My favorite thing about playing blues is definitely improvising over the 12-bar boogie.
Once you’ve got the basics down – how to play blues chords and how to start soloing on guitar – adding blues scales to your bag-o’-tricks is the next step to take in mastering the blues.
In this lesson, you’ll learn how to play blues scales on guitar. After becoming familiar with a few simple box patterns, you’ll be able to freestyle solo for hours in any key.
Guitar Blues Scales: The Beginner’s Guide to Blues Guitar Soloing
We’re going to cover several scales in this lesson and get you started on some basic blues guitar licks, so get those fingers loosened up!
We’ll learn the building blocks of soloing: different scales like the major pentatonic, minor pentatonic, as well as the major and minor blues scales.
Best of all, you’ll learn how to play them in any key!
Now, we won’t go too much into phrasing, which is arguably the most important part of improv soloing.
Phrasing your riffs should be your focus after you’ve memorized the scales – it’s how you put emotion and personality into your music and is what makes the blues the blues.
To get an overview of what blues phrasing is all about, check out this article from Premier Guitar.
So if you’re ready to get started, grab your axe and let’s get grinding on these easy blues guitar scales.
How to Learn Blues Scales
Learning scales takes a lot of memorization, and the best way to get them under your fingers is just by repetition and practice.
For each scale we go over, practice playing it both ascending (starting from the lowest note) and descending (starting from the highest note and working backward).
Use a metronome, and practice playing each note of the scale first as a quarter beat, then as an eighth note. Gradually increase the tempo until you can comfortably play up and down the scales at 100 bpm (the most common Blues tempo).
You won’t get great overnight, but by the end of this lesson, you’ll have enough of the basics under your belt to improvise your first blues solo.
If you haven’t already, I highly recommend you first go through our guide on How to Start Soloing on Guitar.
That article will teach you all you need to know about intervals and how scales are built, including this pentatonic we’re about to cover.
So you know that the minor pentatonic scale is a simple series of 5 notes, consisting of 1-3b-4-5-7b.
Let’s play this pentatonic for one octave in the key of A minor, starting on the low E string
Now, we can play the same notes one octave up, using a similar pattern starting from the D string:
However, there are easier ways to play a multi-octave minor pentatonic scale using box patterns.
Box patterns are moveable, meaning that you can change the tonic (the first note) to any position on the neck to play in any key.
In a box pattern diagram, the lowest line represents your guitar’s biggest string, the 6th/low-E string. The highest line is the smallest E-string, or 1st string.
The numbered circles represent your fingers.
- 0 means to play the string open/unfretted
- 1 is your pointer/index finger
- 2 is your middle finger
- 3 is your ring finger
- 4 is your pinky/little finger
The fingerings are only suggestions. As you become comfortable playing these patterns, you’ll probably use different fingers for each scale.
So find your A note on the 5th fret E string, then try to play this box pattern. Play one note at a time, starting on the 6th string. It will begin just like that first tab above.
That’s not so bad, right? This gives you an efficient way to play a two-octave minor pentatonic.
Check out how this pattern can be moved up and down the neck to play in different keys:
As long as you know this box pattern, the notes of the low-E string, and the key of the song you want to play in, you can use this scale to improvise over any blues tune.
You can also play a minor pentatonic in 5 different positions: each starts on a different degree of the scale.
The one we just looked at was the 1st position: A – C – D – E – G
Each of these positions is another movable box scale pattern. So if you memorize the shapes, you can play every key’s minor pentatonic in every position.
The other A minor pentatonic positions are:
2nd position: C – D – E – G – A
3rd position: D – E – G – A – C
4th position: E – G – A – C – D
5th position: G – A – C – D – E
Notice how each position simply starts on the next note of the scale, then consists of the same notes as every other position.
All you do to find the next position is shift the first note up one degree.
Starting out though, all you need to know is the first position pentatonic, because this one shape can be used to solo through an entire 12-bar progression.
How to Play the Minor Pentatonic in Blues
When you want to play the minor pentatonic with a 12-bar blues progression, all you need to know is the key of the song.
Then, you can use the minor pentatonic in the same key to play for all 12 measures of the progression, no matter how many times the chords change.
So if you want to play over a backing track in A, simply find A on the E string’s 5th fret, and then play the minor pentatonic pattern we just learned:
Give it a try over top of this track:
This same trick applies to any key you might want to play in. Just find the song’s tonic, start your box pattern from there, and you’re improvising a blues solo!
Minor Pentatonic Licks
When you’re comfortable with this scale, try your hand at some of these minor pentatonic blues licks!
These short phrases add spice to your solos and are a great way to lead from one measure to the next.
Minor Blues Scale
If you came into this lesson already knowing the minor pentatonic, you’re probably wondering why we spent so much time on that.
Why not just start with the blues scale?
The thing is, the minor blues scale IS a minor pentatonic—plus a diminished 5th.
This diminished 5th (also called a blue note), gives our blues scale a total of 6 notes.
Note: This scale is NOT called a “blues pentatonic scale. Why? Remember, by definition, a pentatonic scale has only 5 notes.
“Diminished 5th” might sound intimidating, but all it means is a note 1 half-step below the 5th note in your scale. You can also think of it as a “flat-5”.
On guitar, each fret is a half-step. So to play a minor blues scale, simply play a minor pentatonic but include the fret between the 4th and 5th steps.
Again, looking at our A minor blues:
This is another moveable scale, so as long as you remember the box pattern, you can change the tonic note to play solos in any key.
The minor blues scale, like the minor pentatonic, can be played in multiple positions.
