Review: Frank Vignola’s Jazzin’ the Blues Vol. 1 & Vol.2

Full Disclosure: I am not a paid blogger, but TrueFire does exchange access to their lessons to me for a review per month.

I am known around town as a blues player, and I’ve been to music school and studied under some greats; so I love injecting some jazz traits to my electric blues solos. So, I wanted to take a look at Frank Vignola’s Jazzin’ the Blues Vol.1 for this month’s review. While I was working with it during the month, Jazzing the Blues Vol.2 was released. So, let’s take a look at both volumes. 

As with nearly all TrueFire lesson groups, you get video of Frank playing his examples and tab. These lessons feature Soundslice, so that a student can set a variable speed, follow the tab playback which is really handy for playing along with fast or tricky passages. You see it exactly as played from half speed to faster than performed.

This is a focus on adding “jazzy” ideas to blues lead lines on guitar. Frank Vignola is a master player and has a basic format for both volumes: focus on one idea at a time and play two different choruses of solos that illustrate that idea. Each is melodic and state the idea well, and don’t get particularly challenging to play for an intermediate player until getting into Volume 2. 

My only complaint to his approach and teaching style in these volumes is his speaking style can come across as a grade school instructor telling a student that “very important new word” when going to each new idea, like major 2nds, or the Super Locrian or whole tone scale; but if he is approaching these concepts as new, there are no additional materials demonstrating what a major 2nd is and where it is on the neck, or any grids or descriptions of new scales. There is some description of the ideas during the Breakdown sections, but seem explained as though the player who previously hears the words “Super Locrian scale” then should know how that concept relates to the licks being demonstrated. 

If the student has a strong grasp of theory, they may chuckle at the vocal delivery but get a wealth of knowledge and some great ideas for playing. A student  not familiar with the concepts should have access to some sort of supplemental information covering the concepts to fully “get” the information presented. 

The concepts in Volume 1 cover using the major 6th, the diminished scale, the bebop scale, the whole tone scale, octaves, the major 2nd, the Mixolydian mode, and the Super Locrian mode. Volume 2 covers the major 9, (this time relating to the other chord tones and within each chord, opposed to the major 2nd in Vol.1) the chromatic scale, double stops, the Dorian mode, implying the ii V, neighboring tones, and the harmonic minor scale. If the student gets the concepts beyond just the riffs… this is a BIG bag of tricks for blues playing.

The only other tiny quibble is that the intro invokes names like Robben Ford, Larry Carlton, and Oz Noy… yet these licks don’t invoke the playing of any of them, more stock “Soul Jazz” riffs. THIS IS NOT A BAD THING… especially if you can internalize the concepts more than the licks from the lesson plan (and make your own sound)… which again raises my stressing for having better access to the concepts for folks not familiar.

So, if I’m in any way critical, it’s only because there’s really, really good stuff here to be had.

Review: TrueFire – Jeff Scheetz’s Street Theory for Guitarists

Full Disclosure: I am not a paid blogger, but TrueFire does exchange access to their lessons to me for a review per month.

Many times listening to beginners trying to advance you’ll hear comments like “I wish I understood music theory” as if it’s something exotic or a fix-all to understanding and writing music, or improvising. Or sometimes you’ll hear a player describe it as a stumbling block, or unnecessary for making music that’s “real”. I tell students it’s neither one, but it is extremely helpful to either communicate with other musicians and to understand how things work, which not just coincidentally gives you a better understanding of what you may be playing and/or creating.

Jeff Scheetz’s Street Theory for Guitarists does that superbly for guitarists of all ability levels. Even if you’re a beginner that can’t yet play the examples, you should still be able to learn the concepts. Jeff is a relaxed, easy-going, and confident instructor and the videos have some nice touches including attention grabbing pop-up text summarizing important points (similar to the “for Dummies” or variation instruction books, some more jaded or intellectual people might find them cheesy, but they are a great way to highlight and memorize the best of the information) Jeff breaks the videos into four sections in a thoughtful way, and etc of the concepts are presented in a natural progression, leading up to working the ideas using the popular CAGED system for guitarists.

