4 LEV­ELS OF BLUES

For this spe­cial fea­ture, Mil­ton Mer­mikides presents not one but four blues gui­tar lessons, each set at a dif­fer­ent level and de­signed to im­prove your play­ing, re­gard­less of your abil­ity.

Guitar Techniques - - Contents -

No mat­ter what level of player you are, this les­son will have you cre­at­ing bet­ter, more au­then­tic and co­he­sive so­los in no time.

ABIL­ITY RAT­ING

Ask A hun­dred gui­tarists the sim­ple ques­tion, “What should I play over a blues?” and you’ll likely re­ceive just as many dif­fer­ent, but equally im­pas­sioned, re­sponses: “don’t think about it, just use your ears”; “use mi­nor blues but play with feel­ing”, “don’t just play mi­nor Pen­ta­tonic, follow each chord”; “Im­i­tate the play­ers you like and then make it your own”, or any num­ber of ever more com­pli­cated the­o­ret­i­cal in­struc­tions of what to do – or not do. For the de­vel­op­ing gui­tarist, this avalanche of of­ten con­tra­dic­tory ad­vice can be both over­whelm­ing and con­fus­ing.

The best way to pro­ceed (as is the case with any mu­si­cal pur­suit) is to be­come aware of a num­ber of dif­fer­ent pos­si­ble ef­fec­tive ap­proaches, and be less con­cerned about which is the right – or best – one. The more op­tions you have the richer your pal­ette for mu­si­cal ex­pres­sion be­comes, the more choices you’ll have in per­for­mance and the more you’ll be ac­cept­ing (rather than chal­lenged by) any new idea that comes along.

In this spirit, this ar­ti­cle presents four dif­fer­ent ap­proaches to play­ing over a blues pro­gres­sion. Th­ese have been or­gan­ised into four lev­els, and although th­ese lev­els are rep­re­sen­ta­tive of in­creas­ing har­monic so­phis­ti­ca­tion and the­o­ret­i­cal depth, don’t be tempted to think that ‘good play­ing’ is at the higher lev­els, and ‘bad play­ing’ is as the lower ones; th­ese are sim­ply dif­fer­ent ap­proaches with dif­fer­ent ex­pres­sive ef­fects. It’s pos­si­ble – ac­tu­ally en­cour­aged – to learn to im­prove at all of th­ese dif­fer­ent lev­els and to em­ploy them all in your play­ing. You can mix them up within a solo (or even a cho­rus). We’ve pre­sented th­ese four lev­els at a va­ri­ety of keys, tem­pos and blues styles, and although some of th­ese ap­proaches are more common in cer­tain styles, it’s pos­si­ble to ap­ply the con­cepts quite freely.

here’s a break­down of the four lev­els to­gether with some rep­re­sen­ta­tive artists who are good ex­em­plars of the ap­proach in ques­tion. There fol­lows four two-cho­rus so­los (with a back­ing tracks) show­ing each ‘level’ in ac­tion. Feel free to use th­ese so­los as the ba­sis of some­thing orig­i­nal, and use the back­ing tracks as an aid to de­vel­op­ing ideas of your own based on th­ese ‘lev­els’.

Work­ing through this ar­ti­cle, and de­vel­op­ing the ideas within your own play­ing, will help you see the count­less ways you can play over a ‘sim­ple’ blues (and other con­texts), and will lib­er­ate you from du­ti­fully fol­low­ing any one par­tic­u­lar sys­tem.

Level 1

The use of mi­nor Pen­ta­tonic (or mi­nor Blues) based on the key over all the chords - for ex­am­ple C mi­nor Pen­ta­tonic on a blues in C: C7 F7 G7. This may feel like the sim­plest ap­proach but it’s ac­tu­ally quite in­ter­est­ing and help­ful to see how and why it works.

Let’s look at C mi­nor blues over the three chords C7, F7 and G7. (In the ta­ble, r = root). All the notes of the mi­nor Pen­ta­tonic ‘work’ over all three chords, but dif­fer­ent notes are rel­a­tively more sta­ble or un­sta­ble on each chord. The di­a­gram in­di­cates in yel­low the root notes for the three chords. no­tice that for each of the three chords, the root is avail­able in the scale. Chord tones other than the root are in­di­cated in green and are quite sta­ble. The orange squares in­di­cate ‘tol­er­a­ble dis­so­nances’, which have a ten­dency to re­solve (but don’t nec­es­sar­ily). Much more un­sta­ble are the notes in­di­cated in red, which tend to be used in pass­ing, or em­pha­sised for dra­matic ef­fect. Fi­nally the blue notes; th­ese rep­re­sent the char­ac­ter­is­tic ‘blue’ ef­fect of play­ing a mi­nor 3rd (also known as #9) over a dom­i­nant 7 chord.

