“Mommy, what these two men are doing?”
Warning! Watching these two men doing it is gonna make you want to do the same.
Already itching to jam some blues? Before finishing this short piece of text, you'll be able to--how cool is that? I mean, even though your playing’s gonna be a bit slower and simpler than the one of BB King or John Mayer--it’s really cool, ain’t it?
Let’s take it from the top. What is jamming, after all? Most often, it relates to two or more musicians improvising over the basic rhythm structure and chords played by the backing band.
In Jammy’s app, we’ve got a Jamming mode that provides you with the backtrack and the tab representing the range of notes to play in.
When improvising, you don’t just pick the strings randomly, but play around with the bunch of specifically arranged notes called ‘scale’.
There are plenty of scales ‘round here, but we’re particularly interested in the minor pentatonic scale, ‘cause, for some reason, this set of notes is the most appropriate to play the blues with.
5 notes to shape your tune
Pentatonic in the Greek language means five sounds, so no wonder this scale consists of five notes. The first of these notes happens somehow to be the boss note a.k.a. the root note a.k.a. the tonic. This note indicates the key of the scale or musical piece.
So when you hear someone says “blues in E”, what they mean is that the root note’s gonna be E (simple as that!) That’s how E minor pentatonic looks like. The root note (here it is E) is enclosed in parentheses.
By now, you may have already felt the urge to ask me why the heck am I telling you all that stuff and what do you need this penta-something crap for. Well, we’re getting to the point here.
Having mastered the pentatonic, you are well-nigh ready to jam—all you need is to play these notes over appropriate backing track (played entirely on E chord in this instance) up and down the neck.
How do you move this notes up and down the neck, actually? There’s a simple trick for it: Just get to the next root note and play pentatonic up from it. When you reach the thinnest string, go back down—like in the tab below.
Finding the blues harmony
In real life, blues is rarely played with only one chord. Instead, it consists of 3 or more which, together, constitute the blues progression or harmony. The most common blues progression is the 12 bar blues. It’s three chords built around three notes from the scale: The tonic—or the 1st degree of the scale—which is E, the subdominant—or the 4th degree—which is A, and the dominant—or the 5th degree—which is B.
Mind that the notes are counted not as they appear on the scale but simply in order (here, it looks like E-1, F-2, G-3, A-4, B-5, C-6, D-7). That means, the 3rd note in the minor pentatonic scale is, actually, its 4th degree.
Now, you’ve got three chords: E, A, B. Your 12 bars blues is gonna look like this:
Adding the ‘blue note’
Using the “1-4-5” pattern, you can transpose your blues in any key you want. Let’s carry on with E, though. You can jam—or improvise--over the E-part with E pentatonic scale that you’re already familiar with. Just spice it up with the ‘blue note’ (here, we add the 5th string, 1st fret) to make it more bluesy:
When the harmony shifts to A for two bars, you shift your pentatonic respectively, so that your root note is A. You can start from the open 5th string, but here I’ve just moved it up the neck to the 5th fret on the 6th string—this way it’s more natural for Jammy which moving fretboard allows you slide up and down the imaginary neck not needing to change the fingering:
So the range of notes to jam over the A-part looks like this:
It’s basically the same pattern, only shifted 5 frets up. As you may have guessed, the set of notes to jam over the B-part of your blues is going to look like this:
Now, it’s time to let your fingers do the walking. Just try to play what you’ve learned over this backing track:
Let’s sum it up. If the musical genre like the blues was a language, the harmony and scale, respectively, would be the set of rules and vocabulary that constitute this language. Whereas, the melody is like the actual phrases that the speaker of this language says.
But what is as important in language as the rules and vocabulary? The intonation. It may sound trite, but sometimes what you say may be less important than how you say it. The blues, too, has the whole palette of subtle intonational nuances that set this music apart from any other genre. In the next article, I’ll show you a couple of tricks that will let you sound bluesy right away!
and blues afficionado
P.S. For your further discoveries in the realm of scales, check out this very handy tool—the scales builder.