I have to commend Jeff especially on nailing one concept that I’ve seen so many other guitar and jazz instructors presenting “practical” or “street” theory veer into bad theory: he nails the presentation of the 7 fundamental modes by understanding it’s not just the scale, but the progression that defines modal playing.

If you are a guitarist, and have no understanding of theory. I would highly recommend this series of videos. If you are like most guitarists and know a few points of theory, this can fill in most of everything that you need to understand about theory as a guitar player. If you studied theory in college and can apply what you learned already… there’s nothing here to see. If you learned theory in a traditional manner, but didn’t get applying it to your instrument, this will be rudimentary theory-wise but should apply lots of idea lightbulbs and a-ha moments.

I’ve seen a lot of “street theory”, “guitar theory” or “practical theory” books, articles, and videos out there over decades as a player and private teacher. This is probably the best I’ve seen, and almost certainly the best presentation. Bravo Jeff Sheetz.

Visual Learning and work in progress: Giant Steps

I don’t make any claims to be a great jazz player (I was decent at being an ensemble player in some big band rhythm sections) despite part of my focus here. My interest is part analysis, part self-improvement, and part sharing what I know.

In other words, I haven’t mastered this piece. This is a “this piece kicks my butt, just like it does most common mortals who haven’t spent years practicing and developing it.” And this is why; but it may help you, too.

There are many analyses of John Coltrane’s Giant Steps online with instructions or suggestions on how to improvise over it. Nearly every one gives some historical context or just explains that it’s a piece requiring a certain improvisational virtuosity to pull off. I’m not going to get to deep into that here, nor do I think anything I’m posting is going to be new except for this visualization I’ve done for it (I’m big on visual learning for guitar and music in general). I’m guessing either you’re familiar with the piece, and me saying “it’s a hard one” is nothing new, or you should Google it.  😉 Find the original studio version with John Coltrane. … All right, maybe this one frequently relayed bit of history:  😉  Trane had been woodshedding it for years before bringing it to the session. Pianist Tommy Flanagan, depending on who is telling the story, was either looking at it “cold” or only had a day or two to look at the piece. OK, now find Tommy’s 1982 trio recording of it. Even with master players, this is a piece that requires practice.

The only other thing I’ll say of many of the other online lessons is 1) don’t put stock in any of the “easy tricks” or what have you; you’re usually just learning a gimmick that will only sound good for a chorus, and may risk making you look worse than usual if you get lost (because you’ll need foundational knowledge of any song if you get lost while soloing. “One easy trick” does not help you on a piece this difficult) 2) I’ve found some analyses that, for whatever reason, show the key centers changing at the bar-line only, which you can “sorta” get away with (good jazz improv definitely does not relying on lining the melodic ideas directly over the changes, for example anticipating the next change melodically) but may just be some folks survival or coping method for the fast changes (Which leans into “trick”, to my way of thinking)

Analysis: I think the best simplified way to look at the piece also shows why it’s hair-tearing maddening to play. The changes are lightening fast, but there’s only three key centers: B major, G major, and Eb Major. The two problems there is that the key never stays put for longer than two bars at any given point in the piece (did I mention it’s usually done very fast) and each time it is up or down a major third… which if you’re used to up or down the circle of fifths modulations, this can easily grind mental gears. (Plus, if you miss a modulation on a circle of fifths, you have technically one bad note you can “fudge” and correct if you’re just floating around. Modulating a major third, you only have three common scale tones. You have to know where, or the harmony will expose you)  The modulations that occur in the middle of the bars in the first half of this piece, making one and a half bar, or one bar over the bar-line V-I and ii-V-Is also go against my previous instincts, even at slow tempos.

My thought for visualization: B – Red, G – Yellow, Eb – Blue.

Giant Steps AnalysisEach of these are just straight V – I or ii – V – I progressions in those three keys. Again, the difficulty comes in the frequent “giant step” modulations and the speed of the piece.

Addendum: Visual learning guitar grid for the major scales using the same color coordination: Red = B Major, Yellow = G Major, Blue = Eb Major.


