Learning the blues scale on guitar is something of a rite of passage for every guitarist. If you’re a beginner with reasonable dexterity and you’re serious about learning, you’ll find the blues scale to be extremely useful.
For intermediate guitarists, this scale is essential, but it’s also important to understand that scales are merely the alphabet of the blues language. It’s important to go beyond that and play real blues melodies as well, so you can start to better understand the style.
In this article, we’ll talk about the technique for learning the blues scale, as well as some more advanced theory on how to apply it to real music.
What is the Blues Scale?
In its simplest form, the blues scale is simply a pentatonic scale. That might sound complicated, so let’s break down the theory.
Look at a piano if you have one, or look up an image of piano keys. Take a look at the black keys on the piano. They naturally fall into the pentatonic scale pattern. If you want to hear the pentatonic scale in the easiest way, just play anything you want on the black keys only.
The gaps between the groups of black keys show you something very important about the scale. Some of the notes are farther apart than others. This is because there are two types of “intervals” (or, spaces between notes) in the pentatonic scale. There are whole steps and minor thirds.
The whole step is made up of two half-steps. This is also equal to two frets on the guitar. The minor third is made up of three half-steps, which is equal to three frets on the guitar.
Whole steps and minor thirds are also referred to as “steps” and “skips.” Being aware of this pattern of steps and skips is the most important aspect of learning the blues scale.
Practice with the Pentatonic Scale
Let’s put the theory we’ve just learned into practice. The main resting or finishing note of a key is called the “root.”
As an example, we’ll look at the key of A minor. In the key of A minor you have the notes A – C – D – E – G. Those would be all natural notes (with no sharps or flats) and all white keys on a piano.
In any key you make a pentatonic scale in, you start with the root and go up a minor third (three half steps), then a whole step, then another whole step, then one more minor third, then one last whole step.
So in the key of A minor, the interval pattern from the root is:
(A) Skip (C) Step (D) Step (E) Skip (G) Step (A)
The same interval pattern would apply to any key, so even if the notes change, the sound of the scale will be similar. In other words, the interval structure is what determines most of the mood of a scale.
When you go to learn this on the guitar, the main thing you will learn to do is memorize “boxes” or patterns of whole steps and minor thirds that go across the strings.
We will talk about these more in the next section, but realize that it is an incredibly important and fundamental exercise to master at least one pentatonic box that you can use for playing songs.
Difference Between the Pentatonic & Blues Scales
The main difference between the blues scale and the pentatonic is the addition of one note. In the whole step between the third and fourth notes, you will play the note that falls between the third and fourth notes.
For example, in A minor, you’ll add an Eb in between D and E. So the interval pattern for the blues scale in the key of A minor would look like:
A (Skip) C (Whole Step) D (Half Step) Eb (Half Step) E (Skip) G (Whole Step) A
The reason this extra note is present is because it has a special place in a lot of blues melodies. It’s important to mention that it’s not enough just to have the extra note in the scale. The way you use it to create the blues sound is to play it in blues licks.
The best way to understand this is to learn the scale, and then play songs that use it so you can see the way it gets applied.
Playing the notes of the blues scale in totally random ways does not produce a “bluesy” sound; only playing the scale in the way it shows up in the traditional canon of songs will get you to the right place as a blues guitar player.
RELATED: 5 Easy Blues Guitar Licks
The Blues Scales in Common Keys
When you start out learning the blues scale on guitar, you will want to learn the scale in the most common keys that it’s played in. Let’s start with the E blues scale.
E Blues Scale
This scale is usually considered the easiest to start with because it uses open strings and gives your fingers more time to adjust to changes.
In tablature, it will look like this.
If you want to play in most of the keys of the blues though, you need to learn the scale in a position that doesn’t use any open strings…
A Blues Scale
The thing that is so nice about the guitar is this: once you know this shape, all you have to do is move it around to the key you want to play in!
Here is what the A blues scale looks like in tablature.
Here are charts and tabs for two more of the most common keys. Give them a try and see if you can transfer the shape just by finding the root/starting note on your thick E string.
G Blues Scale
C Blues Scale
Practicing the Blues Scale on Guitar
Practice these scales in a way that inspires you. There are plenty of fun ways to master the blues scale on guitar, and you should choose the ones that inspire you the most.
Remember: motivation comes from action! Here are a few ideas to get you started.
- Repeat the A minor blues scale from the lowest note to the highest note, and then back down until you can remember the notes in order without looking at a tab or diagram.
- Switch between reading the diagram and then trying to remember, to see where your memory has gaps.
- Play one note at a time in the scale, along with a metronome at 60 BPM.
- Try to remember the finger pattern while playing with your eyes closed. Open your eyes to look only if you get lost.
- Pick a random song and try to place the scale shape you learned on the root note.
- You can try different notes until you find the root by ear, or look up the key of the song and place the scale box on that root.
Knowing the blues scale is like knowing the alphabet, and life is a lot better when you can spell! This scale gets used with specific licks and phrases that define the blues sound, and having a teacher to help you see the connection between the scale and the music can be very helpful.
If you would like to find someone to help you take your blues skills a step further, look for a guitar teacher at TakeLessons. A local or online teacher will help you stay motivated as you progress, and give you more fun ways to practice all you’ve learned!