Blues Progressions and Scales

About the Blues

Originating among African American communities in the southern United States, the Blues is an original American art form that has been adopted by musical cultures around the world.  It is the basis for Rock and Roll  when electrified, and the bedrock of Jazz music when the harmony is expanded and used as a vehicle for improvisation.  While tempos vary, it is most often in quadruple time rhythmically.  It could have a back-beat, a swing, or a shuffle feel.

In any iteration, the Blues tells a story of struggle and hardship in the challenges we all face in life.  What sets it apart is the visceral emotion with which it is performed.  When we hear or play the Blues, powerful feelings are communicated that lift our spirits and can bring joy out of sorrow.  The feeling of the Blues can pervade any performance, from classical compositions by Chopin, Beethoven, or Brahms to folk and popular genres, depending upon the emotion infused in the music by the performer.

Basic 12-Bar Blues Progressions

From a purely musical perspective, the 12-bar Blues is a rhythmic and harmonic framework typically built on a repeated harmonic progression consisting of Dominant seventh (Mm7) chords.  The progression evolved from the early Delta blues form, becoming more complex harmonically over the last century.  Refer to the 12-Bar Blues Progressions PDF in the Materials below for examples.  There are many standard Blues tunes in the Lead Sheet Library linked below.

Blues Scales and Riffs

The Blues scale is used consistently, based on a minor pentatonic with scale degrees 1, m3, 4, 5, and m7.  A sixth note is added to this combination, the flat-5, which is used to color melodies with a bluesy flavor.

Playing the Blues

Since the Blues is an aural tradition, start by listening to a wide range of Blues music.  Learn to identify a 12-Bar Blues progression when you hear it, and practice voicing the chords in time on a piano or guitar.  It is critical to keep a steady pulse whenever you play this music, so playing along with recordings or a rhythm section is advised.  Memorize some Blues heads found in the Lead Sheet Library, then emulate the phrase structure and feel by improvising Blues riffs using the Blues scale.

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