Musician | Composer | Educator | Author
Calling Blues a “style” is like calling yeast an “ingredient” in bread. It is so seminal to modern music that, without it, much of the music we listen to simply wouldn’t exist. It is the “local” musical result of the influence of the slave trade on the New World.
The effect of West African music on the Americas is enormous. Wherever the slave traders landed, an explosion of musical energy fueled a new fusion of Afro/European music, creating an entirely new style in the process. In Brazil, it produced the many faces of “Samba”; in Argentina, “Tango”, in Cuba/Puerto Rico, it produced what is commonly lumped together as “Salsa” and in the U.S., it became the “Blues” and everything that grew from it. And what a list it is! In fact, the number of unique musical genres created as a result of the influence of the Blues is staggering. – far too long to list here.
For me, the Blues is a reality check. If I find I am not comfortable playing the Blues, I likely have no business playing music that night. It is an indicator of how well I am likely to fuel a solo with meaning. Because the fundamental blues scale is a simple five note scale with “negotiable” thirds/fifths and a few optional additions, the possibility of hiding behind flurries of notes when I have nothing to say is virtually nil.
Intellect alone gets us nowhere in this music. As a result, we are forced to communicate emotionally. Blues is all about “the turn of a phrase”, “inflection”, “power”, “subtlety”, “color”, "timing".
The basis of the Blues Scale is the Minor Pentatonic.
THE MINOR PENTATONIC
More often than not, notes are added to the Minor Pentatonic to beef it up. Which notes are chosen is often an important part of a Blues players style. One note in particular, though, is usually considered a part of the scale - the b5 (.) - and it can always be included.
THE BLUES SCALE
The b5 is a PASSING NOTE, and it tends to give “flow” to the scale. It is also one of the most recognizable BLUES NOTES. Along with the b3 and the b7, they are responsible for giving the scale its Bluesy sound.
The Blues Scale is one of the most fluid bases for improvising you can have. ANYTHING can be added to the basic scale, 2nds, 6ths, (Major) 3rds, b6ths…….the only weasel clause is that it must remain bluesy. Scales such as the “Modal” Blues scale and the “Minor Modal” Blues scale show up, the Major Pentatonic is stuck in there (often arrived at using the “3 fret down trick”). All of this, however, is nothing more than reframing ways of adding notes to the good old Blues Scale.
There is, however, a combination scale that contains all of the possibilities in one great lump. Interested? We’ll look at it a couple of issues down the road.