When I hear great musicians solo over a jazz-blues progression, I have the feeling their lines and ideas are making the chords change. It sounds like these players are leading the way, rather than merely reacting to the changing chords. To achieve this, these savvy players often start and end phrases with chord tones, and by doing so, they define the harmony with their solo.

One way to jazz up your blues playing is to focus on the mighty 3rd. Since a chord’s 3rd defines the harmony as either major or minor, and this note is largely absent when you improvise with a minor pentatonic scale—the default choice for most guitarists for blues solos—it’s a good place to start.

Here’s why: If you play only a minor pentatonic scale over a typical jazz-blues progression, the 3rd is missing when you solo over the I chord, the IV chord, the #IV diminished, the V chord, and even the VI, if you take the common approach of playing that chord as a dominant 7th. Starting an idea on the 3rd does a lot to establish the harmony.

The following examples focus on Bb7 with all the ideas starting on its 3rd, D. Each step should be fairly easy. I recommend singing or humming the ideas while you play them, as this really helps to internalize the information and puts it in your ear, as well as under your fingers. Try as many rhythmic variations as you can. After you have the idea under your fingers, you’re ready to improvise freely over a jazz-blues progression using the new idea along with your current vocabulary. Only move to the next step after you’ve mastered the idea and can use it as your own.

To really focus on the essential part of this concept, I set a few parameters for myself. First, I start all my phrases on the 3rd. Second, I want to play the root and 5th above and below the 3rd when they’re in reach, and finally, because we’re mostly working with dominant 7th chords, I always play a b7th.

In Fig. 1 you can see how we can take these rules and create some short melodic fragments that work great over Bb7. Keep in mind that just because a musical idea is simple, it doesn’t take away how useful it can be. Set up a vamp and then try working out these phrases in different positions and octaves all over the neck. Download Example Audio 1...

A great way to expand on these ideas is to incorporate all four notes of the given 7th chord (root, 3rd, 5th, b7th) in your line, but still focus on starting with the 3rd. In the first two melodic fragments of Fig. 2, we add the 5th to the root and 3rd, and then work the notes of the entire arpeggio into the last two phrases. Download Example Audio 2...

Now we’re getting somewhere. The goal for any improviser is to connect the chords smoothly and create a melodic line that works. Sometimes that involves stepping out of diatonic harmony and adding some chromaticism. In Fig. 3, I’ve combined several ideas from the previous examples to create a line that moves from Bb7 (the I chord) to the Eb7 (the IV). Download Example Audio 3...

After you’re comfortable with the ideas over a Bb7, it’s time to start playing them through the changes of a typical jazz-blues structure. Take it slow and keep things simple. Listen to the music of Grant Green, Kenny Burrell, and Jim Hall to hear how motifs can be used not only in blues, but also other more complicated forms. With a little practice, you will be on your way to defining the harmony in your solos.

Bret Boyer
Based in Austin, Texas, Bret Boyer has been an active teacher and performer for more than 20 years. He has been a faculty member at several colleges and for the National Guitar Workshop. He’s made dozens of dollars from his CDs. His most recent recordings include Songs for Everyone and Hidden Constellation. bretboyer.com