaining a foreign, alien, ‘new thing’.
Don’t forget to check out the Guitar Tricks Ultimate Scale Finder to help you with all this and more!