There’s way more than blues-rock fodder buried in the crevices of the most overused scale in music.
- Explain how chords are generated from scales.
- Create unusual harmonies, chord progressions, bass lines, and melodies using the blues scale.
- Demonstrate how music theory and musical intuition can coalesce to create unique sounds from traditional materials.
Last updated on May 21, 2022
Don't get me wrong, I'm all for blues music, but the blues scale can yield beguiling musical results that bear little resemblance to the traditional blues—particularly if one looks at (and listens to) the scale from a different point of view.
The idea of harmonization is relatively simple. It means is to play two or more notes together at the same time. Technically speaking, two notes performed at the same time create a dyad, not a chord. It takes three or more notes performed simultaneously to create a chord, although the one exception, the two-note so-called "power chord" in Ex. 1, skews this theory a bit.
So, which two or more notes should you harmonize? Any you want! But, if you desire continuity in your compositions and playing, it's a good idea to harmonize notes from a specific scale.
Most musicians usually start with the major scale, stacking every other note of the scale on top of each other until a triad is created (Ex. 2).
From there you can start adding, or replacing notes, to create variations from these basic triads, as seen in Ex. 3.
I must point out that you can also arpeggiate these chords, playing the notes one at a time (Ex. 4). Since we are emphasizing harmony in this lesson, it helps to let them ring out.
That's the most common way to create chords, but in this lesson we're looking for something unusual. So rather than being so formulaic, let's proceed with the basic idea that playing two or more notes at the same time will work as long as they all come from the blues scale.
The blues scale is just the minor pentatonic scale with one additional note, which gets labeled #4 or a b5 depending on context. Ex. 5 shows the most common "box" pattern for the A blues scale (A–C–D–Eb–E–G). After getting a hold of this scale, I recommend working on it in the key of E and D since many of the notes can be played with open strings.
There are two considerable disparities when it comes to generating chords from the blues scale as compared to the major scale. First, the blues scale only has six notes and second, the intervals between the notes in each scale are significantly different.
This means that the blues scale creates radical changes in chord construction and nomenclature, the theory of which is far beyond the scope of this lesson. For instance, Ex. 6 is a selection of relatively common chords you can generate from the A blues scale. Later on, we will get into more exotic harmonies.
For now, all you really need to understand about the theory is that, the chords, and the melodies I've composed to fit them, all come from harmonizing notes from the A blues scale.
When Theory, Intuition, and Creativity Meet
Once the concept of harmonization is understood, the possibilities are limited only by your imagination. The following examples are just a few of the endless ideas you could generate. I have designed my examples to imitate the styles of well-known composers and guitarists and broken them down into how they are fingered on the fretboard.
Ex. 7 is a particularly fun place to start as this arpeggio is just the A blues scale, but the notes are displaced into different octaves to create chords.
For Ex. 8 I've rearranged the notes ever so slightly to create a slightly more uniform, pseudo-Slayer progression and melody.
The bent note at the beginning of Ex. 9 immediately made me think of Jimmy Page, so for guitar two, I mimicked Robert Plant's chromatic vocal melody on "Misty Mountain Hop" to create this Led Zeppelin-inspired etude. Note that the first chord is labeled A5(#11) because it contains the D# almost an octave and half higher than the root, making it a #11 in relationship to the A.
Ex. 10 was a happy accident I discovered while playing around with this lesson's concept. It's unashamedly Nine Inch Nails meets Andy Summers. The second chord in the progression is a little tricky to label, so I went with D5(b9) as it contains Eb an octave and one half-step away from the root, making it the b9.
Ex. 11 demonstrates the power of playing unexpected, three-note chords over a static bassline, very similar to funk/fusion keyboard players in the 1970s (think Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea). To provide continuity, I've actually harmonized the blues scale using the same method discussed in Ex. 2. The chord labels I've chosen are derived from a combination of the chords and the bass line, though you'll see there are really only two chords: Cm and Asus4, played with different voicings. And take my word for it, the fact that this progression contains both Cm and Am chords is highly unusual and worth more investigation.
Ex. 12 Is a pseudo-power chord riff a la Fugazi or other bands found in the post-punk/emo genres. I've started here with a variation of the A5(#11) chord. Perhaps this is the defining chord of the harmonized blues scale? The rest of the progression seems to alternate between variations of Am and G, but notice that the bass is playing different notes over the chords, providing harmonic variation. Also pay attention that B and C sections are slightly different.
Comprehend and Create!
I hope by now you've realized that the key to exploiting the harmonized blues scale is to include the #4/b5 in all your progressions. This is the vital element that distinguishes the blues scale from so many others. Make your own progressions, melodies, and songs based on what we've started here. You are only limited by your imagination.
Megadeth founder teams up with Gibson for his first acoustic guitar in the Dave Mustaine Collection.
