This blog covers the widely used blues scale. Even if you wouldn’t call yourself a blues musician, this magic scale is something that every musician should know, since it not only helps build the fundamentals of blues, but pretty much everything that followed it – including pop, rock, and everything in between.

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The blues legend B.B. King – Photo (cropped): B.B. King, by F. Antolín Hernandez, licence CC BY 2.0

From Pentatonic to Blues

In this blog, we covered the finer points of both the major and minor pentatonic scales. The blues scales are very closely related to the pentatonic scales – in fact, they’re derived directly from them. Looking back at the pentatonic scales, they’re made up of five notes, and the five-note major pentatonic scale could be seen as a derivative of the seven-note major scale. The major pentatonic scale then, is a major scale with the fourth and seventh notes left out. So, the C-major pentatonic scale is C, D, E, G, A, C, where the last C is the first note of the following octave. If you were to write it out numerically, it would read: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 8. Just like we explained in the blog linked above, every major scale has a parallel minor scale that uses the same notes. So the parallel minor of the C-major pentatonic scale is the A-minor pentatonic scale. While the C-major pentatonic is C, D, E, G, A, C, the A-minor pentatonic is A, C, D, E, G, A. So, the same notes are used but while the C-major pentatonic starts at C, the A-minor pentatonic starts at A. A minor pentatonic has a more bluesy feel than a major pentatonic. This is because it includes a diminished third and a diminished seventh – two of the magic ‘blue notes’ that shape the distinct flavour of the blues scale.

Blue Notes

Before we get stuck into the blues scale, it’s worth having a look at the so-called ‘blue notes’. Blue notes are the notes that sit in the ‘cracks’ between standard notes, and are usually a lowered third, lowered fifth or lowered seventh. These notes are essentially the key to that blues sound and when emphasised, can give anything that unmistakable bluesy edge. There are a few theories and stories revolving around the true origin of the blue note. Since blues was born in slave communities in America, one theory is that African-American musicians picked up badly tuned instruments and ‘stumbling’ on blue notes as they played, but this becomes immediately unlikely as soon as you look at the musicality and skill of those musicians that helped shape what we now know as the blues. Another, more likely explanation is that blue notes find their root in the West African scales that were used by displaced African musicians because of their distinct sadness – that ‘blue’ feel. It’s that sad feel that is used to create a very specific atmosphere, even when deployed as part of a solo in a pop number. Blue notes tend to lend themselves better to rock music than they do to pop, however. For instance, if a certain song sounds particularly sweet when played in C-major, throwing in a blues scale and a few blue notes will clash with the vibe. In these situations, you’re often better off leaning on the C-pentatonic scale or the A-minor pentatonic, since they use the same notes.

Playing Blue Notes

The blue note doesn’t always have to fall exactly on the lowered third, fifth, or seventh. The note can also sit in between. For example, when playing the guitar, you can find a blue note by sliding between the lowered third and the natural third, or between the second to the lowered third. Pianists are forced to favour pure notes to create a similar feel since pianos and other similar instruments offer less wiggle room when it comes to finding the notes ‘between the cracks’ (as Marvin Gaye once described blues notes) But for the pianist, every key includes its own specific combination of white and black keys, and the same applies to the blues scales. Many musicians might be able to go in various directions when there’s a key change, which involves endlessly rehearsing the blues scales until they become automatic. As such, when playing the piano, it’s a good idea to focus on the most-used keys. So, if you’re playing with a guitar-based band, these are likely to be the keys of C, D, E, G, and A. And if you’re playing in a band with a brass section, then you’ll need to nail the key of F, Bb, Eb, and sometimes Ab.

The Blues Scale

Now we come to the blues scale. This scale is essentially an expanded version of the pentatonic scale with blue notes added to inject the all-important melancholy that’s central to the blues. The blues notes are generally the lowered third, lowered fifth, and lowered seventh. The lowered third and seventh are probably the most ‘powerful’ of the blue note and the minor pentatonic scale includes both. While you can divide blues scales into major and minor scales, in reality, the blues minor scale is the only genuine blues scale, so when we talk about the blues scale in this blog, what we actually mean is the blues minor scale. Looking back at the A-minor pentatonic scale (A, C, D, E, G, A), we have a scale that already included two of three blue notes – namely the C (lowered third) and the G (lowered seventh). To turn it into a minor blues scale, we just insert an extra note – a lowered fifth – between the D and E, giving us the A-minor blues scale: A, C, D, Eb, E, G, A. In another example, you can take the E-minor pentatonic (E, G, A, B, D, E) and add a lowered fifth (Bb) to turn it into the E-minor blues scale: E, G, A, Bb, B, D, E. In yet another example: take the C-minor pentatonic scale: C, Eb, F, G, Bb, C and turn it into a blues scale by adding a lowered fifth (Gb), to make the C blues scale, C, Eb, F, Gb, G, Bb, C.

