Using The Minor Pentatonic Scale Over The 12 Bar Blues

When the founder of Music Muse Academy asked me to share some pro-level tips for how to use the minor-pentatonic-blues-scale over the 12 bar blues, I thought “Yeah, that’s right up my alley,” and I was excited! Mark is an old friend and we share a similar passion for helping other musicians learn-and-grow just as quickly and just as thoroughly as possible. His site, Music Muse Academy, provides an excellent opportunity for us to learn-and-practice music as the language that it truly is. In this article, for beginners and pros alike, we are now going to highlight important skills and concepts needed in order to truly have fun ‘imitating’ and ‘creating-from-scratch’ the words, sentences and paragraphs of great music making! With that said, let’s get started!

Introduction

pentatonic scale

The minor-pentatonic-blues-scale, played over a 12-bar-blues, provides a virtual playground for us to experience and enjoy total musical freedom, creativity and emotional expression! In an instant, with this easy-to-use scale, we can jump right into making great music, even if we happen to be complete beginners - what more could we want?

My goal with this article is to help inspire and motivate more-and more aspiring musicians to explore beginner, intermediate and advanced use of the minor-pentatonic-blues-scale played over a 12-bar-blues. If this is starting to sound good to you, let’s just jump right in!

The first time I played through the notes of the minor-pentatonic-blues-scale, instantly it did in fact sound like a great collection of notes, but it certainly did not sound like great music had taking place. Fast forward now to current times and I can really turn that scale into something musical, even when playing just one or two notes at a time.

Naturally, it was not a change in the scale itself that finally made the difference, instead – as you might imagine - it was a definite change in how I put the scale to use. Now that I have just stated the obvious, we are going to talk specifics about how a player can use the minor-pentatonic-blues-scale over a 12-bar-blues in order to sound and feel like a pro!

Beginner Level: That One Secret We Need!


Step 1 is to learn and memorize the notes of the minor-pentatonic-blues scale in any easy key.

If you are an acoustic or electric guitar player, this will likely be the classic minor-pentatonic-blues-scale, position one, in the key of C or A.

If, however, you happen to be a pianist, an organist, a harp / harmonica player, a saxophonist, a trumpet player, and/or happen to play any other instrument other than guitar, you might simply choose, then, to learn a minor-pentatonic-blues-scale pattern in any common-and-comfortable register and key!

Pro-Level Tip: Try learning-and-memorizing the following four-note-section from the scale. For example: from low-to-high of the ‘A minor-pentatonic-blues-scale’, the four-note-subset that I am referring to includes G, A, C, and D. For guitar players using ‘scale position one’ of the ‘A minor-pentatonic-blues-scale’, this collection of notes falls neatly onto strings four-and-three at frets five-and-seven.

So, here is the hint: use this section of the scale as a smart vehicle to introduce-and-incorporate the one ingredient that holds great power to transform scale notes into actual music. What is this one special ingredient with power to transform scales into music, you might ask? It’s rhythm.

The moment we put one or more scale notes into a rhythmic pattern, instantly we begin to make music!

I encourage all of my students to take a rhythm-first approach to music making, and those who chose to heed this sage advice really do begin to make excellent progress! For more about this rhythm-first approach, see step two (below).

Step 2 is the most important step.

In order to turn those notes into memorable music, we must physically get into a musical groove and then play our scale notes in rhythmic patterns that are in, and are compatible-with, that same groove.

In other words, if you want to create a great blues solo using the minor pentatonic-blues-scale and your band / rhythm-section is playing a solid shuffle rhythm, then you must get your whole body grooving along with that same shuffle feel, sort of like dancing, and then arrange your scale notes into rhythmic patterns that reflect, enhance and dance-upon that same shuffle feel.

Pro-Level Tip: The ‘rhythmic component’ of the greater-music-making equation represents the hidden secret behind how exactly to make one-or-more scale notes sound like great music. The process of learning to develop this rhythmic component, for most players, takes time-and-dedication and is often the ‘make-it or break-it’ part of learning how to make professional-level music.

In this regard, I have a number of game-changing ‘tricks-of-the-trade’ that I can now share with my students and it still takes most of them quite a long time in order to develop the rhythmic quality needed to enjoy professional-level results. Be patient with your own progress, trust that improvements are coming right along with smart practice and your diligence is certainly going to be rewarded!

Intermediate Level: Common Techniques!

Step 3 adding flavor...

Excellent, we have just outlined one of the most important secrets behind making great music. Now we are going to think about how musical techniques such as slides, bends, hammer-ons, pull-offs, trills, grace notes, etc can really help us develop endlessly creative ways to put the minor pentatonic blues scale into rhythmic patterns and therefore into the musical state.

The addition of the aforementioned techniques also provides new ways for us to add feeling and emotional expression to our music. Think about how adding well-placed bends to our scale as we are soloing really helps to highlight the emotional and expressive quality of the blues. For example: When using the A-minor-pentatonic-blues-scale, it is common to bend on the C, D, and G notes. We will explore this topic further in the advanced portion of this article.

Pro-Level Tip: It is important, when using techniques such as slides, bends, hammer-ons, pull-offs, trills, and grace notes, etc, to be certain that each technique is used in service of creating-and-maintaining proper time and groove. For example: When playing a trill, a repeated and often rapid back-and-forth figure between two notes, there still needs to be a pulse and a rhythmic alignment that can be heard as consistent-with and compatible-with the underlying groove.

