How They Work and How To Use Them
I can clearly remember back to an early morning school jazz band rehearsal, to the time my band director first scribbled out a Bb blues scale at the top of one of our stock big band charts, and encouraged me to go to town improvising over a funky 12-bar blues. Jamming out with the blues scale was a blast, because pretty much anything I played sounded cool and I didn’t really need to think about making chord changes.
Well, as much fun as it was to jam out on the blues scale (and still is!), after a while I was ready to move on and add some new sounds to my harmonic palate. It took me some time to get my bearings with my jazz chord scales and to be able to sound somewhat convincing blowing over chord changes. In my ongoing quest for jazz knowledge, however, I discovered something that I wish I had known from the very beginning…
What I didn’t realize at the time is that there are actually
two different forms of the blues scale.
Examining the Two Forms of the Blues Scale
The “blues scale” I had been taught (and the blues scale I’m sure many of us also learned early on) is actually more accurately labeled as the minor blues scale. What I didn’t know at the time is that there is also a major blues scale that is very closely related to the minor version, and offers a whole new sound to experiment improvising with!
The minor blues scale (that we all know and love) is very closely related to the minor pentatonic scale (the only difference is the added #4 (or b5) passing tone contained in the blues scale).
Similarly, the major blues scale is essentially a major pentatonic with an added #2 (or b3) passing tone.
Now here’s where things get really interesting – if you take a minor blues scale and play it starting from the second note (the b3), you get a major blues scale (in the relative major key):
This also works in reverse – if you start with a major blues scale and want the relative minor blues scale, simply play the major blues scale starting from the 6th note of the scale.
Tip: You can also think down a minor third from the root of the major blues scale to find the relative minor blues scale.
Guitar players have it especially easy when switching between the relative major and minor blues scales – just shift up three frets from the first note of a minor blues scale, and keep the same exact shape to get the relative major blues scale.
This should all make perfect sense to anyone familiar with the concept of relative major and minor keys. For a review of this concept, click here.
Now, you will also want to be able to derive both a major and minor blues scale from the root of the key you’ll be playing in. For this, it’s helpful to compare both forms starting on the same note:
When playing each of these scales, keep in mind that the chromatic passing tone (#4 in the minor blues scale, and #2 in the major blues scale) typically work best as approach tones – moving/sliding/bending up or down to the next closest note, rather than playing these notes in isolation.
Here are a few examples:
Above all, be sure to trust your ears when experimenting with these scales!
Getting Used to the Sound of the Major Blues Scale
The major blues scale is likely already a familiar sound to most, but here are a few examples that might help get the sound in your ear:
One of my favorite uses of the major blues scale in a tune is the instrumental unison section of Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke.”
Take a listen – the entire section between 1:07-1:25 is 100% major blues scale:
Another example is the melody of Horace Silver’s “Sister Sadie.” The first two phrases of the tune are pure major blues. After that, the melody also mixes in a bit of minor blues for added color:
Suggested Tunes for Exploring the Major Blues Sound
A few great tunes that work especially well for practicing improvising with the major blues scale are:
Lester Leaps In (Rhythm Changes)
Named after the great tenor saxophonist Lester Young, “Lester Leaps In” is a simple Bb rhythm changes head based on the major pentatonic/major blues scale.
In this recording (featuring Lester Young himself), you can hear the melody played in harmony. “Pres” opens his solo using the major blues scale over the first 8 bars of the form (0:35), and uses it in combination with other techniques over the A-sections of the form.
Here’s a transcription of the first 8 bars of his solo:
When blowing over the A-sections of a rhythm changes, one effective technique is to mix both the major and minor forms of the blues scale. Personally, I like to use the major blues scale over the first four bars of a rhythm changes, and then switch to a minor blues scale for the next four measures in order to provide a bit of harmonic/melodic contrast in my solo.
As shown above, it works well to use the major blues scale over the more diatonic first four bars (ID vi-7 ii-7 V7 iii-7 vi-7 ii-7 V7), and to then switch to the minor blues scale when the harmony goes from I7 to IV7, which to me suggests more of a straight-up blues chord progression (since these are the first two chords in a 12-bar blues form: I7 and IV7).
Also check out the major blues scale over the A-sections of “Perdido,” another fun tune to blow over!
Because the chord changes of Autumn Leaves modulate back and forth between the relative major (key of Bb major) and minor (G minor), it is particularly great tune for applying both the major and minor forms of the blues scale.
The really cool thing with this tune is that you only need one set of notes to create both the major and minor forms of the blues scale. Since the harmony is shifting between the relative major and minor key centers (the key signature and parent scales remain the same), the major and minor blues scales will also contain the same notes (just beginning on a different starting note). This makes Autumn Leaves a great tune to get used to the sound and feel of both blues scale forms.
“Summertime” is another tune that modulates between its relative minor and major key centers, allowing you to improvise with both the major and minor forms of the blues scale using a single set of notes.
When looking for other places to use the major blues scale, keep in mind that it works best over any diatonic major chord progression such as:
ii-7 V7 I maj7
ii-7 V7 I maj7 IV maj7
iii-7 vi-7 ii-7 V7 I maj7
Tip: Once you find the tonic (I) chord in a progression, you will want to start your major blues scale from this root.
Keep your ears out for other ways to incorporate the sound of the major blues scale – once you get a feel for it, it’s a relatively easy way to add a new color to your playing and to open up more possibilities for your musical creativity!