• A Lesson On Blues Music Scales, Chords, And Chord Progressions

    in Chords & Progressions,Experienced players,Jazz music,Scales,Theory

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    In today’s lesson, I’ll be showing you blues music scales, chords, and chord progressions that every blues musician should know.

    There’s a powerful connection between scales, chords, and chord progressions. According to Jermaine Griggs, “…scales form chords, while chords form chord progressions.” If you listen to any blues piano recording of your choice, you’ll hear the pianist connecting scales and chords over a given chord progression.

    These three devices (scales, chords and chord progressions) are important because a vast majority of blues pianists (both aspiring and accomplished) use them. That’s why it’s important that we dedicate this lesson to the study of blues scales, blues chords, and the blues chord progression that anyone can effortlessly apply.

    Right before we go into all of that, let’s do a quick review on blues music.

    A Short Note On Blues Music

    The cultural origin of blues music is from Afro-Americans who lived in the southern part of the United States of America.

    Although nobody can tell you when blues music started precisely, it was used in the 19th century as a medium of expression. The slow and dramatic nature of the blues made it effective in the expression of melancholy.

    One of the distinct features of blues music is its 12-bar form, which has several variations and extended forms like the 16-bar blues, 24 bar blues and so on.

    Blues music can be vocal, instrumental, or both. It features instruments like the banjo, guitar, piano, and so on. Blues music has also influenced a variety of other popular music styles especially gospel and jazz.

    Suggested Reading: Jazz Blues Form, Bass-Lines, Licks, And Crossover Licks.

    Let’s go ahead and study the characteristic scales, chords and chord progressions that are of common place in blues music.

    Blues Music Scales

    A scale is a regular succession of notes in ascending or descending order [the distance between successive notes is based on a fixed formula].

    Scales are important in music because they are the source from which intervals, chords and chord progressions are formed. We’ll be covering a variety of scales in this segment that are commonly used in blues music.

    Scale #1 – The Blues Scale

    The first scale we’re focusing on in this study is the blues scale. It is basically a minor pentatonic scale with a blue note. The blues scale in the key of C consists of the following notes…

    C, Eb, F, Gb, G, Bb, and C

    Check it out:

    The characteristic sound of the blues scale is derived from blue notes (which are the flat third, flat fifth and flat seventh tones.)

    “Pay Attention To This…”

    The C blues scale consists of the flat third (Eb):

    …flat fifth (Gb):

    …and flat seventh (Bb):

    …tones of the C major scale:

    Scale #2 – The Mixolydian Scale

    The mixolydian scale is the fifth church (aka – “ecclesiastical”) mode. It’s formed by starting and ending the natural major scale on its fifth tone. For example, the fifth tone of the F major scale:

    …is C:

    Therefore, playing the F major scale from C to C:

    …produces the C mixolydian scale.

    “Here’s The Easiest Known Way To Derive The Mixolydian Scale…”

    The mixolydian scale can be easily derived from the natural major scale by lowering the seventh tone of the major scale by a half step. Lowering the seventh tone of the C major scale:

    …which is B:

    …by a half step (to Bb):

    …produces the C mixolydian scale:

    The mixolydian scale is a scale source for dominant chords which are predominant in blues music.

    Although knowing the mixolydian scale in all twelve keys is of the greatest importance, one should also endeavor to learn the mixolydian scale of the first, second, fourth and fifth tones of the scale. Playing blues music in the key of C requires a knowledge of the C mixolydian:

    …D mixolydian:

    …F mixolydian:

    ..and G mixolydian:

    …scales, which can be used to improvise over dominant chords formed on the first, second, fourth and fifth degrees of the scale.

    Scale #3 – The Dorian Scale

    Another important scale blues musicians must be acquainted with is the dorian scale. This is the second ecclesiastical mode. The dorian scale can be formed by starting and ending a natural major scale from its second degree. Playing the Bb major scale:

    …from its second degree which is C:

    …to C:

    …produces the C dorian scale:

    Dorian scale is used in the improvisation of blues.  I’ll be showing you that in the final segment.

    Scale #4 – The Lydian Dominant Scale

    Due to the fact that the lydian dominant scale is the fourth mode of the melodic minor scale, playing the G melodic minor scale:

    …from C:

    ..to C:

    …produces the C lydian dominant scale:

    …which is one of the scales that are used in jazz-blues styles because it has features of the C lydian:

    …and C mixolydian:

    …scales.