The Lost Art of Swing Quarter Notes (and yes, that is a real thing)

I recently did a video of this for Northwest Guitars, and I may link it when it comes up. Three points to set this up: the first was running across the subject of “Can you swing quarter notes” on a long cold internet discussion, of which the entire consensus compared it to swinging eighths (for those not familiar, not playing straight eighth notes for Jazz tunes, and similar to blues shuffle eighths. The best description that I’ve seen for jazz swing eighths is to imagine an egg rolling end over end down a hill.) and why the entire premise was wrong and not a real thing. While it’s true that in Swing music, quarter notes have even time, I would like to offer a frequently told jazz story.

Both the legendary Count Basie band and saxophone great Charlie Parker came out of Kansas City. But the story goes that Parker auditioned for the Basie band, and the Count put a piece of music in front of all the people auditioning with two measures of the same quarter note. Other than a few people describing it as needing to be a “fat” note, no one telling this tale usually can describe why Parker, THE saxophone player for nearly all jazz-heads, couldn’t make eight quarter notes “swing” enough for the Basie gig  …but it certainly does imply that there is a right and wrong way to do it, yes?

The third stop is that some years ago I took some lessons with Tim Lerch, an astounding guitarist of multiple styles, and a beautiful human being I feel privileged to call friend. I noticed that he had one unusual habit that I never asked him about (in fact this article is the first time I’ve mentioned noticing a tie-in, and I’ll see what he has to say reading this… I think my educated guess is right, but I’m not 100% sure without verification), whether practicing or on the bandstand, he doesn’t just tap his foot, he twists it, alternating right and left, 1 – 2, 1 – 2. And whether he was playing chords, single line melodies or what have you, in any rhythm, his phrasing always had a swing to it, eighths or no.

The simple answer is the back-beat. And it’s also important in blues, country, and most forms of rock (not everything, for example funk is all about the one)

In the army band and for music school I had the opportunity to play for some decent big bands, and learned the Freddie Green four quarter note to the bar comping style pretty solid. Though Freddie didn’t do this, if you watch a lot of other film of big bands from the era, you’ll see guitarists do an exaggerated alternating neck strum – bridge strum, 1 – 2, 1 – 2. Accent the back beat, the two and four: strum STRUM strum STRUM.

That’s Swing Quarter Notes: one TWO three FOUR.  Tim’s (and many others) lines swing no matter the rhythm of the melody not only from perfectly “swung” eighths, but a stress on the backbeat. Try it, pull out a Real Book or other melody chart of a standard from the swing era, like “All of Me.” Rock you foot left and right as you tap quarters, of lightly pencil a mark over every beat two and four. Stress the notes on the two and four (and just the two and four, articulate the syncopations that tie over and triplets normally, …just “think” the two and four fatter right on the pulse  😉   )

I’m still working on getting this to sound natural in my own playing. I’ve found it’s not easy to do all the time if you’re freely improvising (and I admit that get a bit lost in the rhythms of my own phrasing frequently) and overemphasizing can frequently sound as “square” as not doing it at all. But I found not thinking too hard and rocking my foot tapping helps when I practice it.  🙂

Edit – Follow-up quote from Tim: “Nice piece CD, thats how I see it. Not just accent but also I like the 2 and 4 to be just a teeny bit late as well. Well, not late but on the backside of the beat.”

Baby Steps from Pentatonic to Major Scale

My friend Bill asked me yesterday about guitar lessons, and we talked about a few things he was hoping to learn. One of the things that came out was he was hoping to play “major scale” because he had recently jammed with some friends, and they were playing songs where minor pentatonic scale lead playing did not fit. I was working on a bigger lesson this week, because I haven’t made in entry in toooo long… but this made for a great subject to share.

Scales relate to chords; chords relate to scales. Chord progression is important.

We’re looking at three chord major songs. Country, folk, southern rock, hymns, campfire songs, you name it. A lot of songs are made up of three major chords and in one key. I’m going to take some easy steps to improvising a seven note scale over major keys for players used to plugging in a five note scale into one key and having all the notes sound… okay.

