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Blues Improvisation on Guitar

Mr. Ryan, Instructor of Guitar and General Music at LAAPA will walk you through how to get started with improvising over the 12 bar blues on the guitar. By the end of the video you'll have learned what a pentatonic scale is, the blues scale in E as well as many of his tricks including "hammer-ons", "pull-offs", "vibrato", "slides" and special patterns he likes to use in his own improv.

Pentatonic/Blues Scale Improvisation on Guitar

- contributed by Ryan T.

Hello everybody. Ryan here with Louisiana Academy of Performing Arts today with another Lagniappe Lesson. We're talking about improvising on the guitar and kind of like getting started with it, where to begin. And one of my suggestions for beginning to improvise is starting with the blues. Why? Well, the blues tends to have a lot of crossover in song forms and scale choices. They usually tend to stick to just a few types at the most rudimentary levels.

So, it's a great place to start off because, if you learn the 12 bar blues form and you learn the pentatonic minor scale, you can already play a huge amount of music. There's so many different artists that use the same 12 bar blues form. And one of the most popular keys in the blues is E because the blues is a guitar players genre for a little bit. Everybody loves the blues, but specifically for guitar, the key of E works out really well. And, when you learn to play blues, the first scale you'll probably encounter is the E minor pentatonic. And I'm going to show that scale to you today.

And the scale goes E. Oh, I will note as well, my guitar is currently tuned to E flat standard. So, I'm speaking in terms of E because most of your guys' guitars will be in tune to E. So, but if you play along, you'll notice that the notes sound a little bit different. My guitar is a little lower. But I'm going to speak out as if it's in E.

So, we have E. We have G, A, B, and D. And that's basically the entire scale. It's called a pentatonic scale. And, if you know your Latin roots, penta stands for five, tonic can be like you think of it as tone or sound. So, five sounds. They have five notes in the scale. Again, it's E, G, A, B, and D. So, if I continue that pattern going up the entire front border, at least in the first position, I can have another E here, another G, another A, another B, another D, and then another E. And then, if I want, I have another G as well.

So, what I've done is I've played the entirety of the E minor pentatonic scale in the first position. There are more notes. I can go up even higher, but I have to climb up the neck. But, for now, we're just going to stay in this position and play the entire scale slow again.

Okay. So, these are the notes that we have to choose from when beginning to create melodic lines and improvisations over the song. So, the thing about the pentatonic scale is, because it's kind of a scale with less tones in it, if you look at the tones over an entire octave, if I were to play the scale up the string, you'll notice that, unlike the major and minor scales that we play, that the pentatonic scale has no half steps in them, right? If we look at all the tones again, we'll see that I don't move a single fret at a time. I'm always skipping over one or more frets.

And what that does is that actually helps weed out some of the notes from the original minor scale that can kind of be clashing notes, right? Like they work under certain chords, but not under others. So, if you're ever playing a song in E minor using the E minor scale and you hit some sour notes, it just has to do with some of those half-step notes. Those notes can kind of be a little weird. So, when you play pentatonic scales, it takes those notes out of the equation. It kind of makes it to where, as long as you're playing a note in the scale, it can probably sound good. There's almost no bad notes.

So, whenever you're playing with that scale, you can start to just arrange the notes in all types of different new ways. Think of it like this. I like to look at the notes in a scale kind of like an artist's palette, if you will. Each note being like a color on the palette, right? So, right now I'm just kind of just going through the colors one by one, like red, green, blue. So, in order to get more, emotion, feeling, and better sounding lines, I basically try to think of interesting ways to kind of go about the notes. I'll skip around. Maybe I'll go up and then switch directions or skip around.

And all the, what I like to call like the fine detail, right, kind of comes with practice. Like because you just have these notes. And what is the difference between playing these notes and playing a solo like you heard me play earlier? Well, inside of those I use a lot of guitar principles like pull offs, hammer ons, sometimes I'll string together hammer ons and pull offs. You might have heard that trick. And also things called bends.

