As we know, a standard blues progression
is made up of three dominant-7th
chords—the I, IV, and V. This month, we’re
going to look at some cool ways to spice
up the I chord. To make things easier, we’ll
stick to the key of A, so our I chord will
be A7. A quick and simple way to spice up
that chord is by mixing two very familiar
scales, the major and minor blues scales. If
we were to look at the formula for this scale
it would be root–b3–4–b5–5–b7.
What makes this scale very cool is the
added b5 or “blue note.” The b5 adds some
chromaticism to the scale, which it doesn’t
have otherwise. A great sound is to really play
up the chromaticism in a lick. I really love
the rub and tension those notes can add to a
line. If you haven’t spent some quality time
with the blues scale, I suggest you do!
An A7 chord is spelled A–C#–E–G or
root–3–5–b7. If we look at our minor blues
scale we can see that it does not contain a
very important note of the chord, the natural
3rd or C#. Although the scale sounds
great, it does have some room to expand. A
simple option to play over the A7 chord is
the A major blues scale. This scale consists
of A–B–C–C#–E–F# and its formula is
root–2–b3–3–4–6. This scale now includes
the natural 3rd (C#).
The real fun starts when we mix the two
scales together, as we see in Fig. 1
is called the composite blues scale. Whoa!
That’s a lot of notes to think about. Here we
have A–B–C–C#–D–Eb–E–F#–G, or root–
2–b3–3–4–b5–5–6–b7. That’s nine notes.
Before you get overloaded, let’s take a closer
look at all the harmonic goodness going on
inside here. First, we have a series of half-steps
that go from B to E, and that’s where the fun
lies as we can see in Fig. 2
. We can use this
same technique to create a classic-sounding
blues turnaround, as shown in Fig. 3
. To get
a jazzier sound, I used all the half-steps found
in this scale to create a classic bop lick with a
bluesy twist as seen in Fig. 4
Download Example 2 Audio...
Download Example 3 Audio...
Download Example 4 Audio...
As you can see, the composite blues scale
has many exciting possibilities, and I have
just scratched the surface here. The thing
to remember—and the key to breaking this
down—is that all you are doing is mixing the
major and minor blues scales, nothing more!
So if you are feeling overwhelmed at the many
options and sounds, start with something as
simple as adding one
new note to your minor
blues scale. The first note I’d suggest is the natural
3rd (C#), which will put you on the right
track. Remember, we can use these licks on
the I chord of the blues, but be careful of that
C# against the IV chord (D7)—it can really
clash. What to do? Just don’t play it!
Jeff McErlain is a New York City-based guitar
player, producer, songwriter, and educator. He
performs regularly in NYC and abroad with
his trio and blues band. Jeff has a number of
instructional DVDs available at TrueFire.com,
and he is a featured instructor for the National
Guitar Workshop. Jeff's latest CD I'm Tired is
available on iTunes or at jeffmcerlain.com