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5 Ways to Solo on a Blues

When you say blues, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? A 12-bar blues, with the classic I - IV - V? While that’s technically correct, there are plenty more examples of the blues. Think of “Blues for Alice” by Charlie Parker, “Bessie’s Blues” by Chick Corea, “Walkin’” by Miles Davis, “Mr. PC” by John Coltrane, “Sandu” by Clifford Brown, or “Madame Toulouse” by Michael Brecker.

All of these examples are different in their own way—some are subtly different, others are noticeably so. But most of all, they’re still all blues. (Cue Miles Davis’ “All Blues” which, yes, is also blues).

So the important concept here is that you can approach the blues in so many different ways. But to make the most of this, it’s helpful to have certain concepts—or the language of the blues—under your fingers.

Today, we’re going to check out some of our material to teach you concepts and styles you can apply to the blues form.

Before we get started, make sure to check out the 27 Blues Etudes PDF package to get all of these exercises along with recordings of Chad LB playing along. It’s available in Concert, B-flat, E-flat, and bass clef. Make sure to check out our video on this topic as well.


The Ultra Blues Scale

Ultra Blues Scale Etude

Blues Shuffle Etude

Bebop Blues Etude

Pentatonic Shifting Etude

Melodic Cells Etude

The Ultra Blues Scale

Where most musicians start when playing the blues is learning the blues scale. To be fair, this is a great way to start, and helps break you out of the standard pentatonic and major/minor sounds.

However, this scale is limited, because it leaves out several notes that can sound bluesy, too.

Instead, you can use what Chad LB likes to call the “ultra blues scale,” which is essentially a blues scale with an added major 3 and major 7.

This scale gives you a lot more chromaticism to work with, which can be helpful over more advanced blues progressions.

If you’re only soloing with the notes in a scale, it's important to think about rhythm and the pacing of your phrases. It’s also important to get flexible, playing different shapes with the scale so you can do more than just play straight up and down the scale.

Ultra Blues Etude

Now let’s check out an etude using the notes of the ultra blues scale.

Ultra blues scale etude

In this first shape, we’re going to start on the seventh and jump up to the minor third. Keep in mind, from chord to chord, we don’t need to worry about the different degrees, because we’re just thinking about degrees of the scale.

So in the first phrase we’re going to do more than run up and down the scale, we’re going to move the shape around, too. We’re jumping up, stepping down and jumping up again and really moving around the scale.

This continues into the second phrase, where there’s a bit more shape movement. You’ll also notice that we have a rhythmic rhyme at the end of the second and third phrases—which is just that we have the exact same rhythm used to make it cohesive.

Again in bar 11 and 12 we have another rhythmic rhyme.

ultra blues scale etude 2

Then in bars 13–17, you’ll see how inventive the scale can be when jumping around in unique ways.

Coming into bar 18, you’ll see how effective it can be to repeat the same note a few times. Then in bars 17–22, we have a number of calls and responses with rhythmic phrasing.

All of these phrases are a similar length, with two of them starting on the “and” of three, and two of them starting on the “and” of one.

Blues Shuffle Etude

Moving on to our next etude, we have a shuffle-style blues.

Blues shuffle etude

One of the key pieces for a shuffle is the rhythm. For this etude, you’re going to play everything with a triplet subdivision, regardless of whether it’s actually written as triplets.

In terms of notes, the main thing worth checking out is that we’ve added in the sixth degree of the scale. The sixth (or 13th, depending on how you look at it) has its own bluesy sound that you don’t hear as often.

So for this first phrase, we’ll use this sixth degree on a G7. The first phrase has both an E natural and a B flat, which is our minor third—a note that we closely associate with the blues. This phrase gets a bluesy sound without using the blues scale at all.

Then we see the sixth degree with the ninth degree of G7—again, not in the blues scale. But then, this second phrase is all made up of notes in the blues scale—and not even the ultra blues scale, just the standard blues scale.

From there we’re going to get into some juxtaposition of double time and single time phrasing—so we’ll push the tempo into double time, then we’ll go back into single time phrasing.

In bar 30, you’ll see double time, while in bar 31, you’ll hear single time come in for a few quarter notes to sort of slow down the phrase a bit.

This kind of rhythmic variation is common for shuffle, and the rhythms can get fairly intricate.

Bebop Blues Etude

This next style we’re going to look at is Bebop blues, which a lot of people call a bird blues.

For this, we’re going to get into a bunch of elements from the Bebop style. A lot of people are intimidated by the speed of some of the double time lines. But with all fast lines, it’s important to take them piece by piece while learning them. Get it under your fingers, play it slowly and accurately, then start to increase the speed.

In Chad LB's case, he started learning his first Charlie Parker solo when he was 10. And it wasn’t because he was seriously advanced at 10 years old, it was because he had the patience and discipline to go note by note, measure by measure.

