Beyond Blues: Moving Past the Pentatonic Scale
• 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.
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.
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.