You can use the back­ing track to hear the ef­fect of all th­ese notes on each chord: for ex­am­ple the root (C) works well on all three chords (although a bit un­sta­ble on the V chord). The #4/b5 (F# or Gb in this case) is un­sta­ble on all the chords, so is used only in pass­ing or for in­tended edgi­ness.

Blues curls: Great play­ers like ste­vie ray Vaughan add some so­phis­ti­ca­tion to this ‘Level 1’ play­ing with the use of quar­ter-tone bends. The b3 notes (in­di­cated in blue in the di­a­gram) can be teased slightly sharp on the ap­pro­pri­ate chords so they pull to­wards the ma­jor 3rd in the un­der­ly­ing chord.

In short, the b3 (eb) can be bent slightly sharp when on the I chord (but not on the IV chord). The Bb can also be bent a quar­ter tone sharp when on the V chord, but is rarely done so oth­er­wise.

Level 2

Whereas Level 1 play­ing fixes the scale over all three chords, Level 2 adapts the scale to fit

A use­ful tip for when com­ing up with your own chord pro­gres­sions is to look out for what the top line is do­ing.

each chord. In a blues the I7 chord (C7 in a blues in C) con­tains a ma­jor 3rd in the key of C (e). how­ever, the IV7 chord (F7 in a blues in C) con­tains a mi­nor 3rd (eb). This ma­jor-mi­nor am­bi­gu­ity be­tween the I7 and IV7 is ne­go­ti­ated in Level 2 play­ing by us­ing ma­jor Pen­ta­tonic on I7 and mi­nor Pen­ta­tonic on IV7. Let’s see how it works. You’ll see that with this ap­proach the scales ‘agree’ with the un­der­ly­ing chords, there are no harsh dis­so­nances to man­age, and by sim­ply switch­ing from ma­jor to mi­nor Pen­ta­tonic (chords I7 and IV7 re­spec­tively) a har­monic agree­ment is en­sured, and there is more scale va­ri­ety than in Level 1 play­ing.

For the V7 chord (G7 in the key of A), both mi­nor Pen­ta­tonic (as in Level 1) or – a lit­tle less com­monly - ma­jor Pen­ta­tonic (which gives a sweeter, less tense ef­fect) may be used. note that the ma­jor and mi­nor Pen­ta­tonic scales in Level 2 are of­ten ex­tended to ma­jor blues and mi­nor blues (by adding the b3 and b5 re­spec­tively); in fact this is a core ap­proach through­out blues play­ing. This ma­jor-mi­nor Pen­ta­tonic am­bi­gu­ity is a fun­da­men­tal tech­nique in the blues, so Level 2 ex­am­ples abound, but a good point of ref­er­ence is the Bri­tish Blues of the late 60s, with play­ers like Peter Green, Mick Tay­lor and eric Clap­ton.

Level 3

In Level 3, we en­gage com­pletely with the con­cept of ‘agree­ing’ with the un­der­ly­ing har­mony. In lev­els 1 and 2, one or two scales built on the root of the key are se­lected and th­ese work on all the chords. In level 3 only one scale type is used but this is trans­posed (shifted) for each chord in turn.

A common scale used to ne­go­ti­ate a dom­i­nant 7th chord is the Mixoly­dian (C Mixoly­dian – C-d-e-F-G-A-Bb). This works well, as all the notes are rel­a­tively con­so­nant. Play­ing the 4th de­gree is un­sta­ble but not jar­ring, and all the rest of the notes are very well seated with the chords. To play over the other two chords, we can sim­ply trans­pose this scale so it be­comes F Mixoly­dian for F7, and G Mixoly­dian for G7. This means we are pre­sented with the chal­lenge of hav­ing to learn (and switch be­tween) Mixoly­dian scales in a num­ber of po­si­tions, but we are able to nav­i­gate the chang­ing har­monies flu­ently (known as ‘mak­ing the changes’) which re­sults in a quite so­phis­ti­cated mu­si­cal ef­fect. Th­ese Mixoly­dian scales can also be fur­nished with a quickly re­solved b3 (for a touch of bluesi­ness) or a ma­jor 7 and a #4(b5), which are of­ten used as a pass­ing note be­tween root and b7, and 4th and 5th re­spec­tively.