The groove that we are adhering to might be heard in the rhythm section or it might simply be implied by the musical selection that we are playing. Attention to this level of rhythmic-and musical detail creates-and-provides exactly the type of intention-to-improve that we all need in order to grow-and-refine both rhythmically and musically!

Step 4 is mostly geared for guitar players

But a parallel scenario exists with other instruments as well – feel free to read through this section even if you happen to play an instrument other than guitar. Now, many lessons are much simpler to teach via demonstration than to teach in writing, and this may be one of those lessons. However, the following concept is relatively simple and instantly helps players, even beginners, to extend their musical range in more than one way, so let’s give this a shot!

pentatonic scale

In step 1 of this article we talked about focusing upon just the G, A, C, and D from of the ‘A-minor-pentatonic-blues-scale’ in order to get started with a more manageable and therefore easier-to-use subset of the overall scale. Remember, the four notes listed above, G, A, C, and D, fall neatly onto strings four-and-three when playing the A minor-pentatonic-blues-scale in position one.

In this section, our goal is to extend our range of usable pitches, and the most natural way to do this is to extend ‘scale position one’ to now include strings two-and-one from ‘scale position two’. Did that make sense? You might have to read that again since there were a lot of numbers flying around. Once it does make sense, we are then also going to extend ‘scale position one’ to include strings six-and-five from ‘scale position five’.

Once we have done this, we will have extended our pitch range by ‘one higher note’ as well as by ‘one lower note’. Notice, on the guitar, that we now have three ‘boxes’ that are shaped the same way and that have exactly the same notes in them, ‘G, A, C, and D’!

In this way we can play ‘G, A, C, and D’ in a four-note-box that starts on string-six-fret-three, play ‘G, A, C, and D’ an octave higher in a four-note-box that starts on string-four-fret-five, and then play yet another matching four-note-box containing the same notes, now two octaves higher than where we first began, that starts on string-two-fret-eight.

Together the four boxes provide the guitarist with quick-and-easy access to three separate octaves of the minor-pentatonic-blues-scale that can be transitioned in an out of freely while improvising great blues solos! Worry not if this written description was too difficult to follow.

Just know that when the time is right, a very simple trick can be discovered that helps guitarists access almost the entire fretboard when soloing without having to be a genius. I teach this simple concept to beginners all of the time and it really is easy-to-learn and easy to put into instant use.

Pro-Level Tip: Now or later, once you can play the three ‘four-note-boxes’ described above, notice that only two notes are separating each box from the next. ‘Eb and E’, in ascending order are the two notes that separate each ‘four-note-box’. This means that ‘Eb and E’ make perfect transition-notes to help us travel from box to box, ascending and descending.

Give this a try and discover that you can make music inside of each box and then make music as you transition from box to box. Moving from box to box provides a great way to generate the kind of contour / ascending and-descending lines that are often used to create great solos!

Advanced Level – The Power Of Harmony!

Step 5 - adding harmony

Are you ready for this? You might be, but as you are reading if you happen to discover that you are not yet ready to understand, just focus - for now - on all that you can do with steps one-through-four, written above, then when the time is right you can come back and revisit section five. It’s going to be a great adventure either way!

In ‘section one’ we worked on how to get the power-of-rhythm into our playing and now we are going to work on how to get the power of ‘harmony’ into our playing as well. Together, the power-of-rhythm and the power-of-harmony work synergistically to generate truly great solos, in this case, using only the minor pentatonic-blues-scale!

The main point that I would like to make in this section is that each note in the minor-pentatonic-blues-scale has three different ‘signature sounds’ that occur when played over each of the three chords found in a basic twelve-bar-blues. Take time to listen-to and become very familiar with the sound that each note makes against each chord in the blues.

Once you have done so, new and exciting doors are going to open up where tonal creativity and target notes are concerned! To get started on the right foot, listen carefully to the classic sounds that are generated by the following exercises. Allow what you are about to hear-and-experience to open new doors of insight into how to bring the power-of-harmony into your solos!

Example One:

Over A Basic Blues In A, Try Featuring

- An ‘A’ note over the A7 chord when it appears in the chord progression - A ‘D’ note over the D7 chord when it appears in the chord progression - And a ‘G’ note over the E7 chord when it appears in the chord progression. As you are becoming more-and-more comfortable with the exercise above, are you now beginning to hear both the power-of-rhythm and the power-of-harmony within your playing? It may take time, but once you begin to hear and create using this powerful connection, more-and-more, you are going to a have a total blast!

Example Two:

Over A Basic Blues In A, Try Featuring

- A ‘G’ note over the A7 chord when it appears in the chord progression - An ‘A’ note over the D7 chord when it appears in the chord progression

- And a slightly bent ‘G’ note over the E7 chord when it appears in the chord progression. Work on examples one and two, above, until you begin to hear-with-clarity how your solos can have the power-of-rhythm and the power-of-harmony working together synergistically in ways that are going to be truly exciting to both the listener and the player!

Conclusion

There are many simple tricks-of-the-trade, just like the ones above, that really do make a remarkable difference! So, happy practicing on the Music Muse Academy site and until we meet again, have a blast making greater-and-greater music using two of the best secrets out there, the ‘power-of-rhythm’ and the ‘power-of harmony’!