Now, what happens when you bend to note is that you're actually raising the note. You're bringing it up. And the problem with bending and learning to bend is you have to learn to bend in tune. Because if I bend this note and I don't quite go to the right tone or go in between tones, it sounds pretty bad. So, I'm thinking of this scale and I'm just basically using these different principles to kind of go from note to note, whether I hammer on and pull off from one note to the next, or if I want to get to this note, I can bend up to it. Right?

Another thing you can add is vibrato. Vibrato is just an idea where you kind of wiggle the string and give it that little bit of that note, that wobbly sound you hear singers doing. You can also slide. Right? Right? So, I can go from this note to this note or I can slide to it as well. And a lot of juices in there too. So, if I wanted to just stick with these notes, to play that line, I'd have to go something like... right? Or... right? If I play that... so, whenever you're thinking of a scale, try to find ways to get to the notes in the scale besides just going to the next place maybe. You can also learn how to play the scale up a string, just like I did earlier. Right?

Sometimes I may just find just the next note up. Right? I might leave the scale just to find the next note, like the next open string. Right? And come back. And it helps make your melodic ideas a little bit more interesting.

So, great ways to practice a scale. Well, you practice it ascending, descending. All right? And then, you can practice what I call melodic patterns. So, if you think of the scale, if I play it again from lowest tone to highest tone, I think of each note kind of like the rung on a ladder, right, kind of like each step. So, this is my lowest point, right? And I can climb up the ladder all the way into the top. But this is going one rung at a time.

Something I could do is maybe do a little pattern. Maybe I can start at the top of the ladder, right? And, instead of just descending a ladder one rung at a time, maybe I'll start at the top rung, I'll skip past the next rung, I'll skip down a note over that note, and then I'll come back to the note I skipped over. So, think of it as like two steps down, one step up. And that's a cool melodic pattern that sounds interesting. And you can incorporate that into any kind of song you want to do. So, here's how it sounds

Right? I can do it the same thing, but going up, starting at the bottom rung, skipping up to, and then going down to step. That's a melodic pattern. Maybe another pattern I can do is I like to call this one stepping up, one, two, three. Three steps up and then a skip down. So, we go up the scale, up a rung, up a rung, up a rung, but then we're going to skip down a couple of rungs, right? Down to here. Same pattern going down.
So, it's through practice with all these different patterns. And basically, I'm programming the muscle memory for all these little patterns. And, when a song is going on, when I'm improvising, I'm drawing on that knowledge. By practicing these different patterns, I'm sort of expanding my scale vocabulary in a way. So, as the band plays on, I'll have more and more things to say, more and more ideas that I can incorporate.

My last tip for improvisation also has to do with some of you that may sing or at least know that you can match pitches, right? So, if you have the ability to play a tone and kind of sing it, and if you kind of mess around singing in the shower and the radio, whatever, you can actually let your inner singer determine what you want to play. Because when you approach scale systematically like that and looking through patterns, that's great. But, if that's all you do, you'll end up kind of like always playing things like that.

So, another great way to kind of get new fresh ideas when you're improvising is to kind of sing stuff out if you can. Like if you can even do it on a basic, small level, just have the background music going on and try to just like scat, if you know what that is, or seeing out a line. And a lot of times you can find interesting lines that you wouldn't approach or play on the guitar unless you hadn't had like the line already in your head.

So, when I used to improvise, ill give you this chord, I might hear like, (singing). Something like that or (singing). Right? So, it's kind of like when you start to get your inner musician and your instrument and start to connect the two and start to think like that. Right? The instrument becomes an extension of you. And like, if you get up to that level, that's improv, baby. That's how it goes. We're all thinking of a background as kind of like a musical context and it's like a conversation where we're just finding things to put in, to add to the conversation that fits the context really well and makes it more interesting.

And again, if you watch my Lagniappe Lessons, I'm always open to questions. So, however you want to reach out, you're always welcome to join our blues ensemble, if you're an adult. And we can do more personalized things one-on-one. But I think that's going to be it for today. So, thanks again so much for watching. This has been Ryan with LAAPA and our Lagniappe Lessons. Have a nice day.

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