Major Blues?

So what changes when we look at major blues scales? In essence, you can’t really call these ‘blues’ scales since they lack the essential ‘blue’ feel of the minor blues scales. It’s more accurate to say that a major blues scale is an expansion of the major pentatonic scale. Take the C-major pentatonic scale: C, D, E, G, A, C. To turn it into a C-major blues scale, we simply drop a blue note in between the D and E – the lowered third, so in this case, an Eb, giving us the C-major blues scale: C, D, Eb, E, G, A, C. The D-major pentatonic scale runs D, E, F#, A, B, D, and when we drop in a lowered third – so an F – we get the D-major blues scale: D, E, F, F#, A, B, D. And, when we take the Bb major pentatonic scale, Bb, C, D, F, G, Bb and add a lowered third (Db), we get the Bb-major blues scale: Bb, C, Db, D, F, G, Bb.

The Blues Scale: Nail it in Every Key

That Sad Sound

The minor blues scale is considered the real blues scale since it includes a lowered third, lowered fifth, and a lowered seventh; is the most-used blues scale; and is the starting point for most blues. Since the minor pentatonic scale includes both a lowered third and lowered seventh (the most powerful of the blues notes), it forms the basis of the minor blues scale because all that needs adding is a lowered fifth. Another hallmark of blues is the dominant seventh chord (which uses a lowered seventh) played on the tonic (or the first step). Playing a blues scale over a dominant seventh chord pits the natural third of the chord against the lowered third of the scale to excellent effect. For example, over a C7 chord, an E-sharp is played against an E, and the lowered fifth is played against a natural fifth – so, the G sharp against the G. In a major blues key, the natural third and the natural sixth can be used to improvise, just like the ninth. But since the blues is all about the melancholy feel that you can only get by playing in the minor key, you can’t really play the blues with the major blues scale. In other words, you ‘can’t play the blues in an airconditioned room’.

Using the Blues Scales

Say you’re playing the blues in C. You’ll be able to play the C-minor blues scale over the entire progression, even if it leads to an F7 or G7 (the fourth and fifth step). So: C, Eb, F, Gb, G, Bb, C over each of the three chords always sounds good. But you can’t get away with playing an F-minor blues scale over an F7, or a G-minor blues scale over a G7, since it will sound ‘off’. But there is a scale you can use to ‘walk’ with the steps – the major blues scale. The C-major blue scale runs C, D, Eb, E, G, A, C. The F-major blues scale runs: F, G, Ab, A, C, D, F. And the G-major blues scale runs: G, A, Bb, B, D, E, G. Each scale only includes one blue note – the lowered third. In the C-major blues scale, this is the E♯. The C-major blues scale is made up of the same notes as the A-minor blues scale (so a lowered third down). The notes of the G-major blues scale are also the same as the notes used in the E-minor blues scale, and so on. So, if you’re playing the blues in C and come up against a C7, F7, or G7 chord, then using either the minor or major blues scales, you have the options included below, and by weaving between both, you can inject some variation into your solos.

C7: C-minor blues and C-major blues
F7: C-minor blues and F-major blues
G7: C-minor blues and G-major blues

Practice Tracks for Improvisation

Blues in E (handy for guitarists):

Blues in C (handy for pianists):

See Also…

» Guitars & Accessories
» Keyboard Instruments & Accessories
» Musical Instruments & Accessories
» Music Books

» The Pentatonic Scale: Easy to Learn
» Music Notation: Sharps, Flats & Naturals
» Learning to Play Guitar: Sheet Music, Chords, or Tab?
» Guitar Chords for Beginners
» Three Basic Cajon Beats
» How to Play Basic Piano Chords
» Ukulele for Guitarists: The 4 Most Important Chords
» Chords: Theory & Chord Symbols
» Reading Music: Rhythm, Tempo & Measure
» Learning to Read Music: The Minor Scale & Keys
» How to Tune Your Guitar or Bass
» Learning to Read Music: The C-Major Scale
» Learning to Read Guitar Tabs

8 responses
  1. H. B. Alan says:

    Regarding the section ‘Blue Notes’:

    While it’s an oft repeated popular myth, the origin of the distinctive sound of the blues that you suggest here is incorrect: ‘Another, more likely explanation is that blue notes find their root in the West African scales that were used by displaced African musicians’.

