How To Solo Over a 12-Bar Blues

Some Options You Can Use To Improve Your Melodic Lines

In this tutorial, I'll give some suggestions that will help you improve your lead guitar skills and create great solos.

I'll present a framework that you can use to analyze any chord progression and select which scales (or better, notes) to play in order to flow with the chords and not against them.

We're going to use a 12-bar Blues progression in the key of A because it matches wonderfully with pentatonic scales and, most important, blues soloing lies at the foundation of any lead guitar learning path.

So, let's start! First of all, let's see what not to do to play a great guitar solo:

  • Running fast up and down scales mindlessly
  • Play all the notes in scale without caring about the underlying chords
  • Not being aware of chord changes

In a nutshell, playing a great solo means flowing smoothly along with the underlying chord progression, highlighting the chord tones that create or resolve tension in every chord change.

So the first thing first we need to do is to analyze the chords composing our chord progression.

12-Bar Blues Progression in the key of A

Here are the chord diagrams of the chords in an A 12-Bar Blues progression. The diagrams show also the tones and the notes in the chord; this information will be useful later in this article (my complete ebook, Chords Domination, has about 800 diagrams like these)

The picture below shows the measure structure of a 12-Bar blues song.

Please pay attention at what measure chord changes happen, because this will be extremely important in choosing the right notes to play:

12 bar blues song structure

So, as shown above, the chord changes in a 12 Bar blues are:

  • 4 bars playing chord I (A7)
  • 2 bars playing chord IV (D7)
  • 2 bars playing chord I (A7)
  • 1 bar playing chord V (E7)
  • 1 bar playing chord IV (D7)
  • Turnaround: 2 bars playing chord I (A7)

The last 2 bars are the so-called "turnaround", and can have many possible variations. In this tutorial we'll stick to its simplest form, by playing chord I (A7) for all the two bars. (if you need help with Roman Number notation, check our Nashville Number System tutorial)

Which Scales Should I Use to Solo Over These Chords?

Here below we listed some common approaches to use when soloing over a 12 bar blues progressions in the key of A. In the following of this tutorial, we're going to analyze these choices.

Ok! Let's have a look at all these approaches:

Play the A minor pentatonic scale over all the chords

The easiest way to approach a blues solo is to use the minor pentatonic scale of the key for all the chords. So, in the key of A, we're going to play the A minor pentatonic scale.

This is a simple and safe way to create some nice melodies, but eventually, it will become boring!

A7 I

A minor pentatonic

A Minor Pentatonic

D7 IV

A minor pentatonic

A Minor Pentatonic

E7 V

A minor pentatonic

A Minor Pentatonic

Play the A major pentatonic scale on all the 3 progression chords, except for the IV (D7)

Of course, we are also free to play the major pentatonic scale of the key. But there is a problem.

In the key of A, we'll use the A major pentatonic. When the underlying harmony will play the D7 (IV), the C# present in the A major pentatonic scale clashes terribly with the chord tones in D7, which is composed of the notes D, F#, A, and C. A safe solution is to use the A minor pentatonic on D7 (IV degree of the progression).

A7 I

A major pentatonic

A Major Pentatonic

D7 IV

A major pentatonic

A Minor Pentatonic

E7 V

A major pentatonic

A Major Pentatonic

Play the minor pentatonic scale with the root of each chord

Another way to add variety to our solos is to play the correspondent minor pentatonic of each chords, so we'll use A minor, D minor and E minor pentatonic scales.

You can shift the same shape up or down the neck, or learn the pentatonic patterns with root on 6th and 5th strings.

A7 I

A major pentatonic

A Minor Pentatonic

D7 IV

D minor pentatonic

D Minor Pentatonic

E7 V

E minor pentatonic

E Minor Pentatonic

Play the major pentatonic scale with the root of each chord

Same process as shown above but with major pentatonic scales. You can also mix these two last approaches during the song.