Sometimes, the 1st position is called the “6 1 shape” or “6 1 scale fingering”, because your 1st finger (index/pointer) starts the scale on the 6th string.
Just as before, each following position starts on the next degree of the scale but includes the same notes as the 1st position.
Start the next position by skipping the blue note (the diminished 5th).
And then we’ll finish with 5th position:
How to Play the Minor Blues Scale in Blues
The rules are the same with the minor blues scale:
Match the tonic with the key of the progression, and you can play one blues scale the whole song.
Try playing this F minor blues scale over the backing track using simple quarter- and eighth-notes.
See how even though the chords change, this one scale flows the whole way through.
This makes the minor blues scale a great tool for beginner soloing.
There’s no need to switch scales along with the chords, so you can focus on finding your expression in one simple box pattern.
Minor Blues Scale Licks
There are countless minor blues scale riffs to learn.
For starters, try to get these 4 essential blues licks down:
Once you can finger those smoothly, you’ll be ready to take on tons of blues songs. If you’re ready to put your skills to the test, check out our list of the [BEST BLUES SOLOS].
The major pentatonic is a bit trickier to use for blues solos. But by the time we’re done here, you’ll understand how to build it and where to use it in a 12-bar progression.
Let’s first take a look at how a major pentatonic compares to a major scale. The degrees of each are:
Like a minor pentatonic, the major pentatonic has 5 notes, but this time we use 1-2-3-5-6.
For our blues in the key of A, our major pentatonic will be:
We can play this in a moveable box pattern just like the other scales:
Moving the major pentatonic and major blues scale is very important when you want to use these to improvise.
So, make sure you get comfortable with the 1st position pattern because you’ll be moving it A LOT.
Just like the others, we can play the major pentatonic starting from different positions:
Are these shapes looking familiar?
That’s because these are the same shapes used in the minor pentatonic positions.
The minor pentatonic’s 2nd position is the major pentatonic’s 1st position, then the 3rd position minor is the 2nd position major, and on.
Knowing this, you can easily work out the next positions of the major pentatonic scale.
HINT: The 5th position of a major pentatonic is the same shape as a 1st position minor pentatonic. For the key of A, the 5th position major pentatonic starts on F#.
How to Play the Major Pentatonic in Blues
Here’s where things start to get a bit harder.
Remember how I said that you can use the same minor pentatonic for the whole blues song? If the chord progression is in C, you can play a C minor pentatonic or C minor blues scale through every measure:
Well, when you play the major pentatonic and major blues scale, you have to change scales as the chords change.
You can’t just play a C major pentatonic over every chord in this song. The notes of the C major pentatonic will conflict with the notes of the F7 and G7 chords in the progression.
Instead, you will have to play the major pentatonic for each chord in the progression.
That means, to use major pentatonic scales for improvising in the key of C, you need to play a C major pentatonic, an F major pentatonic, and a G major pentatonic.
This is why box patterns are your best friend!
All it takes to do this is moving the first note of the pattern to the tonic of the chord.
When it’s a C chord measure, play a C major pentatonic starting on the 8th fret. Then drop your box pattern down to the 1st fret to play F major pentatonic for F chord measures, and head to the 3rd fret box pattern for your G measures. It’s easy once you learn where the notes are on the fretboard!
(0 means to play the string open)
Get yourself warmed up by playing each of these patterns in both ascending and descending order. Then see what you can do over this C blues backing track:
Major Pentatonic Licks
To really put the major pentatonic to work, you’ll want to learn its basic licks.
These snappy riffs are an easy way to brighten the mood of your blues solos.
Here are a few of several major pentatonic blues licks from a great lesson via Fundamental-Changes.com:
Major Blues Scale
Last but not least, we’re going to cover the major blues scale.
The good news is, you basically already know it!
The relation between the major pentatonic and the major blues scale is the same as the one between the minor scales: all you do is add a blue note.
In the case of the major blues scale, the blue note is a diminished 3rd (b3):
After that, it follows the same rules as the other scales:
- You can play it in a moveable box pattern
- You can play it in different positions
Our major blues scale box pattern is going to look like this:
Since we already covered the different positions for the major pentatonic, we don’t need to do it again for the blues scale. Just remember to add in your blue note (b3) and you’ve got them!
How to Play the Major Blues Scale in Blues
To solo with the major blues scale in a 12-bar progression, follow the same advice as using the major pentatonic.
You have to shift the key of your scale along with the chord changes.
So here’s your final challenge:
Pick a blues backing track in any key. You can use the C track we tested the major pentatonic with. But I encourage you to try a different key if you’re comfortable finding the notes of the neck.
Figure out the I, IV, and V chords of the song.
Then, use the major blues scale box pattern you’ve just learned to improvise over the track.
Remember, you have to change scales for each chord. So if you’re playing in C, you’ll use a C, an F, and a G major blues scale.
That’s it! If you can successfully do that, you have mastered the basics of guitar blues scales!
Major Blues Scale Licks
Jazzguitar.be has a comprehensive lesson on all the different blues scales.
They’ve listed several major blues scale licks you can add to your arsenal of soulful riffs. Be sure to check out that lesson for audio samples and many more licks:
If you were to ask any of the great blues guitarists, they would tell you becoming a great bluesman requires time, dedication, and practice.
Unless you want to sell your soul to the devil, the best way to learn how to play blues solos is by practicing your blues scales.
Learn as many blues songs as you can—here’s our list of 80 beginner’s blues songs to get you started—and focus on the emotion that original players put into the music.
If you keep this up, one day it will click: you’ll feel the music in your soul and find your own signature soloing voice.