Blues Music Notes: Structure, Scales, Chords, and Substitutions

Blues Music Notes

The blues is a musical style with a unique structure. It usually has a simple 12-bar chord progression and AAB lyrical form.

While blues harmonies often flout standard diatonic harmony, the melodies tend to be chromatic as well. The blues scale is a 6-note scale that takes the 5 notes of the minor pentatonic scale and adds one extra note, called the blues note.

The Minor Pentatonic Scale

When playing blues scales it is important to know that there are a lot of chromatic intervals in the notes, and that they need to be emphasized. This will help you to create the ‘bluesy’ sound that many people associate with this style of music.

A blues scale is a variation of the minor pentatonic scale, which has 5 notes in it (hence the name). It contains the same notes as a normal minor pentatonic scale, but excludes the 2nd and 6th scale degrees, which are part of the major pentatonic scale. This gives it the ‘bluesy’ flavour that makes it so distinctive.

To play a blues scale on your guitar, start by finding the root note of your key. Then, move the shapes up and down the neck of your instrument, playing each pattern in ascending and descending order. Practice each shape a few times, and try to get it all down memory-wise so that you can use it in improvisations.

The Blues Scale

The blues scale simply adds one additional note to the minor pentatonic and is easy enough to learn. That additional note is the flattened third, sometimes also referred to as the blue note. It is this note that gives the blues scale its unique flavour. The key is to use this additional note sparingly. Too much and it will sound like a grating spice, so try to incorporate it as passing notes rather than staying on it too long.

The other notes in the blues scale are the same as those found in the minor pentatonic and can be learned easily enough. I recommend starting with shape 1 and working your way up the fretboard. This will help you to consolidate your scale shapes and get used to playing them in a different context.

It is worth noting that both the major and minor blues scales are derived directly from their respective pentatonic scales. This is the same for both major and minor pentatonic scales – the only difference is in the added b3 (flattened third) note, commonly known as the blue note.

The Dominant 7th Chord

Dominant 7th chords are a key part of blues music. There’s something about the way these chords sound that makes them so powerful – it has to do with their inherent instability. A dominant 7th chord is a bit uncomfortable on its own, and it wants to “go somewhere.” It wants to resolve to another chord.

To make a dominant seventh chord, you start with a major triad (made up of three notes). To convert this to a dominant seventh chord, you simply lower the seventh note down by a half step. This is called a flat seventh.

This changes the chord to C maj7. Now you can play it with your left hand open, or use the box shape we learned in the video portion of this lesson. You can even play it over the 12-bar blues progression you learned in that video. The important thing is to get these two shapes down first, then move on to learning other dominant seventh chords in other keys.

Chord Substitutions

Chord substitutions allow you to spice up your chord progressions and break out of enharmonic motion. For example, if you have a melody that is played over a G major chord, you could replace it with Cmin or Fmin (which are a minor 3rd away) in order to spice up the progression.

Relative major and minor chords can also be swapped, for instance substituting a dominant chord with its relative minor or vice versa. This works because both chords share two notes in common (for example, G7 and Em).

Secondary dominants are also a great addition to your harmonic palette. A great way to use a secondary dominant is to precede it with a related ii chord, for example G7 and Dm. Tritone substitutions also work well with blues music, replacing the root of a chord with one located a tritone up or down from it. This adds interesting chromatic movement and enhances the melodic nature of the chords.

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