    After decades of research by both academics (historians, musicologists) and musicians themselves, and while in no way belittling the contribution of black musicians, it has long been known – and forms part of many university music modules – that the blues originated not in Africa but from the psalm singing tradition of the British Isles.

    More specifically, it is known that a tradition existed in protestant churches in England and Scotland whereby psalms were sung to an improvised melody in a call and response fashion – the congregation would repeat the melody of whomever was leading the service. It is believed that this method evolved to aid illiterate churchgoers in remembering, to some extend, the words and content of the psalms.

    As transport links increased within the British Isles – canal networks, paddle steamers, road improvements, a rapidly expanding railway system – these relatively isolated congregations became more closely linked to mainstream church practices and thus influenced by the wider consensus prevailing within the Britain. As the nineteenth century progressed the practice of improvised psalm singing died out in England and in much of Scotland which explains why, until the subject was heavily researched in the 20th century, it was initially believed that the blues had its origins in Africa (because it was so localised within small rural communities before the practice all but disappeared that it had little to no influence on mainstream British sacred and folk music).

    However, crucially, the improvised-melody psalm singing tradition hung on in a few isolated places in Scotland just long enough – luckily for all of us music lovers the world over – for a few emigrating Scots to take the practice with them to the New World. (Incidentally, the practice still exists to this day in one or two places in Scotland so it is possible to hear it and its unmistakable blues sound of one cares to search online).

    Consequently, it was from these 19th century Scots who’d moved to America that black people on plantations became acquainted with the ‘blue notes’ and the sound of the blues (this is also how the blues notes, became a distinctive flavour of the American folk music tradition that grew up amongst poor settlers of European/British descent in places like the Appalachia, making it distinct from European folk music – though the situation is complicated by the fact that these Appalachian musician were later influenced by black blues-playing musicians too).

    Sadly, no historian today, due to there being almost no written accounts of the time, is quite sure of the exact way the blues developed within the black communities, which would have given us a fascinating insight into the earliest forms of the blues as a distinct American music style.

    Thankfully, we do at least know the broad sequence of events: first the blues sound that had been learnt from the Scots was incorporated into black church music – this is the origin of gospel music. Then, secular black musicians, mostly singer-pianists and singer-acoustic guitarists, took the gospel sound but replaced the lyrics with all together more bawdy lyrics and earthy themes and began travelling between black communities making money by entertaining them. [This practice continued well into the 20th century: an early Ray Charles’ hit was a ‘borrowed’ gospel song with altered lyrics].

    As an aside, the reason the blues became known as the ‘Devil’s Music’ is because people began spending their time and their hard earned wages dancing, partying and drinking at these energetic musical events and so didn’t have much (if any) money left to put on the collection plate at church, come Sunday morning. Consequently, the pastor would deem the music of the secular blues performers as the devil’s music, in an effort to counter the drop in income by trying to steer the congregation away from such frivolity.

    And there, for both Bax Music readers and any musician who has ever wondered, is the actual history of the blues from its beginnings in Britain to how it first reached the ears of black musicians and communities. I hope you enjoyed reading this article and learnt something of interest in the process.

    Regards, HB Alan
    (BA Hons, PG Cert, MA)

  2. JAX says:

    A lot of Great information here Thank You Very Much ……. it’s a Good thing you put the note names below the notes. but I don’t know if the Players that use tabs instead of regular Sheet music will know or understand much of if. I have no idea … Learn to read music kids THANKS AGAIN

  3. Elvis135 says:

    Wow… thoroughly enjoyed it… cheers from Canada.

  4. SteveCrown says:

    It’s really helpful.thanks alot

  5. Matt says:

    Quite helpful! Except… E#? Also I think you meant to say dropping in a lowered 5th here?
    “Since the minor pentatonic scale includes both a lowered third and lowered seventh (the most powerful of the blues notes), it forms the basis of the minor blues scale because all that needs adding is a lowered third.”

  6. Richard says:

    I am an 82 year old man.Your scale formats are very helpful.Thank you very much……’Nick’…my nick name!

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