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Improvisation Basics: 12 Bar Blues & the Blues Scale

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A while back we took a look at the most basic lesson in guitar improvisation: the pentatonic scale. Today we’re covering what many would consider the second most basic lesson, and an excellent practice sandbox before you move on to more complicated techniques — the 12 bar blues and blues scale combo.

The 12 Bar Blues

Before you can start to put the blues scale in a context and work with it to improve improvisation skills, it’s important to get to know the 12 bar blues.

I’m surprised how many guitarists don’t know this basic structure — even some who are pretty good at improvized lead work. But it’s still a great foundation and worth being able to play. You don’t need to be able to play blues really well. I sort of breezed through blues on my way to other things and never got very good at it — you only need to make it a specialty if that’s the type of music you like playing. Consider this a place to start, and a stepping stone.

The first thing to remember is that this form is a 12 bar repeatable progression, as the name suggests. It always ends on a fifth chord, which means you can end it there quite nicely, or use it to loop back around to the start (throwing a 7th into the chord helps build up for another round).

Here’s the progression in intervals, where each interval represents one bar:

We’ve been using the key of A (both major and minor) in this series so far, so we’ll use A major today. Here’s the chords of the 12 bar blues in A major:

Finally, here’s what it sounds like:

It’s not quite as bluesy as you’ve probably heard it, but it’s the same structure!

The Blues Scale

The blues scale is used to improvize over the 12 bar blues, which leads to that very familiar blues guitar sound. There are only so many combinations with this format, so the feeling of familiarity is just not one you can escape as a musician or a listener.

Remember that in the last tutorial when we expressed the minor pentatonic scale as consisting of the following intervals:

1 b3 4 5 b7

I also mentioned that in C, the scale consists of these notes:

C Eb F G Bb

The blues scale is very similar to the minor pentatonic, so if you’ve been practicing, this should be a fairly smooth step for you:

1 b3 4 b5 5 b7

C Eb F F# G Bb

To play a blues scale, you simply add the “blue note” or the flattened fifth. It’s most often played as you’re leading into the fifth.

You can see this scale as guitar tab in A major here.

Here’s what it sounds like when you play the scale over the 12 bar blues — you should be able to come up with something like this very soon, as it’s basic noodling:

Using Rhythm

One thing I’ve noticed is that guitarists are increasingly concerned with how many different notes they can play in the shortest period of time. Rarely is one note used even twice in a row. It’s not often that amateur improv students stop to enjoy a note on a slow bend. It’s all about speed, and blazing up and down the fretboard.

It’s more than fine to know how to blaze up and down a fretboard, but it’s important to know how to use rhythm and space to provide an essential part of the music. Practice with phrasings as much as you practice with notes.

Phrasings and notes are just as important as each other.

One exercise is to confine yourself to one note and see how much you can get out of it just by varying the phrasing and rhythm. You won’t produce anything really interesting, but that limitation will get you thinking about using rhythm as a tool of creating interest in the absence of all others.

Backing Track

The most important part of learning to improvize is practicing what you have been taught! So I’ve made the 12 bar blues recording available for downloading, so that you can use it as a backing track. Set it to loop and just have fun trying new things — I’ve designed it so it should loop flawlessly depending on what you use to play it back. There are better alternatives out there, but you can easily download this for free without having to search for now.

12 Bar Blues Backing Track

Conclusion

Now you’ve got two scales under your belt and the seeds of improvisation are planted for your mind to digest. It really takes some processing time — and lots of practice — before guitar impro and knowing which notes to hit becomes an instinct. Keep working on the blues scale and don’t neglect the scales we looked at last time, either. By the time the next part is written, you should be more than ready to move on!

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