I’ve seen this point usually being the one where you get a major scale, a fingering for it, and a song… Okay, go… Not sounding that great? Just keep doing it ’til you sound like… (one of a thousand monkeys typing out Shakespeare…) Continuous semi-random trial and error does not work for many people. Running scales does not work for many people. If you’ve encountered this, keep hope that there are many ways to learn things. I’m hoping that this lesson combining visual learning and spending time listening to each pitch will help a few folks that haven’t succeeded by the most common route.

For this lesson I’m going to make some assumptions, I will do something that many of you have seen a million times before, and then I hope to show you one way to make improvising with all seven notes way less random, and hopefully build a foundation block for playing over changes.

Assumptions: You know what a I, IV, and V chord is in a given key. You know the five “box” shapes of pentatonic minor up and down the neck.

You may have seen this before: Take any “box” shape and play it over the I chord. Familiar sound. Now play it three frets down over the same chord. You are now playing a pentatonic major scale.


Now: spend a bit of time playing around with it to get it in your ear if this is unfamiliar. Now try playing over three chords; I – IV -V. Any three chord pattern or song that you like, record yourself playing chords, however best you like to improvise melodic ideas. You may find some nice new ideas, but really, this scale works best just over that I chord, right?

OK, let’s take a second and look at the major scale. I’ll show you the closed pattern that has the root on the sixth string under your second finger. People familiar with the CAGED system will call this the E scale pattern. Let’s do this at Position II on your neck, which will make the root of the scale, and the key, G major.


Let’s switch to the pentatonic major in the same position. You’ll see it as one of the familiar box shapes, and you’ll see that these notes are all from the major scale. Play this. Record yourself playing this one chord and play each note individually. See which ones feel “stable” and which feel “tense”.


Here is where we get into progression. This is the scale in the same position for the IV, in the key of G major – C. C is under your second finger on the fifth string for this scale. This is a different shape, but still a familiar one.


Now remember when we just started doing chords and you learned how to switch between the G and C chords?  Now do it with these scales. Record yourself playing the chords or use a metronome or any other method available, but be sure to practice slowly and really get this down. When the chords change, which notes are common? For the common ones, how does the feeling change for “stable” vs. “tense”. If you’ve never shifted melodic ideas to match the chord changes before, this is a first step in “playing the changes”.

We also have a pentatonic for the V chord. Now the root is under your fourth finger on the fifth string in this familiar box. Okay, lets do the same thing we were doing earlier between the I chord and V chord now to get them under your fingers and in your ear. Now the IV and V.


One more crazy idea before letting you loose on some songs. On many of these types of songs you’ll see a V7. (in this particular key, D7) This is a pentatonic dominant scale.


You’ll see it’s the same box other than one note, and it hits that defining 7th. This is one that not a lot of guitar players think of.

Now, I can hear in my mind Bill saying “Well you showed me a bunch of pentatonics, CD, but I’m still waiting to improvise with the major scale.” OK, we’re playing a progression of three chords, let’s stack up all three scales for the progression, showing all of the melodic content we’ve been improvising with:



Does the last shape look familiar? It’s where we started:


You’re playing a major scale. Now you’re aware of the prime notes according to the chord progression. When you’re completely comfortable with where the fat notes are in each chord, you can now experiment adding those half steps in more scalar melodies with confidence.

Play some songs now with friends, or record yourself, or do any of the “band in the the box” type music programs, but play over song changes. Amazing Grace, Camptown Races, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, Stir It Up… lots of songs in many genres to choose from. Work out the melodies from the songs as well as making your own. The more time spent, the more your ears and fingers will guide each other.

Last Chapter: Working to 12 Note Blues Guitar – Flat 2 and Sharp 5

The last two tones to discuss in this series are the b2/b9 and the #5/b6, we’ll take a look at a pair of scales that use these tones, and one that uses both, to add some spice to your improv, and I’ll give you an improv exercise to help get those new sounds in your ears and under your fingers.

