December 5, 2023

About the Author: Cameron Hayes

Cameron Hayes is a guitar educator at the London Guitar Institute, teaching a wide range of styles such as rock, metal, blues, jazz, folk, RnB, acoustic, and many more! He teaches a large volume of students on a weekly basis and always looks to provide outstanding value in each and every lesson!

One of the most sacred and definitely more popular chord progressions for guitar players, the 12-bar blues, is a must-know if you’re learning guitar or jamming with some mates. But how can you avoid sounding like you’re using the cliche pentatonic licks over and over again like every other intermediate guitarist? Well, you outline the changes!

How to outline the changes in a 12-bar blues:

Work in thirds!

You may have heard this terminology before somewhere on the internet while on your blues guitar journey, but what exactly do we mean by ‘thirds’?

This is referring to the third note in the scale (that would be the major scale) which is found in pretty much every chord that you’ll ever play in some form or another.

For example if we’re playing a blues in A (of course), the first chord (A7) will contain (usually) four different notes.

Now there’s a whole lot of extensions that we can add to this and different ways of voicing the chord, but in its most basic sense, the A7 chord will be comprised of an A (the tonic), a C# (the 3rd!), an E (the 5th) and a G (the flat 7).

The reason we number these notes is because if you relate the notes back to the major scale (A major scale in this case) this will be the first, third, fifth and (a flattened) seventh note of the scale, which when played together makes an A7 chord.

The reason why we love the third so much is because this note has such a big impact on the overall quality of the chord, as this is the note that determines if the chord will be major or minor.

The tonic is relatively important as this is the basis of the chord, the fifth actually doesn’t really affect the quality of the chord – more it re-enforces what’s already there, and the seventh will determine if the chord will be a Major 7 or a Minor 7 chord.

By thinking more about the 3rd of each chord, we are able to outline the changes in a blues in a slightly more sophisticated manner than the typical aim-for-the-root-note-approach, whilst not sounding too tense or ‘out-there’.

You can work this around your existing Major/Minor pentatonic vocab as well.

Instead of playing blues licks mindlessly for hours on end, try to resolve one of these licks to the third of the chord when it changes on the downbeat (e.g. outline the D7 chord in bar 5 of the 12-bar blues playing an F# note on beat 1 of this bar after one of your favourite blues licks).

A major scale

The A Major Scale – where all basics of arpeggios and chords are derived from. (For the A7 chord we obviously flatten the 7th to a b7 to match the vocab of the blues!)

Think in arpeggios!

Leading on from thinking about the thirds of each chord in a blues, why don’t we just think about every note in each chord in a blues?

You may have heard of the term ‘arpeggio’ before?

If not, this literally just means a broken up chord, if we were to separately play each note of the chord instead of all at the same time.

So for an A7 arpeggio (dominant 7 arpeggio), we would play the 1-3-5-b7 of the A major scale, which would be A-C#-E-G respectively.

We then would convert this to our IV and V chords in the blues as well (D7 and E7) so that we are able to outline the arpeggios of each chord as they change!

This way we are focusing on the most important notes of the chord for the majority of our improvising, whilst also throwing in some of our regular pentatonic/blues phrasing around this as well.

Other scales? More than just the pentatonics!

So are there other scales that we can use apart from the major and minor pentatonics?

Yes, absolutely! A great place to start is the mixolydian scale, which is actually like a hybrid of the major and minor pentatonic scales.

In fact, if you literally just combined all notes found in both scales (with the exception of the minor third in the minor pentatonic scale – mixolydian only has a major third) you would have the mixolydian scale!

This allows us to use the best of both worlds, which can result in some more melodic or scalic sounding phrases.

Not only can we use the A mixolydian scale over an A blues, but we can also change the scale for each chord!

On the A7 chord we use A mixolydian, on the D7 chord we use D mixolydian, and on the E7 chord we use, you guessed it, the E mixolydian scale!

Try to figure out how to play these scales all in one position so that you don’t have to jump up from one end of the neck in the middle of your solo – this will give your phrases more flow!

A Mixolydian scale

Here is the fabulous Mixolydian scale. Perfect for jamming over the blues. Remember if you see A7 play A Mixolydian, D7 play D Mixolydian, E7 play E Mixolydian. It takes some time to get used to making it sound tasty!

Tension >>> release

So all of these approaches that we have mentioned so far will give us very ‘inside’ sounding phrases, meaning they will all sound very nice and within the key – which is a good thing!

But what if we want to introduce some more spice or tension into our playing?

The general rule with this approach is that when there is tension there must then be release, meaning you can play something a bit more abstract sounding if you then resolve it to a strong chord tone (perhaps like, the 3rd!)

One scale that will give us a bit more tension is the half-whole tone scale (or diminished scale) which as the name suggests, is built up of a series of half tone (or semitones) and whole tone intervals. See below for the A half-whole tone (diminished) scale.

A Half whole tone scale

This scale has an overall very dissonant sound due to the amount of semitone intervals that it possesses, plus the fact that it’s not really a scale that we hear a lot of in pop music.

This is exactly why it is perfect for creating a bit of tension and release, which when used sparingly and resolved to a chord tone, will turn heads at any jam session!

A Half whole tone scale line

Want to get started with the blues?

If you really love playing the guitar and you want to seriously improve your blues playing and go to that next level, you can start your weekly blues guitar lessons with London Guitar Institute.

We would love to help you reach your musical goals and become the blues guitarist you deserve to be.

Find out more in our blues guitar lessons page. We would love to help you master the 12 bar blues and beyond!

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Tags: 12 Bar Blues, Blues guitar, Blues Guitar Playing, Playing blues guitar