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Beyond Blues: Moving Past the Pentatonic Scale


If we look at the first two chords, Am7 (A–C–E–G) and Dm7 (D–F–A–C), you could comfortably say that they’re both in the same key. You can easily play the A minor scale (Aeolian) over both chords and you won’t run into any problems.

On the other hand, if you were to play the Dorian scale over Am7, you’ll find an F# note, which is definitely going to sound out of place over Dm7 (which contains an F natural). So the question is, does that mean we can’t play it?

The answer is you certainly can play it, but you’ve got to be careful to alter your note choice when the chord changes. In fact, if you do play Dorian over Am7 you’re going to create a hip fusion sound, and if you remember last month’s lesson, that’s totally different from the more somber Aeolian mode.

To get a better idea of what this stuff sounds like, check out the solo in Fig. 2.

You might notice I’ve opened this solo with the same concept as its predecessor: a question-and-answer phrase in the first two measures, followed by a repeated phrase that then ends differently. The twist is that in the second measure I’m landing on that 6 of the Dorian mode and resting there to really create an effect. Pay attention to it and appreciate that you’ll never get that sound with the pentatonic scale—or the minor scale. Modes at their best.

In measure five we’ve moved to Dm7, but unlike the first solo, I’m changing my notes to sound a little bit more like the chord. Hopefully you can also see this isn’t just theory for the sake of theory—we’ve got a real melody here that sounds good, not clever.

In measure eight I’ve (perhaps foolishly) included a flurry of 32nd-notes inspired by the likes of Guthrie Govan. This one needs to be taken slowly, starting around the second shape of the minor pentatonic scale, but adding some scale and chromatic notes before sliding up in thirds to land on F7 with a bend from 6 to b7.

For the E7 chord I’m playing the Phrygian dominant mode (a mode of the harmonic minor scale) that allows me to outline the E7 a little better because it includes a G#, but if you dig deeper this mode also has a b9, which sounds great! Though that’s certainly a subject for another column.

To remind you that this is a blues solo and not a theory solo, I’m ending with some bluesy phrasing around the minor pentatonic scale and the classic B.B. King note to end.

Here’s a backing track to play both of these solos over.

To finish, I’d like to highlight the importance of musicality. These approaches aren’t mutually exclusive and you can use both ... or neither. It’s always about the music you’re hearing in your head and your heart. It would be more than impressive if you could play a stream of 32nd-notes over an entire blues, but (as you heard in my second solo), just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should.

Next month we’ll take a break from theory and explore some phrasing concepts.