Flat 2, Flat 9

Fig.1 Orange is the new note. The b9 almost completes the entire set.

First for this lesson, we’ll deal with the note one half step above the root. Let’s start by listening to the relationship to each of the three common chords. Let’s do this in C again.

Play a C7 chord as your accompaniment and play a Db for melody. Maybe some of you are familiar with jazz chords (C7b9) but I think most of you trying this thinks it sounds awful. It’s OK, it’s supposed to be tense. If you need relief go back to the enclosure idea from the last lesson and play flat 9 – major 7 – root. Feel better? Let’s move on.

IV chord. F7 for accompaniment play Db. This is the b6 of that chord Again, pretty awful. If you’ve omitted the fifth from the F7 you have the same pitches as a F7#5, which is a nifty chord, but if you have both the 5 and the b6 in there, that will make it a very tense note.

In the V chord G7, the Db is the flat 5, also a tense note, but one you should be familiar with. In fact you may want to try improvising a chorus or two of blues and adding this note to a lick or two while playing over the V only.

One common use of the b9 in the blues is for a trill on the root. One of SRVs most recognizable riffs uses this:

Fig.2: Trill on the high E string for this blues lick in B, it trills the b9 right after playing the 9.

At this point we’re going to use a jazz approach that Robben Ford makes frequent use of: Using the half-whole diminished scale on the one chord (particularly when going to the IV chord). This is a symmetrical diminished scale: R – b2 – b3 – 3 – b5 – 5 – 6 -b7. Note that it has all of the chord tones, plus the “blue note” (b3), the tritone (b5) and the 6 (13); all great blues notes… and that odd flat 9. In this scale, it works well, but still not a landing note.

Untitled #1
Fig.3 Half-whole diminished scale in C. Half step followed by a whole step and repeat through an entire octave.
Fig 4. This particular fingering grid is my favorite for transitioning off of “box” or root position licks into half-whole ideas.


Fig 5. This fingering grid of four notes per string helps illustrate the symmetry of the scale.

One trick that Robben will discuss while using it is to use when approaching the IV, but also use for the V back down to I (and it being a symmetric scale you can just use the same fingerings you just used up one fret to get the notes for the half-whole diminished on the V chord)

At this point, I’m going to give you an exercise that you’ll want to try for all three scales I’m discussing today: Add the new idea at the fourth bar.

Just use a standard 12 bar blues (with or without the quick IV, doesn’t matter) to improvise over. Use a backing track or record your own. I recommend using a slow blues or no faster than a medium tempo to begin with. All I want you to do is play a blues the way you normally would, except plug in the new scale on the fourth bar (on the I, transitioning to the IV) and do your best to land on a strong note right on bar 5 (on the IV chord). Play the rest through, and do the same on each chorus. As you get the scale tones in your ears and under your fingers feel free to mess around further.

Blank - Treble Clef - 8 Staves 4 Bars

Sharp 5, Flat 6

Fig 7: Green is the #5/b6, and the last of 12 notes.

The last tone is the augmented 5th and/or the minor 6th. Get it in your ears first. Play a I7 chord and the #5 together. For the I chord it sounds a bit odd, and will suggest an augmented chord if you leave out the fifth in you chord voicing, and will be dissonant if the fifth and sharp fifth a closely voiced. For the IV chord, is the minor third (can be effective moving to the major third of the IV chord). And for the V chord, it acts as the minor second, and then can be used for the V chord as you did for the I chord above.

The scale that uses this tone, and the one I’d like you to do now for the “fourth bar” improv exercise from above is the whole tone scale, another symmetric scale. The notes are the root, 2, 3, #4, #5, #6. Just six tones with no half steps. Because of the symmetry, the notes for all can be found in just two scales: note sets in C and C# whole tone cover all twelve notes.

Untitled #5
Fig.8: Whole tone scale in C
Fig 9: One comfortable fingering pattern for the whole tone scale.


Fig. 10: Three notes per string and showing the symmetry of the scale.

Do the same exercise, play ideas you like until the fourth bar. Once there, play an idea in the whole tone scale, and complete that idea in bar five with a fat note of the IV chord.

