Poindexter at the Crossroads: The 5 Tonalities of the Blues
There’s way more to blues harmony than just major and minor.
• Learn to appreciate the power of tonalities.
• Understand how to alter a phrase to fit the harmony.
• Scare your friends with wicked diminished licks. Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.
I went to the crossroads, took out a bunch of student loans
I went to the crossroads, took out a bunch of student loans
Asked the Lord above, “Have mercy now
I still can’t rhyme or play the blues”
Blues is one of those things that is hard to pin down in theory class. Is it major? Is it minor? It just doesn’t seem to make sense, so it must be just a feel thing, right?
Well, what if I told you that you can feel and think about it deeply and maybe come up with a system of blues harmony that makes sense to your brain and your belly? I’ll explain a system that gives you some extra sounds from which to borrow, sounds you may have known instinctively, but not thought of or labeled in this way before.
Use this lesson to make your blues playing more sophisticated. Come to think of it, also take this lesson as permission to put more blues in your “sophisticated” playing.
As somewhat of a theory nerd, I avoid learning licks to merely regurgitate them. Instead, I like to analyze and find the tonal sources of licks so I can make up my own ideas. The “tonality” that I talk about here is a group of seven notes and the family of chords you can derive from it. Tonality is powerful in that it has a built-in tension and resolution that’s comfortable to people’s ears. It’s predictable in a good way, and can hold the attention of an audience. Chromatic or symmetrical sounds are cool, but not in the same way. Done right, chromatic and symmetrical sounds can dazzle the ears, but they often give the ear permission to release the memory of the preceding notes. This lesson has to do with tonal sounds in blues.
Blues comes naturally to guitar players. Our unique ability to finesse the pitch and “sass” the notes is deep in our tradition. Blues is foundational to so many styles, and admit it: Guitar is the best at it. Embrace it.
All the great players had a way of thinking that made sense to them. I don’t pretend that the system I’m about to present is the right or orthodox approach, but stick with me, because I don’t want to be the only one who thinks this way. This is the stuff I talk about at parties!
Here’s the formula for a minor blues scale: 1–b3–4–b5–5–b7.
Here’s the formula for a major blues scale: 1–2–b3–3–5–6.
When we combine these scales, we have nine(!) notes. We’re only not allowed to play the b2, #5, and 7—although in the right hands, any note can sound bluesy. Nine notes gives us a lot of options
Finding the Tonalities
Instead of just running this nine-note scale up and down, let’s separate certain notes into groups in order to find the seven-note tonalities embedded within. Why? Because, like I said before, tonality is powerful and can hold the attention of an audience.
The nine notes of the hybrid blues scale contain five different seven-note tonalities: two from the major scale and one each from harmonic minor, melodic minor, and harmonic major. Each of these “blues tonalities” has its own flavor and each is capable of creating a unique set of chords or voicings.
Note: In the following formulas, I’m using b5 and #4 interchangeably. Pitch-wise, they’re identical—it’s only the name that varies. We do this to account for every numeral between 1 and 7 in our scale formulas.
The five tonal sounds embedded in the hybrid blues scale are:
Mixolydian (5th mode of the major scale), 1–2–3–4–5–6–b7
Dorian (2nd mode of the major scale), 1–2–b3–4–5–6–b7
Dorian #4 (4th mode of the harmonic minor scale), 1–2–b3–#4–5–6–b7
Lydian dominant (4th mode of the melodic minor scale), 1–2–3–#4–5–6–b7
Locrian ♮2 ♮6 (2nd mode of the harmonic major scale), 1–2–b3–4–b5–6–b7
Some of these sound major, some sound minor, and a couple have diminished qualities. Some are a mixture.
Next, we will put these formulas into a pile of real-world licks that will be sure to annoy your friends and impress your neighbors. Notice how these licks target certain chord tones. To make each lick sound bluesy, you’ll need to use your usual bends and slides to “sass” these target notes.
It can be voiced as a dominant 7, 9, or 13 chord, as well as the sus versions of all three. This is the most common mode used in major blues situations. It sounds happy and feels familiar.
Ex. 1 starts with a descending Mixolydian scale in sixths. Remember, it won’t sound like blues unless you slide into certain notes, as shown. The rest of the lick uses double-stops and a combination of slides and hammer-ons targeting the 3 from a half-step below. If you’re familiar with the CAGED method, you’ll recognize that most of this lick utilizes the “E” shape. If you aren’t, check out The CAGED System Demystified
Here’s a lick (Ex. 2) that uses triads and is reminiscent of a famous Herbie Hancock funk tune. It slides from Em to F#m, and then hammers-on from D to G all over an A bass note, making it sound like an A13 chord. The lick ends with slides (in sixths) and a bend into the notes of an A chord. All familiar bluesy sounds.
We will invoke the CAGED method again with Ex. 3, which lives in the “G” shape. This time, the root is held on the 1st string while the moving line ascends chromatically on the 2nd string. Both the 3 and the 5 are sassed from the south (3 from b3 and 5 from the b5). Again, it’s a classic lick that you have heard from many blues and country artists.
Next is an Albert King-style lick (Ex. 4) that is one of the sassiest of all blues licks. It requires a lot of bending strength in that it uses a double-stop bend. But definitely learn this one, as I’ll be revisiting it within all the other blues tonalities. Bend up to the root from the b7 on the 1st string and then while holding the bend, roll the same finger over to the 2nd string and release the bend down to the 5. Next, use your first finger to bend from the b3 to the 3 on the 2nd string. The rest of the lick grabs some choice notes in Mixolydian, sliding into the 4 from the 5, and the 3 from the b3. In the CAGED system, this lick is mostly in the “A” shape.
