Essential Blues Piano Scales: Major & Minor Blues Scale
Do you want to take your blues improv to the next level? Most piano students learn the blues scale and improvise blues up and down the piano with this one scale. While this is a great place to start, eventually it can start to sound a little bit repetitive to use the same scale. The fact is that most professional blues pianists actually use 2 different blues scales when improvising over the blues. Just listen to pianists like Oscar Peterson, Dr. John, and Otis Spann. In today’s lesson, you’re going to learn these 2 essential blues piano scales so that you can take your blues improv to the next level. You’ll learn:
- The Minor Blues Scale
- The Major Blues Scale
- 12-Bar Blues Chords on Piano
- An Exercise to Connect Your Blues Scale
- 2 Licks That Incorporate Both Scales
Whether you are a beginner blues piano student, or you have experience playing the blues, the tools in this lesson will help you take your improv to the next level.
Minor Blues Scale
The first scale you should learn if you want to improvise blues piano is the minor blues scale. Here is the C Minor Blues Scale:
And here is the sheet music:
What are the notes of the C Minor Blues Scale?
The notes of the C Minor Blues Scale are C Eb F F# G and Bb. You can think of this scale as a modification of the C Major Scale using the following scale degrees: 1, flat 3, 4, sharp 4, 5, and flat 7.
Why do we play these particular flat notes? Because these are “blue notes”. Blue notes are when we lower certain notes of a major scale so that we have a “sad” or “dark” sound. In blues, we lower the 3rd, 5th, and 7th to create this dark sounding scale.
I recommend practicing the C Blues scale up and down the piano. Pay attention to the fingering in the sheet music. The fingering uses fingers 1 and 3 (thumb and middle finger) the whole way up and down. Try playing the scale in one octave. Then try it in multiple octaves up and down the piano. For more blues scale exercises, checkout our 10-Lesson Blues Challenge here.
Now that you have learned your C Minor Blues Scale, it’s time to learn the second most important blues scale: the Major Blues Scale.
Major Blues Scale (Gospel Scale)
The Major Blues Scale, or what I call the Gospel Scale, is the second scale you should learn if you want to improvise blues piano in a key. Here are the notes the C Major Blues scale:
And here is the sheet music.
What are the notes of the C Major Blues Scale?
The notes of the C Major Blues Scale are C D D# E G and A. Like the Minor Blues Scale, you can think of the Major Blues Scale as a modification of the C Major Scale using the following scale degrees: 1, 2, flat 3, 3, 5, and 6.
Happy Vs. Sad Sound
The Major Blues Scale is different from the minor blues scale because it has a “happier” sound. In the Major Blues scale, we only use one “blue” note, the Eb, whereas in the Minor Blues scale, we use 3 blues notes. In the Major Blues scale, we add the E natural to the scale, which is the major 3rd of a C major chord. This gives the scale a “bright” or “happy” sound compared to the Minor Blues Scale sound. By mixing the C Major Blues Scale and the C Minor Blues Scale together, you achieve 2 very unique sounds. This contrast will help make your blues improvisation sound even more interesting.
If you have some music experience, you might notice that the C Major Blues Scale uses the same notes of the A Minor Blues Scale:
Why is this? Because A Minor is the relative minor to C Major (they share the same scale). Therefore, when it comes to blues, every Major Blues scale will have a related minor blues scale. If you don’t know you major scales and relative minor scales, you can learn in our Level 1 Learning Track.
How do you know what the related major and minor blues scales are? Well, they are 3 half-steps apart. For example, if you want to find the relative Minor Blues Scale to F Major Blues, simply count down three half-steps from F, and you’ll land on D.
Now, I recommend practicing the C Major Blues scale up and down the piano. The fingering for this scale is a little different. You will use fingers 1 2 and 3 all the way up and down the piano. Practice this scale in one octave up and down, and then try it in multiple octaves. If you want further practice on the Major Blues Scale in multiple octaves, checkout our Quick Tip Improv Over Any Song With 1 Scale. And to master this scale over a progression, checkout our Extended Turnaround Improv course.
Congratulations! You’ve learned the two most important scales for improvising blues. Before we start improvising with these scales, it’s a good idea to practice these scales in a couple other common blues keys like F and G. A great resource for this is our Smart Sheet Music, which allows you to change the key of this lesson with the click of one button.
Now, it’s time to practice improvising lines with these scales. But before we do this, it’s important to practice connecting these scales.
Major Blues Scale & Minor Blues Scale Connecting Scales Exercise
If you want to truly be confident improvising with both the Major Blues and the Minor Blues Scale, then you need to practice connecting both of these scales.
In the exercise below, we will practice practice both of these scales over the first four measures of the 12-Bar Blues Form. We’ll play the C Major Blues Scale going up, and the C Minor Blues Scale going down. Check it out!
The trick with this exercise is use the connector note on the top D to connect you to the C Minor Blues Scale going down.
And when you come back up to play the Major Blues scale, make sure to use the connector note Bb on the bottom.
That’s the basic exercise! Now, I highly recommend that you practice this with the included backing track. You can download the backing track on this page after logging into your membership.You can also download the lesson sheet music on this page after logging into your membership.
Now that you can comfortably connect these scales, let’s practice improvising blues lines with the Major Blues Scale and the Minor Blues Scale.
Blues Improv With Major Blues Scale and Minor Blues Scale
How do you actually improvise sweet sounding blues lines with these scales? The key is to mix both scales as you play a line. For example, you might start you line with a few notes from the Minor Blues Scale, then play a few notes of the Major Blues Scale, and then end with the Minor Blues Scale.
Blues Lick #1
Here is an example of a line that you could play that mixes both scales:
Doesn’t that sound so cool? If you analyze the notes, you’ll discover that we are shifting between each scale. And this is the magic of this dual-scale approach – you get two sounds mixed in with your lines. For this particular line, we are using a device called a Blues Turn. You can learn more about Blues Turns in our 10-Lesson Blues Challenge 2.
Now, I recommend practicing this lick over the full 12-bar blues form. The beautiful thing is that this lick works over all of your chords. Let’s do another lick using both scales.
Blues Lick #2
For Lick #2, we will start with the Major Blues Scale and change between both scales. Check it out:
Doesn’t that sound sweet? For this lick, we are using a blues improv technique called harmonized slides. You can learn more about harmonized slide in our 10-Lesson Blues Challenge 1.
Putting It All Together
My final recommendation is to make up your own lines using these two scales. If you are struggling to come up with unique sounding lines, you can learn the exact steps I use to create blues lines in our 10 Lesson Blues Challenge 1 (Beginner/Intermediate) and 10-Lesson Blues Challenge 2 (Intermediate/Advanced).
If you want to learn more about blues in general, including different blues styles, bass lines, and improv techniques, checkout these courses:
- Rockin’ Blues Bass Lines (Level 2, Level 3)
- 10 Essential Blues Endings (Level 2, Level 3)
- Silent Night Blues Rhumba (Level 2, Level 3)
- Funky Blues Soloing (Level 2, Level 3)
- Cruella De Vil (Level 2, Level 3)
- Burlesque Blues
- 10-Lesson Blues Challenge (Level 2, Level 3)
- Slow Blues Left Hand Patterns (Level 2, Level 3)
- Bernie’s Slow Blues Lead Sheet (All Levels)
And for some inspiration on how I improvise a blues solo, checkout my Slow and Soulful Blues Improv.
Thanks for learning, and see you in the next Quick Tip!
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