A look at a few blues licks that use the modes to transition from one chord the next.

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In this month’s column we’ll take a look at a few blues licks that use the modes to transition from one chord the next. I talked briefly last month about how my one of my favorite things about using the modes was the sounds you get when moving from one pattern to the next. Using the modes on a blues is not about having more note choices—it’s about being able to outline the chords and the chord changes with ease and grace.

Let’s get started. Fig. 1 is an example of the moving from the I chord (A7) to the IV chord (D7). I start with A Mixolydian and then move to A dorian over the D7. Remember that we use A Dorian over the D7 because we want to stay at the fifth fret and D7 is the five chord of G major (which can also be viewed as A Dorian). It will sound as if we are playing D Mixolydian because of the context we are using the scale pattern over. The lick begins on the 6 of A7. This can also be viewed as the 13th, a very colorful note and a common choice for players like Robben Ford. Download Example Audio...

In Fig. 2 we use the same scale patterns we used for Fig. 1. This lick starts and ends with the same note (A), but its functions are very different. Listen to how the A sounds at both points. You might have noticed that for these first two examples I’ve tried to stay as close to the pentatonic scale as I could. This is what we are already familiar with, and we only want to add to it. Download Example Audio...

Fig. 3 is a very challenging lick. We keep with the same scale patterns, but this time I move from one to the other without breaking my stride. I move from one scale to the next by moving to the closest note in the next scale. So, instead of playing C#, the 3 of A7, I play C natural, the flatted seventh of the D7 chord at the end of the second measure. Take your time with this one; it’s a bit of a challenge but one worth learning. Download Example Audio...

We move from the IV chord (D7) back to the I chord (A7) in Fig. 4. We’ll use our scales from the first three examples, but in reverse. Here, we will use A Dorian over the D7 and A Mixolydian over the A7 chord. This lick starts on A the 5 of the D7 chord and ends on the 3 (C#) of the A7th chord. Almost every note in this lick is from the A minor pentatonic scale except the two C#s. Download Example Audio...

Fig. 5 is another example of the same movement from the IV chord (D7) to the I chord (A7). This lick uses a very cool pre-bend and release in the beginning from the 3 (G) to the major 3rd (F#) of D7. Then finally comes to rest on the root (A) of A7. Download Example Audio...

For an example on how to create more interesting sounds in turnarounds, look at Fig. 6. This is a I–IV–I–V turnaround in the key of A. The E7, the V chord, is the only new chord to us. Over the E7 chord we will use the A Ionian scale which is just another name for the major scale. Start this lick in A Mixolydian then move to A Dorian over D7. In this example I use a little thing called anticipation. This is when you play the scale to the next chord a little early. This is a great tool from creating and releasing tension. At first, the notes you play will sound a little funny. When the chord changes there will be an overwhelming since of release. I do this by emphasizing the 3 (G#) of E7 a couple of beats early, while still on the A7th chord. Download Example Audio...

Fig. 7 is over the same chord progression and uses the same scale fingerings. I just tried to use different parts of the fingering to get you to explore a little more. I also used a G# over the A7 chord in the first measure. This is the major 7th in the key of A, not a part of the chord but adds a cool tension that quickly releases to the 9 (B) of the A7 chord. This lick also ends nicely on the 5 (B) of the E7. This is a common resolution used by players like Eric Clapton. Download Example Audio...

These licks are a little more challenging than normal because they move through multiple scale patterns. Take your time and develop them slowly, there is no rush. This is the kind of work you need to do to take your playing to that next level. This is a stumbling point for a lot of players. Take care to listen to the recorded examples to match the articulations as much as possible.

Dennis McCumber has been a guitar instructor and performer for more than 20 years. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in music education from The College of Saint Rose.
 Dennis performs regularly in the New York City area with various rock, blues, and funk bands, and occasionally as a classical soloist. In addition to performing, Dennis has been a middle school music teacher in the Bronx for the past 12 years. While teaching in the Bronx, he was given a guitar lab by VH1 Save the Music and a keyboard lab from the radio station Hot97 Hip Hop Symphony. Dennis has been an instructor at the National Guitar Workshop since 1996, where he teaches Blues, Funk, and Rock. Find out more at dennismccumber.com

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