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2 minutes reading time (425 words)

Blues 103-Improvisation

In the last two columns, we looked at the steps involved in composing and varying a basic Blues melody. The next step is to stretch the form even further by adding improvisation.

Blues scales

You know how it feels good to complain a little now and then? It gets your concerns off your chest and clears the air. Sometimes, yesterday's problems can even seem funny in retrospect. It's the same with the Blues. Somehow, folks feel better by listening to characteristic tongue-in-cheek Blues lyrics that emphasize life's worst moments ("My baby done left this town..."). To highlight the mixed feelings in the lyrics, improvising Blues musicians blend notes from both minor (sad) and major (happy) keys.

Major Blues scale

By mixing just one "blue note" into the otherwise cheerful sound of major third and sixth notes, the major blues scale suggests the mood of a not so great but still acceptable kind of day.

Minor Blues scale

With three blue notes, this scale implies the miserable mood of a terrible day where everything keeps going wrong.

Improvised solos

With Blues Boxes close at hand to provide a clear visual reminder of the progression, ask your student to "mess around" with either or both of these Blues scales in their right hand while maintaining a boogie accompaniment in their left.

While "mess around" may not sound like good pedagogy, deliberately vague directives can loosen up inexperienced improvisers or perfectionists by emphasizing process over product. 

Some students take to Blues improvisation right away. Others may need more prompting. Here are tips for coaching the latter:

Ask students to manipulate just three notes. For example, C, Bb, and G can be played at least three ways with no change to the rhythm.

Use words to suggest rhythms. They can be anything at all. Look for written text around your studio or ask your student questions:

Lead a call and response by playing a two-measure bluesy "question," to which the student "replies" with a similar lick.

Play a drum machine accompaniment or backing track set to a "Shuffle" or "Swing" feel for extra inspiration.

Encourage listening to Blues music at home to get a feel for the style.

Next time, we'll address putting the final frosting on the cake by adding stock bluesy intro and outros. Until then, enjoy your creative music-making journey.

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