Introduction to Blues

The invention of the Blues

Blues was created in the late 19th century in the United States, where slaves, who worked on cotton plantations, chanted songs and laments that gave rise to the style.

It was gospel music being sung, since the precarious conditions did not allow for the “luxury” of using instruments. Later, this style entered the church, where it packed the services practiced there.

Blues has developed over the years, influencing and giving rise to other styles such as jazz, rock, soul, etc.

But after all, what is blues?

What everyone knows as blues is the chord sequence: First degree, Fourth degree, First degree, Fifth degree, Fourth degree, First degree. In short, this is the simplest and easiest sequence that characterizes blues. Now let’s see this in detail with the bars, defining the rests in each degree:

| 1st degree | 1st degree | 1st degree | 1st degree |

| 4th degree | 4th degree |

| 1st degree | 1st degree |

| 5th degree | 4th degree | 1st degree | 1st degree, 5th degree |

Note: The sequence is usually ended by placing the fifth degree (in orange) in the middle of the last bar, before repeating everything again. Example where the first degree is G:

| G7 | G7 | G7 | G7 |

| C7 | C7 |

| G7 | G7 |

| D7 | C7 | G7 | G7 D7|

Bar lines of the Blues

Notice how the chords in this example are all sevenths. This is a peculiarity of the blues. Another detail is that blues contains exactly 12 bars. Just count the bars we described above up there and check.

Great, now notice that we started with 4 bars in the first degree. Then we have two bars in the fourth degree and then we return to the first degree by making two more bars in it. Here comes the “climax” moment, where, with each measure, we play a different degree: fifth degree, fourth degree and first degree. Finally, we split the last bar into two parts, playing the first degree and the fifth degree within it, then we start all over again. Hear this example:

In short, we can define blues as being a 12-bar structure where we play with 3 chords (first, fourth and fifth degrees), all with sevenths.

This is a very simplistic definition and does not cover all variations of blues, but since this topic is only introductory, this definition helps to memorize the basics about the style.

Another example of blues

Well, another way to build this blues that we show is, instead of playing 4 bars in the first degree, play 1 bar in the first degree, 1 bar in the fourth degree and 2 bars again in the first degree. So, instead of staying 4 bars on the same chord, we vary a little while also playing the fourth degree in one measure. The structure looks like this:

| 1st degree | 4th degree | 1st degree | 1st degree |

| 4th degree | 4th degree |

| 1st degree | 1st degree |

| 5th degree | 4th degree | 1st degree | 1st degree, 5th degree |

Note that the only change we made was in the second bar, which used to be First degree and now became Fourth degree.

Great, now that we know the basics of how to make blues, it’s time to know how to improvise on top of a blues song.

How to improvise over the blues

There are many, many, many resources to use in blues. In this topic we will restrict ourselves to just one: the pentatonic scale. Later on, after you have studied other topics and mastered other subjects well, we will return to blues by exploring more advanced features, enabling you to become a master of the blues. For now, just stay on the pentatonic scale and learn how to use it. In fact, 99% of musicians do nothing but the pentatonic when improvising a blues solo, just because they don’t know anything else.

So let’s start, what pentatonic scale can we use to improvise in blues? The minor pentatonic scale of the first degree. For example, on the previous base we worked on, the first degree was G, so you’re going to use the minor pentatonic scale of G. That’s it! Now take the base that we created previously and be happy applying the minor pentatonic scale of G on top of it!

Note: in the case of string instruments, try to use the pentatonic scale on the entire fretboard of the instrument! This will make you a great improviser, someone who explores all possible spaces. Check out the shapes at the end of the article “pentatonic scale” to study this scale to its fullest extent.

Perhaps you are thinking: “Why can we use the minor pentatonic of the first degree?”; “Where did this rule come from?” Well, the explanation for this is a little complex. For now, just take it as a rule and practice that this way. In the future, by studying this book, you will reach your own conclusions thanks to a greater baggage of acquired concepts, rest assured.

Great, you completed our initial blues study. If you want to put these concepts into practice, search on YouTube for 12 bar blues backing track and you will find numerous bases with this format.

Don’t stop practicing what you’ve learned. The process of fluency and mastery over any subject in music is long and requires dedication; but it’s also a lot of fun! Dedicate yourself and you will reap the rewards! If you didn’t know the blues, this study will certainly be very important for your musicality. Now it’s your turn to spend a lot of time on the instrument practicing this study.


Go to: Blues scale 

Back to: Module 5