A7 I

A Major pentatonic

A Major Pentatonic

D7 IV

D Major pentatonic

D Major Pentatonic

E7 V

E Major pentatonic

E Major Pentatonic

Play the dominant arpeggio of each chord

Here the fun begins. I've stated multiple times on these pages, what differentiates a great solo from a not-too-good one is the ability to flow with the underlying harmony, highlighting the dynamics that chord tones create.

That's the reason I've included 44 chord tones full fretboard maps in my Chords Domination ebook.

In the case of a blues solo, a great way to achieve this effect is to forget scale for a moment and focus on arpeggio.

Playing an arpeggio simply means play the note of a chord one at a time. Here below you find the arpeggio shapes for A7, D7, and E7 chord.

I included different shapes for a purpose, so you'll be forced to learn 3 different fingerings instead of moving the same pattern up and down the neck :-)

A7 I

A7 Arpeggio

A7 Arpeggio

D7 IV

D7 Arpeggio

D7 Arpeggio

E7 V

E7 Arpeggio

E7 Arpeggio

Mix minor pentatonic scales and dominant arpeggios

And finally, with this last strategy, you'll achieve the level of Top Blues Master. In this stage, you're going to mix the minor sound of the minor pentatonic scale, and the major sound of dominant arpeggios.

All the great blues masters, like Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, B.B. King, used this trick to enhance their expressivity and feeling.

All you need to do is to use the minor pentatonic as a foundation, and add the notes of the arpeggio of the chord your playing over.

A7 I

A Minor Pentatonic Scale + A7 Arpeggio

A Minor Pentatonic Scale +
A7 Arpeggio

D7 IV

A Minor Pentatonic Scale + D7 Arpeggio

A Minor Pentatonic Scale +
D7 Arpeggio

E7 V

A Minor Pentatonic Scale + E7 Arpeggio

A Minor Pentatonic Scale +
E7 Arpeggio

Bonus: other Uncommon Scales to try over a Dominant 7th Arpeggio

This is pretty advanced stuff, but I'll leave it in case you want to experiment a bit. Here below you find a list of scales that will sound good over a C7 dominant arpeggio (you can move the pattern up or down the neck for other roots). I'll expand this concept in my incoming complete ebook, Scales over Chords Revealed (the name could change).

To learn the patterns for these scales, jump to the scale finder. Use this stuff at your own risk ah ah!

  • C Mixolydian scale (1 2 3 4 5 6 b7)
  • C Mixolydian b6 scale (1 2 3 4 5 b6 b7)
  • D Aeolian b5 scale (1 2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7)
  • D Minor scale (1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7)
  • E Locrian scale (1 b2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7)
  • E Super Locrian scale (1 b2 b3 b4 b5 b6 b7)
  • F Major scale (1 2 3 4 5 6 7)
  • F Melodic Minor scale (1 2 b3 4 5 6 7)
  • G Dorian scale (1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7)
  • G Dorian b2 scale (1 b2 b3 4 5 6 b7)
  • G# Lydian Augmented scale (1 2 3 #4 #5 6 7)
  • A Phrygian scale (1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7)
  • Bb Lydian Dominant scale (1 2 3 #4 5 6 b7)
  • Bb Lydian scale (1 2 3 #4 5 6 7)
  • C Lydian Dominant scale (1 2 3 #4 5 6 b7)
  • D Mixolydian b6 scale (1 2 3 4 5 b6 b7)
  • E Aeolian b5 scale (1 2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7)
  • F# Super Locrian scale (1 b2 b3 b4 b5 b6 b7)
  • G Melodic Minor scale (1 2 b3 4 5 6 7)
  • A Dorian b2 scale (1 b2 b3 4 5 6 b7)

How To Solo Over A Blues Progressions: Conclusions

I hope you have now some new ideas on what to do when soloing over a blues chord progression.

I can't stress it enough, for creating a great solo you must be fully aware of the underlying chords and try to match your melody to the chord tones as smoothly as possible.

Using arpeggios and mixing them with the old, safe, pentatonic scale, is a great strategy to start from.

Don't forget to join the free newsletter and get free downloads and updates. Have fun!