Hitting the Mark: How to Use Target Tones to Craft Sweet Blues Licks

By Jesse Gress,

PHOTO: Cindy Moorhead

The TAB and audio files provided in the lesson below are bonus content for the July 2017 issue of Guitar Player. For the full range of interviews, features, tabs, and more, pick up the issue on newsstands now or at the Guitar Player Online Store.

In the blues universe, a target tone, as its name implies, is a melodic destination point that harmonically coincides with a particular chord within a standard 12-bar progression and typically falls on a strong downbeat. In other words, it’s a note that belongs to the I, IV, or V chord (all dominant sevens), but it may also be a non-chord tone that pleasingly embellishes the chord of the moment. This lesson offers some effective melody making approaches and tactics that can help you become a consistent sharp shooter when it comes to crafting blues solos.

For demonstration purposes, let’s use the key of A, in which we find the following target tones for each chord in a 12-bar blues progression. (Notice that some of the notes are common to more than one chord.)

• A7 (I): A (root/1), C# (3), E (5), G (b7), plus C (b3/#9)
• D7 (IV): D (root/1), F# (3), A (5), C (b7), plus G (4/11)
• E7 (V): E (root/1), G# (3), B (5), D (b7), plus G (b3/#9)

Why is hitting the target tone so important? Because a target tone, which may be preceded by as many notes as you like, locks you into a chord harmonically and creates the illusion of chordal accompaniment during your solos, which is a good thing, especially if there’s no other chord instrument playing behind you. When you hit a strong chord tone on the downbeat of a chord change, you can actually define that chord’s quality with a single note, regardless of what notes came before it (a key concept in jazz). However, not all chord tones carry the same weight—some produce finer definition than others.

So what are the juiciest chord tones for target practice? The 3 and b7, which when combined form a tritone interval (the distance of three whole tones), virtually define the dominant seven quality of each chord but tend to work best with the I and IV chords. (Tip: The 3 of the V chord must be used judiciously in order to maintain a bluesy vibe.) The root also works well with any chord, leaving the 5 as the least effective target tone, at least when it comes to defining the chord’s quality. Some extensions also provide strong targets, with the b3/#9 carrying a bit more weight than the 4/11.

Ex. 1a presents a healthy assortment of A7 (I) chord tones, plus a select non-chord tone (the b3/#9) that also makes a good target, while Ex. 1b offers suggestions for how to embellish your targets with gracenote hammer-ons, slides, and bends.

Examples 2a and 2b follow suit with D7 (IV) chord tones and an added 4/11, and Examples 3a and 3b complete the picture with E7 (V) chord tones, plus another b3/#9. Get to know them and where they live on the fretboard within your favorite A7, D7, and E7 chord shapes.

Ex. 4a presents the big picture, by mapping out the dominant-seven chord tones in the key of A over the entire fretboard. You can locate all six occurrences of the same note within a 12-fret span by overlaying the “big dipper” note matrix diagrammed for the A root note in Ex. 4b anywhere on the fingerboard. The dipper can be moved around like a constellation, and it will always retain its shape, and any part of it that disappears behind the nut automatically re-appears one octave higher, below the 12th fret. Similarly, any notes above the 12th fret automatically re-appear one octave lower above the nut. Use this template to single out every available A7, D7, and E7 chord tone on the fretboard.

We’ll be demonstrating the target tones concept with three-, four-, five-, and six-note “pickup licks” (phrases started before the downbeat) derived from the A minor pentatonic, A major pentatonic, and A blues scales, many of which fall within the wellworn, fifth-position “blues box,” applied to 12/8 meter, where a dotted-quarter-note (or three eighths) equals one beat, making them ideal for slow blues and medium and up-tempo shuffles. The initial idea is to use these pickup phrases to approach a target tone played on the downbeat (beat one) of any measure in a 12-bar blues progression. (Tip: Target tones can fall on any beat, but are best served up on strong downbeats, to lock in with the chord of the moment.)

The three-note pickup used in Examples 5a-c begins on beat four and approaches the I, IV, and V chords, respectively. Play the lick followed by the given chord voicing (or one of your own design), and then repeat, replacing the chord of the moment with any target tone that sounds good to you.

All of the following examples using four-, five-, and six-note pickup licks have been condensed into beat four, but keep in mind that you can also employ rhythmic displacement to extend them, by playing eighth-notes exclusively, as demonstrated in Examples 6a-c. Additionally, all upcoming beat-four pickups are presented as “modules” (to conserve space) in 3/8 meter, with numerous rhythmic options, first in 3/8, and then converted to 2/4 for use during faster tempos. Let’s dig in.

The dozen three-note 3/8 modules presented in Ex. 7a should be broken in as pickup licks placed on the last beat in any bar of a standard blues progression played in 12/8 meter. Begin each three-note lick on beat four to approach your chosen target tone on the downbeat, or beat one, of the following measure. The idea is to target Ex. 1a’s A7 (I) chord tones on the downbeats of bars 1, 3, 4, 7, 8, and 11 (adding bar 2 during slow-change progressions), Ex. 2a’s D7 (IV) chord tones on the downbeats of bars 5, 6, and 10 (adding bar 2 during quick-change progressions), and Ex. 3a’s E7 (V) chord tones on the downbeats of bars 9 and 12.

Begin by targeting, as an exercise, each three-note lick with every applicable chord tone, then explore how each lick behaves in the context of each chord by playing it throughout an entire 12-bar progression. Experiment first by transposing the licks and target tones to different octaves (and eventually to all keys), and then by inserting pickup licks of your own design. Finally, adapt all of them to the 3/8 and 2/4 rhythmic options shown in Examples 7b and 7c.

The same method may be applied to the half dozen four-note pickup licks offered in Ex. 8a. These can be played either as written—two 16th notes and two eighths within a single beat—or using the rhythmic displacement from Ex. 6a and/or the 3/8 and 2/4 rhythmic options shown in Examples 8b and 8c.

Not much narrative is needed from here on. Simply follow the same procedure as with the three- and four-note pickup licks to execute the five-note (four 16th notes followed by an eighth note) and six-note (six 16ths) pickups and their 3/8 and 2/4 rhythmic options illustrated in Examples 9a-c and 10a-c, respectively. And don’t forget to try out the rhythmically displaced eighth-note groupings from Examples 6b and 6c.

All of the previous licks and rhythmic options may be mixed and matched in endless combinations, or strung together to form longer lines that can be used after hitting the musical bull’s-eye. You can find all of them and hundreds more, plus one- and two-bar lines, complete 12-bar solos, and a library of blues chord voicings packaged with an mp3 CD in my book Blues Lick Factory: Building Great Blues Riffs (Hal Leonard). Happy hunting!

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