The Blues Scale

Learning blues scales basics on guitar

In our previous session with Mark Brennan, teacher at Jamplay we learned about pentatonic scales, the ‘box’ positions, and some techniques like Palm-Muting, and Power Chords. In this lesson, we are going to expand upon that by adding a new note to the Pentatonic Scale, which Mark refers to as the "Blue Note", and give you some more techniques to work on, that will make your riffs much more dynamic.

What is the Blue Note

A Blue Note is simply a flatted 3rd, 5th, or 7th note (or raised 4th, depending on how you want to refer to it…), that adds a certain sonic dissonance, or "bluesy" sound to the music. I could explain it with a lot of techno-babble, but the easiest way to understand Blue Notes is to listen to them in songs, and you’ll get a good feel for them. Good examples of using Blue notes are The Thrill Is Gone-B. B. King, Why Don’t You Do Right?-Amy Irving, Sweet About Me-Gabriella Climi, and Stormy Weather-Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Etta James, or Billie Holiday. You can easily pick out the Blue Notes in these songs, because they almost sound like they don’t belong, and give an ‘edgy’ push to the song. Blue Notes are used in guitar riffs on all kinds of music, so it’s a good idea to get familiar with them.

The Blue Note in the Pentatonic Scale

A blues minor scale

When you add a Blue Note to the standard Pentatonic Scale, you get a standard Blues Scale. This one note makes the scale sound completely different. Once you get comfortable with the exercise in Em that Mark is showing you, it is easy to move the ‘box’ pattern up the neck to the key you need it in. By adding the ‘Home Plate Box’ to your musical toolkit, you can continue with the scale up the higher strings, and back down to the Open Box without getting lost. It allows for a smooth transition between the positions, and is very useful. Once you learn it, you will start to notice it in music that you listen to, and realize it is a very common technique in many kinds of music. Practicing these patterns and scales until they become automatic will allow you to create great improvisations On-The-Fly, and release the full musical potential inside of you.

Hammer-Ons, Pull-Offs and Vibrato

Hammer-Ons, Pull-Offs and Vibrato are all important techniques to learn if you ever want to play leads, or be able to embellish your music, even when just strumming chords. These techniques are used in just about every type of guitar music there is. To get a clean-sounding Hammer-On, you need to develop the right ‘snap’ and force to get a solid, clean tone. Don’t worry. This comes with practice. A Pull-Off is just the opposite of a Hammer-On, and they are used together frequently. To get a clean Pull-Off, you just pull slightly down on the string and ‘flick’ it with your fingertip as you raise your finger off the string. Again, it comes with practice. One of the best ways I know of to practice these together is to Hammer-On on the G on the 6th string, and then immediately Pull-Off to the open E, 6th string, and repeat it. You can go back and forth between those two notes forever, without ever touching the string with your right hand at all. When you do it fast, you’ll notice that this creates a ‘trill’ between the two notes, and allows you to make the notes much faster than you could ever do trying to play them individually with a pick. Now you know how guitar gurus like Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Angus Young get those screaming, powerful lead riffs. With some practice, you’ll be doing it, too.


E blues minor scale

Bending a note is simply pulling down or up on a string while you fret the note, in order to slide it sharp, then back down again to the original note, sort of like a steel guitar slide. Vibrato is simply a variation of bending technique in which you bend the note ever so slightly, then return it to the original pitch, and repeat it rapidly to create a wavy-sounding dynamic. It’s a lot easier to do it than it is to explain. It takes a little time to do, so it is usually added at the end of a line, or phrase. Vibrato adds incredible depth and character to your leads, and it is something you definitely want to learn.


Sliding into and out of notes is also an important technique that you will use a lot. The best way to make a clean slide is not to rush it. These techniques only work when they fit the music. When Mark shows you how to put all this together, don’t get intimidated. Good guitar does not happen overnight. Playing guitar is a life-long pursuit, so you have plenty of time. It’s not a contest and there is no time-limit. Go slow, gradually increase your speed as you get more comfortable, and don’t try to rush it.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

All the great techniques in the world will do you no good unless you practice. I’m reminded of the story of the couple that became lost looking for Carnegie Hall, where they had concert tickets. They saw a guy carrying a guitar and thought for sure he would know the directions. They went up to him and asked, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall from here?" He answered, "Practice, man. Lots of practice…" There is no substitute for practice. And don’t be afraid to jam with others. Some of the best things I’ve ever learned on guitar were from playing with other guitarists.

blues guitar riffs
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