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Beyond Blues: Keeping it Simple with Blues-Scale Transitions

Learn to develop singable melodies to play over a blues.

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Intermediate
Lesson Overview:
• Create a hybrid scale from the Mixolydian mode and blues scale.
• Develop singable melodies to play over a blues.
• Learn how to incorporate nine of 12 possible notes over any chord.

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

One thing I love about the blues is that you can make it as simple or complicated as you want. I’ve heard some awesome solos that only used two or three notes from the blues scale, and I’ve heard some great solos that used all kinds of complex concepts and more “academic” scales. I’ve also witnessed some less-than-stellar solos that use both approaches. However, when guitarists start to venture into the realm of “modal” blues, they generally throw a lot of good things out the window. You know, essential elements like good timing, good phrasing, and the idea that there should still be a melody present. The last thing you want is to sound like you are playing some kind of étude.

The transition from soloing entirely with the blues scale to modal playing—mostly using the Mixolydian mode, since it functions over dominant 7 chords—can at times sound academic. In this lesson we will look at a method for making this transition not sound like some lame exercise.

Here’s the first thing: Never turn your back on the blues scale as you transition into modal melodies. It has been, is, and will forever be your mamma. That scale can get you out of a jam like no other. And besides, it just sounds great. Period. Plus, it works over all three (I, IV, and V) chords in a typical blues progression. On the other hand, the Mixolydian mode needs to change to fit over each chord. So let’s keep it simple and just work on one mode for now and fuse it with the blues scale.

I suggest you try out the new sound (the modal sound) on just one chord at a time. Play the G Mixolydian mode (G–A–B–C–D–E–F) over the I chord in a G blues and the G blues scale (G–Bb–C–Db–D–F) over all the other chords. This keeps things from getting complicated.

Also, rather than approaching the modal thing as a “new” concept, let’s just build on the foundation we already have in the blues scale. Simply adding a few notes will build on something we already know.

Now, if we compare the notes in the G Mixolydian mode and the G blues scale, you notice the only notes we need to add to the blues scale are the 2/9 (A), 3 (B), and 6/13 (E).

Start to build a number of melodies—with good phrasing, of course—that focus on the blues scale with the occasional hint of the modal sound we’re working on. Check out the solo in Fig. 1. For this example, I’ll only add the major 3 (B) and 6 (E) to my palette.

When you learn a scale, it’s important to visualize and understand how it lies on the fretboard. This will open up your fingers to new ideas and give you a feel for how to connect different shapes on the fretboard.

There are a lot of possibilities, when you create a hybrid scale by fusing the G Mixolydian mode and the G blues scale. When viewed this way, the only notes that aren’t included within the one-octave framework are Ab, D#, and F#. Down the road, we’ll come up with some other rules to include them. In Fig. 2, you can see a few suggested fingerings for this scale—one based off of a 6th-string root and then off a 5th-string root—in the key of G.

This Mixo-blues fusion of scales creates plenty of possibilities for our I chord. For those of you playing along (and I hope that is all of you), you can now apply this same principal for the IV chord (G blues + C Mixolydian) and the V chord (G blues + D Mixolydian) to cover all three chords found in the blues progression.

Good luck and have a good time with all this material. Remember, when you are learning something new, try to see how it can relate to something you already know. This way you won’t feel like you are always learning everything from the very beginning each time you embark on a new musical journey. Practice hard. Practice smart.

Corey Christiansen
Corey Christiansen, a former senior editor and guitar clinician for Mel Bay Publications, is known for his fluid jazz improvisation and instructional chops. He teaches full-time at Utah State University and is an Artist-in-Residence at the Jacobs School of Music in Bloomington, Indiana, the Atlanta Institute of Music, and the Broadway Music School. To learn more about his CDs and DVD, and see his current workshop and performance schedule, visit Photo by Jimmy Katz

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