In­ci­den­tally, if one wants to think of all th­ese scales as based on one root, you can use C Mixoly­dian, C do­rian and C Io­nian (C Ma­jor) for I7, IV7 and V7 re­spec­tively. This may help for re­mem­ber­ing fin­ger­ings, but it’s also im­por­tant to un­der­stand the scale de­grees of the un­der­ly­ing chords.

Level 3 can be found in the play­ing of many gui­tarists in­clud­ing Jimi hen­drix (who uses it be­tween the V7 and IV7 chords in red house) but is used rou­tinely in ‘coun­try­blues’ and by jazz-blues play­ers.

Level 4

Fi­nally, Level 4 may be seen as an ex­ten­sion of Level 3 play­ing, where some al­ter­na­tives to the Mixoly­dian scale are used to ne­go­ti­ate each chord in turn.

A common ‘Level 4’ scale is the Ly­dian dom­i­nant (which is the 4th mode of Melodic mi­nor and is also known as Mixoly­dian #11, or the ‘Over­tone’ scale). It’s iden­ti­cal to Mixoly­dian but with a raised 4th, which gives it a floaty, dreamy qual­ity. It can be used trans­posed to any of the chords but is per­haps most common on I7 and par­tic­u­larly IV7 (pic­tured here in the key of C): On the I7 chord, a half-whole ‘sym­met­ri­cal’ di­min­ished scale can also be used. It’s so called be­cause there is a re­peat­ing pat­tern in the scale of a semi­tone (half step) fol­lowed by a whole tone (step). This works on the chord but feels quite un­sta­ble, so is of­ten used on bar 4 just be­fore the I7 chord moves to IV7. This eight-note scale may seem en­tirely ar­bi­trary, but it works be­cause it con­tains the root, ma­jor 3rd and mi­nor 7, which make up the core ‘func­tion’ of the chord.

The most tense scale com­monly used on a dom­i­nant 7 chord is the Al­tered scale (or Su­per­locrian), where ev­ery note is flat­tened from its nat­u­ral ‘ma­jor’ po­si­tion. Again this scale ‘works’ be­cause it con­tains the fun­da­men­tally defin­ing de­grees of a dom­i­nant 7 chord (the root, ma­jor 3rd and mi­nor 7th) but is so tense that it usu­ally ap­pears on the V7 chord, which al­ready has an un­sta­ble qual­ity that wants re­solv­ing.

One way of em­ploy­ing this scale is by tak­ing a mi­nor Pen­ta­tonic based on the key of the blues in ques­tion (so in C: C-eb-F-G-Bb), then drop­ping the root by a semi­tone. This cre­ates the notes (B-eb-F-G-Bb) which you can see are five of the notes from G Al­tered scale. Very cun­ning, but a great ‘way in’ if this style of ap­proach is new to you.

One fi­nal tech­nique for you to em­ploy, is known as ‘side-step­ping’, and is a good first primer in the so­phis­ti­cated field of ‘chord su­per­im­po­si­tion’, where dif­fer­ent chords are im­plied over an ex­ist­ing chord pro­gres­sion. side-step­ping in­volves the chro­matic trans­po­si­tion of a phrase up or down a semi­tone, which cre­ates an an­gu­lar ‘out’ ef­fect. Try it - if played with con­fi­dence and good phras­ing it can sound su­perb!

Level 4 play­ers in­clude robben Ford (par­tic­u­larly for half-whole di­min­ished and Al­tered licks), scott hen­der­son (for sidestep­ping and all sorts of chord scale use), and in the straight-ahead jazz vein, Joe Pass and kenny Bur­rell, who em­ploy all of th­ese ideas in a per­fectly ac­ces­si­ble way.

I’ve pre­pared four so­los over four dif­fer­ent blues styles, but the back­ing tracks can be used to ex­plore any of th­ese lev­els; in fact, switch­ing be­tween lev­els is a pow­er­ful mu­sic ex­pres­sion in it­self. so try play­ing all of the four lev­els on each of the tracks (and of course in other mu­sic, in­clud­ing your own). You’ll also no­tice that I’ve set the chords as straight I7, IV7 and V7 (even in the jazz ex­am­ples) so we can re­ally fo­cus on the character of each level, and are not dis­tracted by back­ground har­mony. I’ve kept all the tracks in the same key too, and with quite sim­i­lar fret­board po­si­tions, so you can see more clearly the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the lev­els. Im­por­tantly, you should ap­ply th­ese ideas all over the fret­board, and in all dif­fer­ent keys.

Half-Whole Di­min­ished scale works be­cause it con­tains root, 3rd and b7th, which make up the core ‘func­tion of the chord.

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