Congratulate yourself if you’ve gone through these lessons and not done this before: You now can  play any of twelve notes on a blues. All the notes!


One more idea to wrap up this lesson, though. There is one scale more weird sounding you can plug into the fourth bar exercise that uses both the flat 2 and the augmented 5: The altered scale.

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Fig. 11: Altered scale in C

The reason it’s called the altered is that it contains the essentials for the dominant chord, root, 3rd, b7th; and the four most common altered tones, b9, #9, b5,b13. This is also the same sounds as a  jazz minor (ascending melodic minor) starting from its seventh degree. I’ve found that people who use it effectively think of it as it’s own thing rather than making it a mode of another scale, though.  Root, b2, #2, 3, b5, b13, b7.

Fig 12. This is a common root position pattern for the altered scale.

This has been a theory for the improvisor approach to learning each of the tones for use in improvising blues solos. I’ve thrown in some approaches/ideas/systems but just a small amount of the possibilities. I’ll cover more of those in future series.

Learn the numbers: Le CAGED au folles: Defense of, or departure from the venerable CAGED system?

CAGED Pros and Cons:

Most guitarists have heard of the CAGED system.  If you are not familiar as a guitar player, there are plenty of traditional instruction methods and online instructors that can get more in depth. Describing it basically covers the “pros” of using the system. It is a series of five “blocks”, or horizontal groups, stacked vertically one on top of the other up the entire fretboard that cover the major scale in a way that does not require finger stretches. The name CAGED system is based off of barre chord shapes that when stacked in order makes it’s own nemonic device as a common word: “c-a-g-e-d”.

Fig. 1: The CAGED system.
Fig. 1: The CAGED system.

While this is a great system for playing music in a comfortable hand position, one familiar problem starts confusing the new player right away, in the naming convention.

“You’re playing the C shape in E”

“ I’m in C”

“no, E”

“What’s on D?”

“Watt’s on Second!”

“I Dunno”

Both: “Third Fret!” (Lou makes funny noises)

Modification or Point of Departure?

For a few months, I took some online guitar lessons from jazz great Jimmy Bruno (by the way, if you are into jazz, his online Guitar Workshop is an amazing value) and even though his method downplays theory almost completely, and he will say his “five shapes” are not CAGED, he had five familiar looking shapes named with numbers. It was not explained, but the shapes were named after the scale degree the lowest finger on the lowest note fell on. Since I am focusing on scale degree numbers and not fingering, I’m going to call this my bridge between the two: If you know the CAGED shapes already, I’m going to ask considering the numbers within the key. Here’s what I’m rambling about:

Fig 2:CAGED by the Numbers
Fig 2:CAGED by the Numbers

The big thing I’d like for you to learn here  is to re-name each of these familiar grids, if you’ve already been learning CAGED. There are five shapes, now with every number of the scale except… the half steps. Half step up to 1, half step up to 4.

To start plugging this in to all keys, pick any of the twelve major keys. Each shape still stacks in order, they’re just using a different name. (why will be important in lessons to come) Only two of the five shapes will have a root on any given string. For example: the key of Bb has a root on the sixth string at the sixth fret. Only Shape 6 and Shape 7 have a root (1) on the E string. Let’s just stat with Shape 7 at fret V. The familiar scale starts with the root at the sixth fret. Shape 2 then works with the Bb now at the eighth fret of the D string. Up the neck to Shape 3, etc.

Take note that the root will always either fall under your second finger (three notes starting on the 7th degree) or the fourth finger. (Three notes starting on the  sixth degree) In some following lessons, I’m going to show that if you know the scale degrees of the notes your playing, you can break the entire neck into much smaller shapes for any scale or arpeggio.

Also take note on Shape 3. Take a look at the number under your first finger for each string. (3 – 6 – 2 – 5 – 7) Same as these shape names, right? I will show the significance of this as well.

So please learn the number names of each of these 5 shapes, and the numbers of each of the steps within the shape.