For the new acoustic guitar, Gibson acoustic luthiers in Bozeman, Montana collaborated with Dave Mustaine the legendary guitarist, vocalist, songwriter, and founder of the multi-platinum selling and Grammy Award-winning band, Megadeth. The Gibson Dave Mustaine Songwriter in Ebony is available in a both a standard version and a limited edition model, signed by the artist. Part of the Dave Mustaine Collection, the new Dave Mustaine Songwriter in Ebony is the first 24-fret neck ever installed on a Gibson acoustic guitar. With a slightly thinner walnut body, the Dave Mustaine Songwriter guitar features a cutaway for easy access to the upper frets.
Megadeth has gone on to sell more than 50 million albums worldwide, earning many accolades along the way, including a Grammy Award for the title track from their most recent album Dystopia, along with 12 additional Grammy nominations, as well as five consecutive platinum/multi-platinum albums. Megadeth has headlined many of the biggest stages in the world and recently played their most successful tour ever, closing every night on the North American amphitheater “Metal Tour of the Year”. Also, a New York Times bestselling author and sought after speaker, host, and commentator, Mustaine has remained a standard bearer for metal and heavy guitar rock, combining a musical and technical standard with the punk and rock n’ roll ethos and attitude.
Icons: Dave Mustaine of Megadeth
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Jazz virtuoso Lionel Loueke joins us in contemplating who we’d put at the helm while making the album of a lifetime. Plus, musical obsessions!
Q: If you could make an album with any producer, alive or dead, who would it be?
Lionel Loueke — Guest Picker
Photo by Elan Mehler
A: Quincy Jones. He’s done so much. He’s someone I’d love to work with just to get a different experience. I love his work but the main one for me is Michael Jackson’s Thriller. I know him personally: I went to Morocco with him when he was presenting the Global Gumbo All Stars, and I also worked with him in the studio when I was playing with Herbie Hancock on his new project. Quincy wasn’t producing, Terrace Martin was the producer, but it was so good to be in the studio with all those great musicians.
Photo by Sam Santos
What I really like about Quincy is how he detects talent. Producing is one thing, but he finds the right musicians who have something unique or different to say. I mean, Ray Charles … he’s produced so many greats in all genres.
Lionel Loueke's Current Obsession:
Right now, my obsession is all about the drums. I feel like I present myself as being a frustrated drummer, because I play a lot of percussion on the guitar and I started as a percussion player, so it’s always been part of what I do. I’m not looking to be a drummer, I just feel really connected to any percussion instrument, and I feel drums will help me go even deeper in my musical multitasking.
I think it was Miles Davis who said that every musician should try to play drums. And I truly believe that because with the drums you have four parts of your body to synchronize: legs, arms, feet, hands. When it comes to rhythmically thinking, drums are something every musician should try.
I just talked to my friend, drummer Ferenc Nemeth, who has been playing in my band for 20 years, about buying a drum kit because I don’t have one. Right now, I have drumsticks and I’m beating on everything [laughing].
Matt Dunn — Reader of the Month
A: I would probably pick Brian Eno/Daniel Lanois specifically because of their work on The Unforgettable Fire album with U2. While I’m mostly into punk/garage rock, I was always so blown away by early U2 records and their approach to songwriting. I would do anything to write my own versions of “Bad” or “A Sort of Homecoming” with their guidance and production.
U̲2 - The Unforgettable Fire CD2 Deluxe (Full Album)
Matt Dunn's Current Obsession:
Bad Religion. Despite being a punk fan my whole life, I was always more into English and East Coast bands. I recently tried to expand my world to include those SoCal punk bands and I cannot find anyone better than them. “Streets of America,” “American Jesus,” and “We’re Only Gonna Die” are on repeat.
Ted Drozdowski — Senior Editor
A: It’s a toss between T Bone Burnett and Daniel Lanois.
I love the low sound T Bone perfected with his own The True False Identity and Alison Krauss/Robert Plant’s Raising Sand. But I’m crazy about how Lanois brings the ambient playbook to roots music, producing great albums for Dylan, Emmylou Harris, the Nevilles, and more.
Ted Drozdowski's Current Obsession:
I’m in the early stages of working on a feature-length film incorporating songs, storytelling, psychedelic lighting, original artwork, and aerial dance. How could I not be obsessed about it?
Nick Millevoi — Associate Editor
A: The Flaming Lips and Dave Fridmann. I can’t begin to predict how my music and their vision would really come together, and that’s what I love about the idea of working with those guys. Every Lips album and side project is completely immersive and multidimensional. It would be a dream to tap into their whole technicolor vibe and see how they’d handle sounds, arrangements, and writing firsthand.
Flaming Lips - See the Leaves
Nick Millevoi's Current Obsession:
Eighties drum machines. I’m deep in the throes of an obsession: I recently bought an Alesis HR-16 and the sounds are so sick—and so ’80s! —but it has opened up a potential gear wormhole.