Bebop blues etude 1

Bebop blues etude 2

In Bebop, the double time is often very melodic—which is covered in this etude. It includes double time lines, along with intricate rhythms and phrasing. The key thing to note here is the chord changes, many of which are associated with the Bebop style.

The difference of Bebop starts immediately, as we start this on a major 7 chord, instead of a dominant 7 chord. Then, instead of staying on the I chord or moving to the IV in the second measure, we’re going to have a minor ii - V of vi. Then we’ll go to vi, which from there becomes a iii - vi - ii - V of the IV chord. But instead of having a VI7, we’re going to have a tritone sub of the VI7 to create the chromatic bass movement.

After we land on the IV chord, we’re going to turn that into a minor iv chord, which becomes the ii of a backdoor ii - V. A backdoor dominant is a dominant 7 a whole step below the tonic chord—so the iv functions as the ii in this example.

We then continue the ii - V movement, moving down in half steps until we get to the final ii - V - I. After we land on that ii, we’re going to sit there for a full measure before going into the V.

In the last 2 bars, we’re going to play a I - vi - ii - V tag.

Remember when learning this to take your time. If you just learn four measures every day, you're going to have a whole chorus completed in just a few days.

This is one of the more challenging etudes in the 27 Blues Etudes PDF package, but stick with it and you’ll start seeing a difference in no time.

Pentatonic Shifting Etude

So while Bebop gives the blues a major feel, this next etude is more of a minor blues sound.

These pentatonic shifting etudes help you play outside with some interesting scale substitutions.

In this etude, we’re going to start on four bars of Cm7. But instead of playing in C minor, we’re going to actually play F dominant pentatonic, or what you might call a minor six pentatonic.

Pentatonic shifting etude jazz

With F dominant pentatonic played over Cm7, you have the notes C, Eb, F, G, A, and C—sort of like a Cm6 sound. It’s a real nice effect using this over a m7 chord.

From there, we’re going to start playing material inside of F minor pentatonic, since we’re on an Fm chord. Then we’ll shift down into an E minor pentatonic sound, then again shift into F# minor against the Cm, laying back into the C minor pentatonic.

On the Ab7, we’ll play the standard Ab dominant pentatonic—same thing with the G7 and G dominant pentatonic. But when we land on the Cm7, we’ll go outside again with F# dominant pentatonic, using another tritone sub there, but using the tritone sub that resolves back to the C minor sound on the last measure of this first chorus.

Melodic Cells

To round us out, we’re going to look at a melodic cells approach to the blues, which is a much more modern approach.

You may associate the melodic cells sound with Miles Davis, Michael Brecker, Chick Corea, or Herbie Hancock—it gives a much more modern approach to improvisation and works great in a funky fusion-type of sound.

When looking at this etude, don’t be intimidated by the double time, it’s really just like single time at a faster tempo, it just depends on how you’re feeling those quarter notes.

Melodic cells are just groupings of notes. What you do a lot of times is take a few notes—like the four we use in the etude. You’ll notice the cell moves into different keys and gives a cool modern sound.

Melodic Cells Blues Etude Jazz

The first shape essentially uses the 1, 2, 3, and 5 on F7, but we play in a different order—3, 1, 2, 5, and we’ll do that same shape up two consecutive half steps.

We do it again with G7, then we’ll do a more chromatic cell after that. The shape you see on beat four of F7 this measure is the exact same shape you see a few beats later on beat two of Bb7. The diatonic shape you see on beat one of Bb7 is also the same shape you see on beat three of Bb7.

Now if you look at beat four from the first measure of this etude all the way through beat three of the second measure, you’re going to see what could be analyzed as a compound cell, or two cells in a row working as a single unit. Then we repeat those two cells up a half step. From there, we’ll resolve with some F7 material to land on the third measure.

There, we have some diatonic notes inside of F7, with more compound cells and diatonic cells moving into chromatic cells. Then another diatonic cell essentially rhymes that last diatonic cell just with an added note.

So this makes up a full four note scale, instead of just those three notes.

There’s a lot of content from the end of the third measure into the fourth measure, but all of it essentially uses the same diatonic cell and chromatic cell all the way through—there again we resolve with diatonic content on the Bb7.

Moving into measure six, we still have more diatonic material inside the Bb7. But from beat two of measure six, we have a compound melodic cell over the next two beats. This combination of cells actually will fit more into an A7 sound.

So what we’re doing is going down a half step from the Bb7 and we’ll end the phrase there on the A7 to create some tension.

Stay bluesy!

Hope you all enjoyed these etudes and found them helpful. Like we said before, the blues is complex, with many different approaches, and this can help with how you approach a blues form in jazz and beyond.

Before you go, make sure to check out our video on this topic along with our PDF package for more practice.

We’ll see you next time!