“The Blues are a simple music and I’m a simple man. But the Blues aren’t a science, the Blues can’t be broken down like mathematics. The Blues are a mystery, and mysteries are never as simple as they look!”
– BB King, interview by David Ritz [1]

When you want to play a solo, you have to know which notes you can play. This set of notes is called a scale. It must fit to the song and the chords, not all notes on your fretboard would give a nice sound if played in one song. Looking into a music book you’ll find dozens of different scales and modes, major and natural/melodic/harmonic minor, dorian, lydian, mixolydian, aeolian or phrygian mode and even more. If you want to learn more about these, look at the basics.

The classical music theory is not well suited to describe the Blues, but we don’t have a choice. From that point of view Blues is crazy and wrong – playing dominant major 7th chords all over minor pentatonic scales, using chromatic scale pieces for intros and turnarounds, using a 5 tone scale instead of the accustomed 7 tone scales, adding notes that don’t belong to any scale – and these stupid chord progressions… so it’s only an attempt to describe what we call the Blues. Why is it so weird? It’s because the black people in the USA back in the beginning of the 20th century tried to play their African music styles on western instruments – i.e. the guitar, the harp and the piano. Take the guitar: the frets are made for equal intonation, to play classical (western) music. To get the notes “between” you need special techniques like a string bend or a slide. The simplest way to describe the Blues scale with standard music theory is using a pentatonic scale and add some extra notes. But this does in no way mean that Blues is a kind of “limited” music or that the black slaves back then could be reduced to people who only know 5 notes. It’s the opposite – true Blues is much more than pentatonic music. But to get started we need a description, and the classical music theory is what most people know.

The pentatonic scale – a simple way to start

This scale is called “pentatonic”, because it contains only 5 (greek penta: 5) different notes. We start with the minor pentatonic scale in E (there’s also a major pentatonic scale, which sounds not so “sad”, but for a deep basic Blues we’ll take the minor). We start with the key of E, because it’s a “guitar key” – all open strings belong to this scale.
Here it is, noted in tab (E is the key, that means the scale begins with E):

E I---------------------0-3-I
B I-----------------0-3-----I
G I-------------0-2---------I
D I---------0-2-------------I
A I-----0-2-----------------I
E I-0-3---------------------I

E minor pentatonic scale, first pattern

You start with the open E-string; that’s (of course) E. When you reach the 2nd fret of the D-string, it’s also E (play both at the same time, you will hear it). And finally the other open E string is also E. So you’ve stepped through 2 octaves. The notes are E – G – A – B – D.

Playing the open strings also contains all notes of the E minor pentatonic scale, but not in the correct sequence, every 2nd note is left out. That means you can play simple rhythm guitar and even small solos with only open strings! No need to take your left hand…(sorry, lefthanders).

The Blues scale: Blue notes

Next step: to get the typical Blues sound, we add a special note: the “Blue note” (which is usually a diminished fifth, see basics).

However, there are more definitions of the Blue note, I use the most common definition. The diminished third and the diminished seventh are the other ones often called “Blue notes”, or in general notes played at a lower pitch than those of the major scale, often bend to a higher pitch.

The diminished (flat) third is the note which in classical (western) music styles determines if it’s a major or a minor scale. In Blues music it is often a bend from the minor note into the major note, usually not reaching exactly the target note.
The diminished (flat) seventh is the note which is part of the dominant seventh chord, the one which leads back to the tonic (root) note.

Another more simple definition you’ll find is that a Blue note is always played at a slightly lower pitch than those of the major scale to express a certain feeling. All these definitions show us the impossibility for an exact definition using classical music theory. The African roots of the Blues music used non-equal tempered (natural harmonic) scales, so this is obviously an attempt to describe these “in-between” notes using classical notation. So you can consider American Blues music as a well grown mixture of African and European music styles.

Back to the scale – it now the scale gets more “dramatic” and looks like:

E minor Blues scale

This new note is a great starting point for string bending, in Blues music a note is often bend into a Blue note. Another note to bend into is for example a note from the major scale while playing in a minor scale. By the way – you can play this scale also 12 frets higher using the same fingering pattern, it’s still in E:


Other keys – easy!

And now the great advantage of playing guitar: with a bright smile on your face you look to the keyboard player and give him the sign for changing the key. While the keyboard player is wondering about the black and white keys on his keyboard (what was it? F-sharp? damn…), you just have finished your solo. The secret is that you only have to move the frets up or down to change to another key. The fingering pattern is still the same! Look at the fretboard scheme to locate the root notes for a scale. Moving up or down a fret means moving up or down a semi note: if you want to play in F you can use the pattern of E and simply move up one fret.

Example: Blues pentatonic in A would look like (start at the 5th fret!):

A minor Blues scale

More fingering patterns and “box” playing

With this scales you can play your first Blues licks. The advantage is that you can play every time every note of the scale. There is no “wrong” note, but some will sound better, some not so good. You can not only play pentatonic scales to Blues music, but also to rock, pop and even jazz music. (On the other hand, you can never get any Spanish flamenco or country music feeling with it, there are some notes or better intervals missing…)

This is not the only position for the pentatonic Blues scale. There are different fingering patterns, so you can play it all over the fretboard. But for the beginning it’s better to start with only one and add sometimes a note from another fingering pattern.

Depending on the key and personal influences like finger size or strength most players use a special parts of these patterns called boxes. Within this box you have all the notes from an octave in a comfortable arrangement, for example small distances for small fingers or a position that allows you to bend the important notes with your ring finger. Some technique oriented guitarists tend to doom this box playing and like to fly all over the fretboard. However, as long as you don’t want to be a shredder, but play the Blues instead, it’s okay. Spend your time searching for your positions where you can put all your emotions to the string.

Common box example for the A Blues scale

Below are schemes of your fretboard with all pentatonic fingering patterns for the two most common Blues keys (this is NO tab, just directly a look at the fretboard). You can see the minor pentatonic scale fingering patterns (with root notes and blue notes) plus the additional notes from the major pentatonic scale, which you don’t need in the beginning, but will give you more room to play. You can cut out your own boxes in which you can play comfortably.

For the open strings of a scale take a look at the 12th fret. For other scales, look at the basics.

The scales

How do I use the following graphics to improve my solo guitar?

Let’s say we have a standard 12 bar Blues in E with the chords E(7)/A7/B7. Use the E scale below and locate the red root notes (E). To get the minor pentatonic scale, add the black notes (E-G-A-B-D). You can now play in “safe mode” with these notes, each note will sound more or less good, there are no wrong notes. The next step is adding the blue note (yes, it’s colored blue…, Bb in this case). If you reach the point that it gets boring, carefully try to add some of the gray notes from the major pentatonic. Some – not all! Handle them with care, you’ll soon find out when to use which note to get the tonal effect you want to express. If you wonder why there are less gray notes than black notes: both scales share the same root (red) plus the V (B in this case), which is colored black to avoid confusion.

Tip: Many more scales graphics in every key and for different tunings and other nice extra features are at the scale and chord generator.