Ex. 5 is a bebop-style blues lick that’s typical of George Benson. Over the A7 chord, it starts on the 5, arpeggiating an Em7 chord (E–G–B–D). It features chromatic passing notes from the 6 to the 1, and ends by sliding from b3 to the 3.
It can be voiced as minor 7, minor 9, minor 11, or minor 6 chords. Obviously, it’s the most popular mode in minor blues situations. Again, familiar territory here.
Ex. 6 is that same bebop-style blues lick we heard in Mixolydian, but transposed/moved to fit over A Dorian. This one is on a different string set, so you’ll have to learn a new pattern. (Tip: It’s always a good idea to learn your licks with alternate fingerings, so you’ll have some options with phrasing.)
Ex. 7 starts off with another Herbie Hancock-influenced idea using double-stops in thirds. It then switches over to a more guitaristic lick on the top two strings that’s then closely echoed an octave down on the 3rd and 4th strings.
Ex. 8 is a Wes Montgomery-style blues lick based on a motif that starts on the 1st string and goes from 2 to 1, then moves to the 2nd string and goes from 6 to 5 in the same way. The motif repeats an octave lower on the 3rd and 4th strings. Check out how the first half of the motif rears its head one more time on the 5th string just before the final Am6 chord.
Remember the Albert King-style lick we did over Mixolydian? Here it is again (Ex. 9), but adapted to fit Dorian. Instead of sliding or bending to the 3, the note remains on the b3, which creates a minor sound.
Much like regular Dorian, this mode can be voiced as minor 7, minor 6, minor 7b5, or diminished 7 chords. Blues licks in this tonality have an interesting flavor in that they can offer both minor and diminished qualities.
Here’s that Wes Montgomery-style Dorian lick again (Ex. 10). All of the notes work in Dorian #4 because there’s no 4 in the lick, but there’s a surprise Am7b5 chord at the end to retroactively place the phrase in this new context.
Ex. 11 is a minor blues lick that really exploits the rub between the #4 and the 5 by descending through an altered pentatonic. Instead of the typical minor pentatonic formula of 1–b3–4–5–b7, we raise the 4 to a #4. You might also recognize these five notes as the minor blues scale without the natural 4. This is a stanky sound!
I love half-diminished arpeggios. They are super sassy and angry when played in the context of blues, and they remind me of one of my favorite players, Scott Henderson. Ex. 12 uses two positions of an Am7b5 (half-diminished) arpeggio, with a slide down to the 6 at the end.
I hope you still remember that Albert King-style lick. Here it is yet again (Ex. 13). It’s like the Dorian version, but instead of releasing the bend a whole-step, I hit the #4 instead.
This mode can be voiced as dominant 7, 9, or 13 chords, and naturally features the #11 as an extension on any of those. It’s mostly a major blues sound, but that #4 adds a ton of spice.
Ex. 14 starts with an A7(#11) chord and then adds some sixths in Lydian dominant. It then uses a run adapted from a common jazz phrase known as the “Cry Me a River” lick, starting on the 13.
Next, we have a fairly typical major blues lick (Ex. 15), but the surprise is that it bends up from the 4 to the #4, and the b3 to the 3. This is followed by another common major blues lick using double-stops in the “A” CAGED shape. Sustain the 5 on the 1st string while bending (or hammering-on) from the b3 to the 3 on the 2nd string. The phrase ends on a #11, an essential part of this tonality. In the context of an A7(#11) chord, be sure to get those bends in tune to capture this flavor.
Here’s that Albert King-style lick again (Ex. 16). This time, just like in Dorian #4, do your best to release the bend only a half-step to drop to the #4 on the 2nd string before cutting off the note. Also, like in Mixolydian, notice this one has the b3 bending (or sliding) up to the 3.
This is an example of how you can mix bluesy playing with strict tonal playing (Ex. 17). The lick starts with some sliding sixths, which are followed by an augmented triad arpeggio starting on D#. The augmented sound can be an attention grabber, for sure.
Locrian ♮2 ♮6
This mode can be voiced as a minor 7b5 or fully diminished 7 chord. This mode is probably the most diminished sounding of the bunch.
Ex. 18 is that same half-diminished arpeggio lick used in the Dorian #4 tonality. It uses two positions of the m7b5 arpeggio, followed by a slide to the 6.
Okay—the Albert King-style lick makes another appearance (Ex. 19). In minor again, but this time don’t hit the 5. Go from the b5 to 4. You’ll have to cut off the initial bend after hitting the root in order to target the b5. Before playing the 2nd string, release the bend half way so that you release from a b5, instead of the 5. Make sense?
Ex. 20 is a very cool blues lick I got from an organ player. It only uses notes from a diminished 7 chord along with a ♮4, and it just happens to work in this oh-so-nerdy mode. It descends while repeating itself every octave.
This last one is definitely for extra credit because it’s the hardest (Ex. 21). It’s an adaptation of a classic diminished-scale lick. Instead of using the eight notes of the diminished scale, it uses only the seven notes contained in the G harmonic major scale (G–A–B–C–D–Eb–F#). In the context of the Adim7 chord, it’ll sound like the ultimate A Locrian ♮2 ♮6 lick. Sure to fend off any nefarious bill collector or bandleader!
Just remember: It’s not what you play as much as how you play it that makes something bluesy.