Theory: Advanced Beginner
• Learn how to apply arpeggios
directly to a blues progression.
• Break out of only playing
• Easily combine different
arpeggios in the same position.
Have you ever wanted to break out of
the pentatonic scale when playing
blues? While there is nothing as universally
accepted, used, taught, and beloved as the
minor-pentatonic scale for playing over a
blues progression, it’s not your only option.
The pentatonic scale works well over blues
changes because it contains enough of the
notes from the underlying I–IV–V progression
to match up and work well. Plus,
there’s something about the pentatonic scale
that just works.
Here’s an analogy that might help: Using
the pentatonic scale is akin to walking
into a room and saying, “Hey everyone!”
It’s more general than greeting someone
by name, but it almost always works.
Arpeggios are the musical equivalent of
greeting someone by name—it’s the most
direct way you can communicate with a
chord and it’s going to take your playing up
a notch. Let’s take a look at a 12-bar blues
in A to understand what our chord progression
is in Fig. 1.
As you can see, there are only three
chords, A7, D7, and E7—the I7, IV7,
and V7, respectively. The pentatonic scale
works just fine for all three chords because
it contains just enough notes to talk to each
chord and sound inside. Take a look at the
notes in the chords as they relate to the
notes in the scales:
A minor pentatonic = A–C–D–E–G
A7 = A–C#–E–G
D7 = D–F#–A–C
E7 = E–G#–B–D
The notes in the chords that also appear
in the pentatonic are shown in bold. As
you can see, the scale talks to each chord in
some way, but it does leave out a bunch of
nice tones. For example, the A minor-pentatonic
scale doesn’t give you the 3rd of any
of the chords, and the 3rd is the tone that
defines whether a chord is major or minor.
It’s amazing that we’ve gotten away without
proper 3rds in our pentatonic-based blues
playing this long. Arpeggios are going to
help us fill in the missing gaps, and when
combined with pentatonic scales, they’re
going to elevate your playing.
Let’s start mapping out these arpeggios
in and around the 5th position. Check out
the A7, D7, and E7 arpeggios in Fig. 2.
By themselves, they sound like exercises,
but when you break them up and combine
them with some notes from the A minorpentatonic
scale, you can end up with Fig.
3, a phrase that outlines the A7 and D7 in
the first four measures of our progression.
In this example, I’m leaning on C# and
F#—the 3rds of A7 and D7, respectively—
because the pentatonic scale omits them
and I love the way they sound. Combine
that with some simple phrasing, and you
have a nice lick that breaks you out of the
pentatonic rut, while still sounding bluesy.
To take the idea further, check out Fig. 4
and Fig. 5, which are two examples of playing
over E7 and D7 in measures 9 and 10
of the progression.
In both examples, I’m keeping it as
simple and melodic as I can, while still
picking notes directly from the arpeggios.
To stop them from sounding like exercises,
I’m focusing on the top two or three
strings of the arpeggios and throwing in
notes from the pentatonic scale whenever
possible to help ground me in the blues
language. Just because you have arpeggios
spanning multiple octaves at your disposal
doesn’t mean you need to play more than
a note or two from each in order to connect
with your chord progression. As you
learn to incorporate these arpeggios into
your playing, I’m sure you’ll discover that
a few of the notes you were already playing
outside of the pentatonic box are actually
from the arpeggios—you just didn’t know
it yet! There’s clearly a lot more you can do
with arpeggios, and hopefully this gets your
creative juices flowing to create some licks
of your own.
graduated magna cum laude
from the Crane School of Music in New York.
He is an active educator, writer, and performer
in the San Francisco area, and has an eclectic
performing background that includes classical
concertos, jazz trios, and rock bands. An
active lecturer, Schonbrun frequently tours the
country explaining music technology to players
and teachers. Visit marcschonbrun.com
for more info.