Chapter 4: Working to 12 Tone Blues Guitar

Wrapping up the notes with one useful idea:

While trying to decide how to present the last three notes, I realized there is one great musical technique that uses all of the remaining notes… but for the format I’ve been presenting these lessons, it’s cheating a bit. It is a great technique, borrowed more from the jazzier side of the blues; used quite a lot in straight jazz: Enclosures. Basically pick a target note, start a half step above it then play a half step below it (enclosing it) then play the note. In this case we’ll do the notes for the I chord in the key of C.

Enclosures on the root, 5th and 3rd of the I chord in C. In this move, we'll surround the chord tones. Half step above, then half step below, then play the note.
Fig 1. Enclosures on the root, 5th and 3rd of the I chord in C. In this move, we’ll surround the chord tones. Half step above, then half step below, then play the note.

Right off the bat we enclose the root with the flat 2nd and the natural 7th, there’s two notes we haven’t used yet. The second enclosure uses the flat 6th and the #4 (T.T) to surround the fifth, so there’s the note we added from the previous chapter, and the last remaining note.

Fig. 2 diagram of enclosures on the root, 5th, and 3rd of the I chord.
Fig. 2: Diagram of enclosures on the root, 5th, and 3rd of the I chord.

So, hey, there are all of the notes. I hope you enjoyed this series and… OK, I said this was cheating at the top of the lesson.

 The natural 7th:

We’re doing examples in C today, but go ahead and play on any key. Hit the natural 7th on the I chord. Sounds terrible if you just leave it there, right? A severely dissonant tone. It’s also a tritone away from the root on the IV chord, also not a note to stick. But try this lick on a turnaround:

Fig 3: The magic note!
Fig 3: The magic note!

One night on a jam a much younger me was just noodling away on a minor pentatonic, when my finger slipped right at the end and this melodic note popped out and made a perfect exclamation point to an otherwise mediocre blues solo, similar to the lick above. I wasn’t the only one to notice, got a smattering of applause and a smile and a nod from another musician onstage. But why? Why did this natural 7th, this otherwise horrible sounding note on a blues work right at the end? Well, that was the note that got me out of key thinking and into playing the changes. Instead of thinking of the always safe “key of x, use x pentatonic minor” I realized that natural 7th was also the major 3rd of the V chord, the last chord of a standard blues turnaround. To this day, I do variations on tagging that note at the end of a solo probably at least once a night.

I’ll cover this in another lesson soon, but this started me on focusing on the fattest chord tones for each chord during the progression.

Take the time to look at enclosures and coming up with melodic ideas that hit the major 3rd on the V chord. The last installment for this series will cover the b2 and the #5/b6 in their roles in two unusual but useful scales for the blues.

FIg 4. Add the Major 7th to your grid.
Fig 4. Add the Major 7th to your grid.

Learn the Numbers

I have a good friend who also occasionally gets guitar lessons from me, who is advancing into the why (music theory) of guitar while working with learning the how. We missed an opportunity to have the lesson this week, but since my current main article deals with “the numbers” and another article I was writing regarding the pros and cons of learning the CAGED system had me talking about that, too, I’ll cover both the basics and offer something cool, by way of my guitar playing friend and former teacher Terry Bay of Salem, OR.

First of all guitarists know that an octave is broken up by twelve half steps; play the low open E string, play a note for each fret, and wind up at the twelfth fret. Double marker on most guitars, and also the same letter again. The physics is that the fundamental pitch is now vibrating twice as fast as the original one… same note, but higher.

Anyway, the main point here is that while there are twelve half steps, the heart of the number system is the major scale. For a major scale in any key, the steps are broken up into the same number of whole steps (two frets up on your guitar) and half steps (one fret up) like this: Whole step, whole, Half step, whole, whole, whole. half.

or: 1 /W\ 2/W\ 3 /h\ 4 /W\ 5 /W\ 6 /W\ 7 /h\

7 notes, plus the eighth being the octave, or the root, or the 1 again. For instance the Key of C having no sharps or flats is

