If you’re a saxophonist interested in playing any type of blues based music including rock and roll and even jazz then you need to use the blues scale as your number one tool to make things sound right.
A little history
If you want to investigate back to the beginnings of the blues as it came about in America just start with W.C. Handy, who was a black composer active in the early 1900’s when the blues form began to get popularized in large part because of his instrumental compositions “Memphis Blues” (1912) and “St. Louis Blues” (1914). Of coarse the blues oral tradition can be traced back to the mid 1800’s.
The blues scale
Because our western music has it’s roots in European classical music the music theorists needed to notate the blues scale as it was naturally played and sung into an understandable notation which could be analyzed and played by western trained musicians.
The simplest way to explain it’s theory is this:
Simply take the traditional major scale; C D E F G A B C and flatten the 3rd, 5th, and 7th. Now it looks like this: C D Eb E F Gb G A Bb C.
(Please look at the example on my website for the full musical notation). Notice the E, G, and B have been flattened, they are the 3rd, 5th and 7th notes of the C major scale and flattening them makes the scale sound minor thus giving it the “blues” or sad sound as opposed to the “major” or happy sound.
For us sax players these flat notes are perfect to incorporate a “growl” sound to further emphasize that “bluesy” expression or make it a bit more nasty. Two other things to notice; the 3rd and 5th can be played as a flat or not but the 7th generally is only played as a flat and not the major 7th in this type of scale or musical genre. (for some audio examples please refer to the website version of this article).
So now our basic major scale of 8 notes is now a blues scale of 10 notes. There are other variations to this blues scale; the basic version for example is a 7 note scale: C Eb F F# G Bb C (the F# being the same as the Gb). Adding the D, E natural and A give us more musical possibilities and will not change the basic sound of the blues scale. Even adding a flat 9th ( D flat) was a favorite thing Charlie Parker did a lot and is a good way to jazz up your phrases.
The blues progression
Of coarse this is all just words and notes and theory. You have to apply it and in any blues music this is done over a musical progression that’s 12 measures in length, thus the term “12 bar blues”.
We’re in the key of C so the first 4 bars will be the C chord. The 5th and 6th bars change to the 4 chord which is F (4th note in the C scale).
The 7th and 8th bars change back to the 1 chord (C). The 9th and 10th bars change to the 5 chord, which is G. The 11th and 12th bars change back to the 1 chord (C). There are variations in this 12 bar pattern and can be seen on the website version of this article.
When starting out you can get away with just playing the same C blues scale over the entire progression but try to emphasize 1 or 2 of the notes in the F and G chord to make things a little more interesting. For example, over the F chord play an F or an A note to emphasize the harmonic color of the chord a little more.
The blues mean different things to many people ranging from musical styles to a way of life or philosophy. The blues do have musical influences from Europe and Africa but it is truly an American musical form and tradition fully rooted in the black experience of the post-war southern United States.
I want to be clear that when I talk about the blues or the blues scale I’m not only referring to this type of musical tradition and style but include funk, R&B, country, jazz and pop. Like the old saying goes; The blues had a baby and they names it rock & roll and from there came just about every form of pop music in western history since that explosive time in the mid 1900’s
And so, I think it’s safe to say that the blues scale is easily one of the most used and important scales for all types of western popular music.