The blues has been slowly disappearing as an element of modern rock and metal for over two decades. This doesn’t mean we can’t learn from ‘old guys’ and the simplicity of playing fewer notes with feeling and the right tone. Now the harmonic minor scale has been associated with guitarists like Ritchie Blackmore and Yngwie Malmsteen, who no doubt possess some great bluesy phrasing, but are pretty different from the blues guitarists that influenced them. We know that blues phrases are some of the earliest soloing patterns we learn on guitar, and with good reason: they sound good, people tell us we sound good playing them, and that makes us feel great. Adding the harmonic minor scale to these phrases will add some sophistication to our blues playing, and when we understand when it’s appropriate to use it, it can really turn some heads at the gig. And you won’t have to turn your spiked strap in for a fedora and bowling shirt either.
The harmonic minor scale is a regular ol’ natural minor scale with one exception: the 7th note is sharped. This gives this scale an exotic sound which we hear all the time in neo-classical metal, but it is at home in the blues too. BB King would use this scale a lot over a minor blues, and that one note is very important in establishing tension and resolution so common in the blues.
The Dirty Details (the theory part)
We’ll start in A, which is probably where most guitarists learned their first scale. First, we will compare the most common scales played over an Am chord:
A natural minor: A B C D E F G
A Pentatonic Minor: A C D E G
A Blues: A C D Eb E G
A: Harmonic Minor: A B C D E F G#
When playing blues in a minor key, the harmonic minor is a good choice especially when played over the V7 chord. We will listen to an updated BB-style chord progression in A:
Feel free to download this progression to play over it. Notice that this progression uses an E7 chord. The notes in an E7 chord are E, G#, B, & D. Ahh, see that G#? Now many guitarists will simply continue to play their tried and true licks over that E7 chord, including the clashing G note. But we now know better! Nail that G# when the E7 chord comes around. Yes, this entails that we listen to the rest of the band while we are soloing**…don’t worry, you will get used to it!
We can think of it another way: When playing a blues in A, which is sure to include an E7 chord in there, we can use the note one fret lower than A over the E7. One fret lower than A is G#, so just make sure you use that G# over the E7 chord. You will sound cool, trust me.
** When we dive into deeper musical waters, songs can and will change keys often. Understanding the changes will allow you to make good choices when soloing, rather than the ‘hunt and peck’ method.
Here is some soloing over this progression. You can hear that exotic G# note in there over the E7:
A note about tone: traditional electric blues came from vintage output pickups and amplifiers without a master volume knob. It relies on dynamics, touch sensitivity, and space- check out that BB King video above. When practicing, try to turn down the gain and experiment with dynamics and different vibrato speeds.
My example was recorded with my ’59/Custom Hybrid pickup, which has a little more output than vintage pickups, so it handles vintage and modern styles perfectly.
And, as always, listen to what has come before us. No need to reinvent the wheel, but we can certainly learn from it. What scales do you use when playing blues? Do you have any special ones that make your playing stand out from the crowd? What is your favorite blues guitar?