C-(Whole step)-D-(W)-E-(1/2)-F-(W)-G-(W)-A-(W)-B-(1/2)-

So in a major scale for any key, the 1/2 step occurs between 3 and 4 (E and F in the key of C) and the 7 and 8 (B and C in the Key of C)

So let’s expand this out to twelve keys:

Fig.1 The Wonder Chart
Fig.1 The Wonder Chart

So this is the tool that Terry gave me many years ago, with a few subtle adjustments by me. The more you learn about construction, the more you can plug in, but hopefully you work to the point where you can do “the math” in your head. Here is some starting points. If I ask for a major scale in E flat, a quick look at the chart says that the notes of the scale are Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C, D. The three major chords in the key (for “three chords and the truth) are the I the IV, and the V. In the Key of Eb, we see those chords (1) Eb major, (4) Ab major, and (5) Bb major (or Bb7). If we know that a major chord is comprised of the 1,3, and 5 from the scale, we can see that an Eb major chord is made up of Eb, G, and Bb. If we know that the relative minor key is made from the 6th degree, we know that C minor is relative to Eb major. We could then start on teh C from that line and say the C minor scale is C, D Eb, F, G, Ab, and Bb. Or… if you know that the difference  between the major and minor key is a flat 3, and flat 6 and a flat 7, you could go up to the C major line and say the scale is C, D, flat the third Eb, F, G, flat the 6th, Ab, and flat the 7th Bb…

Okay, this is more theory than you need to know to read the chart, but the idea is to be able to take any bit of number theory you get and plug it into this chart. For example, as I mentioned above, a major chord consists of a 1, 3, and 5. in your G line, you can see those notes are G, B, D. You can then take a bit of new information like a minor chord consists of a 1, a flattened third, and a 5, and looking at the same line you’ll now know that a G minor chord consists of G, Bb, and D.

For many of you, you probably understand the numbers already. If you do, I hope you realize several uses for and the convenience of the Wonder Chart. Knowing the numbers is going to be really necessary to the twelve tone blues series that’s going on now as well as other upcoming ideas. Thanks for following along in this blog.

Chapter 3: Working to 12 tone Blues Guitar

I hope that you’ve spent some time exploring tensions and resolutions of each of the individual notes for each chords. The next note is tense for all three chords, but an absolutely essential blues note.

The Flat 5

Ok, the past two lessons were “scales” and frequently the next step for many guitarists is to add in “The blues scale” which is nothing other than the minor pentatonic with the flat 5 added in. I’m going to propose the radical idea of it being the first added note.

Fig 1. Adding the flat 5 to the minor pentatonic, the blues scale.

TT. Tritone. The Devil’s 3rd. Augmented fourth / diminished fifth. Diabolus in musica. Play the root and then the flat 5. Play them together. This “evil” sounding interval was listed as a sound to be avoided in Medieval music and picked up the sinister reputation in the early eighteenth century. In a future lesson about chords, I’ll show how this interval is essential to the blues harmony, but right now we’re just looking at adding this note to our soloing vocabulary.

I mentioned earlier that this is a tense note for all three chords, but it’s a beautiful “ornament” or passing tone for all three chords. Part of my approach with this series of lessons is not to give you a bunch of licks, but the tools to make your own. But I’ll make an exception right now to give you some idea of how beautiful this ugly note can be for the blues.

Fig 2. Some b5 classic licks.

So, spend a bit of time with this particular note for all three chords, but I find that for all three it’s perfect as something to move through or away from and not usually a note to “stick”. On the one chord, as you see with the above licks, the note works fine going to the 4 or the 5. You can use it on a run up or down between those notes. On the five chord, if you land on it, you can either move a half step down (the b7 of the V chord) or a half step up, but there is a bit more gravity going up (to the root of the V chord). On the IV chord, landing on this interval generally wants to move down a half step ( to the root of the IV chord)

Anyway, long winded way of saying it’s tense on all three chords, but it’s good.

So after taking time working this one in, we should now have nine out of twelve notes under our fingers and in our heads for improving over a blues.

Fig 3. Add that scary red TT in with those polite pentatonics.
Fig 3. Add that scary red TT in with those polite pentatonics.