The Four Levels of the Blues

Session star Carl Verheyen serves up some blues knowledge.
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As the 12-bar blues progression has been interpreted many different ways over the last century by electric guitarists, and a thorough study of the vast stylistic differences is extensive. A straight I-IV-V progression can be as primitive or as sophisticated as the player wants, depending on the context of the musical situation. Here are four levels of sophistication that I follow for playing electric blues. I don’t really think about it in the heat of improvisation, but when analyzing my musical influences, this is what I’ve come up with.

The first level is the “Minor Pentatonic on Everything” concept. Those five little notes contain so much expression that hundreds of great blues guitarists have needed nothing else to get their point across. My favorite example is Albert King’s solo on “Crosscut Saw.” Try phrasing those two choruses exactly like Albert. It’s almost impossible, due to his insane, upside-down technique. But those are some of the best blues lines ever.

The next level is the “Major and Minor Pentatonic” approach. This technique involves a slight shift in tonality from the I chord to the IV chord. In the key of A, players like B.B. King use A major pentatonic on the I chord, and A minor pentatonic on the IV chord. This helps outline the chord changes because the C# in A7 is the third, and it resolves to the C natural in D7, which is the seventh. By outlining these two changes, we bump the level of sophistication up a notch and expand our note choices. Check out the first solo chorus of “Crossroads” by Eric Clapton on Cream’s Wheels of Fire CD. Duane Allman and Dicky Betts are also masters of this concept, as shown on the Allman Brothers Live at the Fillmore recordings.

A step above that is the use of the corresponding Mixolydian mode for each of the three dominant chords in the progression. As the Mixolydian mode is simply a major scale with a flat seven, it’s perfect for all unaltered dominant chords. In the key of A, you can play up an A Mixolydian scale for the A7 chord, and down a D Mixolydian scale on the D7. Play an E Mixolydian scale for the V chord, and you’ll have outlined all three tonalities in the blues. I use this approach most when playing countrystyle blues, because I can bend from anywhere in the scale to another scale tone, and it will sound like a pedal-steel player.

The fourth level of sophistication for blues players is obviously jazz blues, which involves a number of unique and altered scales. Diminished scales a half-step up from the root, as well as melodic minor a fourth up are very popular, but here’s a little trick you can use to spice things up. In bar 4, right before going the IV chord, try playing a line that includes the following upper structure tensions above the normal third and seventh of the chord: #9, b9, #5. When you resolve into the third of your IV chord, the effect will be a great release from the tension you’ve created. Works every time!

Carl Verheyen is a crtically acclaimed, Grammy-nominated guitarist, vocalist, songwriter, arranger, producer, clinician, educator, and tone master with 12 CDs, two live DVDs, and two books released worldwide.