Guitarists love playing the blues, and why not? The chord progressions are simple, there’s often a great driving beat behind the music, and the guitar often takes the spotlight. However… too many guitarists (for my ears at least) get caught in the trap of repeating the same old blues licks that have been beaten like the proverbial dead horse. Part of this is attributable to the attitudes of “blues purists” that seem to shun any type of musical statement that didn’t originate from a small group of blues pioneers. It’s also due to the fact many blues and rock musicians aren’t capable of playing anything different because their musical vocabulary is too limited – they stopped developing after getting a few rudimentary licks, scales and sequences under their fingers. Don’t get me wrong here; the blues is definitely less about how many notes you play and more about how you play the notes you DO play (which is a matter of phrasing)…but most guitarists are missing out on some great opportunities to make their playing more sophisticated by knowing a few key concepts that deploy more exotic scale ideas to connect their phrases together. These concepts are used to a great extent by jazz musicians, but used correctly and tastefully in a blues context they will help your lines flow together more smoothly and add some “passing tones” to your playing to create the tension and resolution that are so important in expressing complete musical ideas. When you become familiar with ideas and develop the ability to integrate them, you’ll find it easy to “play through” the chord changes by playing different scales as the changes occur – you won’t be stuck in that minor pentatonic quicksand most “blues” players are mired in. Think of these different concepts as jars of spice you could choose from, just like adding different spices to something you are cooking. Using only one spice (minor pentatonic or blues scale) makes for a boring dish – and using the right combination of many spices makes the food interesting. It’s the same way with music. I hope you have your mind and ears open!
Going From the I Chord to the IV Chord – For this article, we’re going to focus on one of the best spots to create tension and then resolve it in a standard 12-bar major blues progression – in the 4th bar, right before you go from the I chord to the IV chord. To make things easy, all the examples will be written in the key of C. So, our I chord is a C7, and the IV chord is an F7. And now – it’s time to reveal the secret spice that will give an entirely different flavor to your blues…..
Special Spice – Half/Whole Diminished Scale
The Diminished Scale is a symmetrical scale made up of a series of half steps and whole steps (or whole steps and half steps…for this example we are using the half/whole diminished scale). The scale moves in a repeating pattern of intervals (half step/whole step) we get some really sounding notes against a C7 chord. The outside tones are the b5, b9, #9, and the 13th. These notes up a great deal of tension when used against the notes of the C7 chord and make for great resolutions.
Check out this simple pedal tone lick utilizing the #9 (D#), b9 (Db), and the 13th (A) against the C7; the resolution happens coincidentally when moving to the A note…A happens to be the 3rd (a chord tone) of the IV chord, F7.
Here’s another lick, this time just playing straight up the half-whole diminished scale starting on a Bb note and resolving to an F major triad:
Interestingly enough, it just so happens that the half-whole diminshed scale contains 4 major triads, and 4 minor triads (each a minor third or three frets apart). The C half-whole diminished scale contains the major triads C, Eb, F# and A, and also the C, Eb, F# and A MINOR triads. Jazz players often use a triadic approach to constructing lines. Here is a cool line running through the Eb, C, and A major triads before resolving to an F mixolydian line:
Lastly, one of the coolest and most useful aspects of using the half-whole diminished scale is that you can move any phrase you play from the scale up by minor thirds (3 frets) and play it again due to the symmetrical nature of the scale!! Imagine the possibilities! If you come up with one cool lick you can play it in 4 different places on the neck! Your resolutions will require a different fingering but that’s easy to work out. Here is a phrase that starts up a minor third from C (on Eb) and plays through part of the diminished scale and then the F# major triad before resolving to over the F7 chord:
I sincerely hope this article serves as a springboard for you to add some different flavors to your blues playing and inspires you to want to learn more about more about the subject. The blues should be a dynamic and growing music – not a museum piece!
Charlie Long is a professional guitarist and instructor in St Louis, Missouri, USA. If you live in the St Louis area and are interested in spicing up your blues, rock and metal playing, visit www.stlouisguitarlessons.net for more information!!!