    The lydian dominant scale can be used to improvise over chords like dominant 13#11 chord. For example, playing the C lydian dominant scale:

    …can be used to improvise over the Cdom13#11 chord:

    Blues Music Chords

    One of the reasons why musical styles differ from each other is harmony. Every style of music has its unique harmony, which is a product of the classes of chords that are used to provide accompaniment to melodies.

    Let’s learn the kind of chords that are commonly used in blues music.

    Chord #1 – Triads

    Triads, especially major triads are used in blues music.

    Although there are occasions when blues music can be played in the minor key, it is common to find it in the major key. Consequently, primary triads in the key (which are chords of the first, fourth and fifth degrees) are used.

    In the key of C:

    …the primary triads are the C major:

    …F major:

    …and G major:

    …triads and they are commonly used in blues music.

    Chord #2 – Sixth Chords

    Sixth chords are used in blues music. A sixth chord is formed by adding the sixth tone of the scale to a major or minor triad. Therefore, adding a sixth tone to any given major triad produces a major sixth chord.

    Adding a sixth tone to the each of the primary triads produces sixth chords.

    Adding the sixth tone of the C major scale (which is A):

    …to the C major triad:

    …produces the C major sixth chord:

    Adding the sixth tone of the F major scale (which is D):

    …to the F major triad:

    …produces the F major sixth chord:

    Adding the sixth tone of the G major scale (which is E):

    …to the G major triad:

    …produces the G major sixth chord:

    Minor sixth chords of the first and fifth scale tones, which are the C minor sixth:

    …and G minor sixth:

    …chords are also used.

    Chord #3 – Dominant Seventh Chords

    The dominant seventh chord consists of the first, third, fifth and seventh tones of the mixolydian scale. For example, using the C mixolydian scale:

    …you can form the C dominant seventh chord by stacking the first, third, fifth and seventh tones of the mixolydian scale together.

    C is the first

    E is the third

    G is the fifth

    Bb is the seventh

    Altogether, that’s C, E, G, and Bb:

    Dominant seventh chords of the first, second, fourth and fifth degrees are mostly used. In the key of C:

    …they include the C dominant seventh chord:

    …of the first degree, the D dominant seventh chord:

    …of the second degree, the F dominant seventh chord:

    …of the fourth degree, G dominant seventh chord:

    …of the fifth degree.

    Chord #4 – Dominant Ninth Chords

    Extending the width of the dominant seventh chord (by a third interval) produces the dominant ninth chord. So, the width of the C dominant seventh chord:

    …can be extended by adding a note that is a third above Bb:

    …(which is D):

    …to form the Cdom9 chord:

    Dominant ninth chords of the first, second, fourth and fifth degrees are mostly used. In the key of C:

    …they include the C dominant ninth chord:

    …of the first degree, the D dominant ninth chord:

    …of the second degree, the F dominant ninth chord:

    …of the fourth degree, G dominant ninth chord:

    …of the fifth degree.

    Now that the harmony of blues music is covered, let’s end this study by exploring the blues chord progression.

    A Short Note On The Classic 12-Bar Blues Chord Progression

    Blues music has a standard 12-bar form (usually with 4 beats to a bar.) These 12 bars can be broken down into three 4-bar sections. The first two sections often use the same melody (or a slight variation) while the third section creates a contrast.

    “Check Out This Basic 12-Bar Blues Chord Progression…”

    I | I | I | I | IV | IV | I | I | V | IV | I | V |

    “Here’s Another One…”

    I | I | I | I7 | IV7 | IV7 | I | I | V7 | IV7 | I | V7 |

    Final Words

    I’ll give you other variations of the basic blues progression in another lesson. Until then, feel free to explore the 12-bar blues chord progression using the scales and chords we learned earlier.

    See you in the next lesson!

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    Hello, I'm Chuku Onyemachi (aka - "Dr. Pokey") - a musicologist, pianist, author, clinician and Nigerian. Inspired by my role model Jermaine Griggs, I started teaching musicians in my neighborhood in April 2005. Today, I'm privileged to work as a music consultant and content creator with HearandPlay Music Group sharing my wealth of knowledge with thousands of musicians across the world.

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    { 2 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 emmanuel

    Thank you so much, your teaching is really helping me.

    Reply

    2 Chuku Onyemachi

    You’re welcome!

    Also remember that the greatest crime in the world is finding water in a desert and keeping it only to yourself. If this blog has helped you, don’t keep it to yourself; share it on social media and refer people to it.

    Musically yours,
    Dr. Pokey

    Reply

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