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