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Beyond Blues: Moving Past the Pentatonic Scale

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Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Intermediate
Lesson Overview:
• Learn to balance both theoretical and musical approaches to a minor blues.
• Develop a call-and-response approach to phrasing.
• Understand how to emphasize the most meaningful notes in a scale.

Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

Last month we dug into the world of modes and discovered how to effectively use them to create new sounds and colors over familiar chord progressions. We focused on minor 7 chords and saw how two modes—the Dorian and Aeolian (aka the natural minor scale)—are both “correct” choices, depending on the setting or mood you’re trying to create. To briefly recap: We learned that Dorian contains a 6 and Aeolian contains a lowered 6, and we heard how these tones each create a completely different feeling.

Now some of you commented that you think modes are overrated and because you’ve never been asked to play them, they must be a waste of time. In this lesson we’re going to look at two solos over a minor blues—one that only uses the minor pentatonic scale, and another that uses modes for color. It’s important to know that both approaches are valid and together they form a balanced vocabulary for improvisation. Let’s think of these as nothing more than tools you have at your disposal to create a sonic landscape for your listeners.

Let’s start out by learning the first solo (Fig. 1), which you can hear below.

Measure one has a simple opening phrase, which is answered in the following measure. Next, I repeat the first phrase but end it with a Jimmy Page-inspired bend (a step-and-a-half bend from 5 up to b7) that moves down the blues scale with a staccato triplet lick.

We move to the IVm chord (Dm7) in the fourth measure. Here, I’m sticking to the A minor pentatonic scale (A–C–D–E–G), but focusing on D. Although it’s probably not the ideal scale for this chord, all the greats have used it for decades, so it has almost become the right sound by default.

In measure seven we’re back to the A minor chord and we have a shorter question-and-answer phrase—a three-note motif followed by a Jimmy Page bend to answer it. Then we repeat the question but answer it with a tricky little lick: After bending from 5 to b7, we release the bend and slide up to the 12th fret to bend a whole-step.

Over the F7 and E7 chords I’m sticking to the A minor pentatonic scale, but this needs care when you examine it in detail. The pentatonic scale contains an E, which in relation to the F7 chord is the major 7. Because F7 contains an Eb, an E will sound pretty funky—and not in a good way! Over the E7 we’re a little safer, but the G note is forcing an E7#9 sound. That’s what I’m playing on the rhythm track anyway, so you’ll be fine.

So let’s talk modes.

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