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the blues scale and 12-bar-blues

The Blues Scale

This page is meant for beginning musicians, who may not have a lot of theory. Unfortunately, having grown up playing tuba in a lot of bands, I might be using terminology and notation and forgetting that not everyone knows it! Feel free to contact me at kirkjerk at gmail (dot com) if I can describe things better for you.

(Update: if for some reason you want to hear the kind of stuff I learned to do with the blues scale as a hack "pianist" and middlin' fair tuba player in high school, see this tape: 92 Blues and Bass)

One well-known "trick" someone taught me is playing notes on the blues scale.

In C, that goes:

C  Eb  F  F#  G  Bb C
(Remember, # means "sharp" or up a half step, b means "flat" or down a half step.)

It's a nice little run. By itself, it sounds kind of musical. You can build a really nice sounding solo just by running up and down it and putting in a little swing:

But music theory is more fun when you put it into practice - so here it is, with trumpet fingerings:

C  Eb  F  F# G  Bb C
0  23  1  2  0  1  0
Now here's where things get a little weird. (and probably one of the reasons School of Honk encourages new players to play by ear instead of getting hung up on all this detail...) If a trumpeteer is playing what's called a "Bb Trumpet" (the most common, especially in schools) then they might play those notes I just listed, but when they do they aren't REALLY playing from C to shining C - instead, if you went to a piano or a guitar or your electronic tuner, you could hear the first note isn't "C", it's "Bb" ("B-flat"). Or as the terminology goes, it's "Concert Bb" - "concert" meaning "the actual note as heard on something like a piano, not the note the trumpet player thinks they're playing". So every note a trumpet player plays, the "actual" sound is 2-half steps below that!

Confusing, right? You betcha! One of those things that's a mix of deep music theory and historical accident, and it can make it tough to ask a musician "what key are you playing in" so you can play along ... you may have to translate to or from "concert" pitch. (Clarinets are also usually in the same boat of playing "Their C" and having that be Bb in Concert Pitch, and so are Tenor Saxophones. Alto Saxes and Bari Saxes are Eb / "E-flat")

Still I had to mention the weirdness because... trombone players aren't that kind of weird! (They're their own special kind of weird.) Their notes are generally written and spoken of in "concert pitch", so when they play a Bb, they're REALLY playing a Bb, etc.

But "Bb" is a pitch that sounds good to human ears - it's more common that a street band will play a song in Bb than in C - and so I'm going to write this page focused on "Concert Bb"/"C for Trumpets" scales.

BLUES SCALE IN CONCERT Bb:
Note for Trumpets:         C  Eb  F  F# G  Bb C
Valves for Trumpets:       0  23  1  2  0  1  0
Note for Trombone:         Bb Db  Eb E  F  Ab Bb
Trombone Slide Position:   1  5   3  2  1  3  1
Of course, you don't have to just play the blues scale in C/Concert-Bb, this page has it listed starting on all sorts of notes. (Now, when I think/write about the scale, I tend to put in both flats and sharps, which is kind of a music-geek-faux-pas, and so the scales on that page tend to write all in flats or sharps, but remember the sharp version of a note is the same as the flat version of the note above it.) But, that would be a lot of scales to learn! So I'm going to keep it simple and focus on 3 starting notes (for reasons I'll get into below) -- Concert Bb, Concert Eb, and Concert F, or in other words a C, F and G for trumpets.
CONCERT Bb BLUES SCALE:
Note for Trumpets:         C  Eb  F  F# G  Bb C
Valves for Trumpets:       0  23  1  2  0  1  0
Note for Trombone:         Bb Db  Eb E  F  Ab Bb
Trombone Slide Position:   1  5   3  2  1  3  1

CONCERT Eb BLUES SCALE:
Note for Trumpets:        F  Ab  Bb  B  C  Eb  F 
Valves for Trumpets:      1  23  1   2  0  2   1
Note for Trombone:        Eb Gb  Ab  A  Bb Db  Eb
Trombone Slide Position:  3  5   3   2  1  2   3

CONCERT F BLUES SCALE:
Note for Trumpets:        G  Bb  C   C# D  F  G
Valves for Trumpets:      0  1   0   12 1  1  0
Note for Trombone:        F  Ab  Bb  B  C  Eb F
Trombone Slide Position:  1  3   1   4  3  3  1

12 Bar Blues

So there are a lot of keys you can play a Blues Scale in, why focus on those 3 in particular?

In American music, there's a very common "progression" (the order of background chords) called 12 Bar Blues. Once you hear it you'll probably think, that sounds familiar...

I have a bassline I like called "Space Cadet" that follows that pattern (I borrowed it from the Atari 2600 game Moon Patrol) - here is JP Honk jamming to it:

So besides letters for sounds (C, A, Bb, etc) sometimes in music we put roman numbers to 'em. So if C is the "I" chord, F is the "IV", and G is the "V" chord.

Using those numbers, then, "12 Bar Blues" goes:

I I I I / IV IV I I / V IV I I
If you listen in that video, you can hear that pattern - So, here is that progression for Space Cadet / 12 Bar Blues for Trumpet and Trombone:
           Chord  I  I  I  I  / IV IV I  I  / V  IV I  I
      Bb Trumpet  C  C  C  C  / F  F  C  C  / G  F  C  C
Concert/Trombone  Bb Bb Bb Bb / Eb Eb Bb Bb / F  Eb Bb Bb
So if all else fails, play that basic note on the right measure and you'll sound good - but if you use the right blues scale I showed you above for each measure, you'll sound great!

Another song that uses that "12 bar blues" progression is Green Onions - you can hear the School of Honk play it. BUT - it's in a different key! Instead of having trumpet C / Concert Bb to start everything, it uses trumpet G / Concert F.

Writing out the chords for this key... that's

           Chord  I  I  I  I  / IV IV I  I  / V  IV I  I
      Bb Trumpet  G  G  G  G  / C  C  G  G  / D  C  G  G
Concert/Trombone  F  F  F  F  / Bb Bb F  F  / C  Bb F  F

So here's all the blues scales it needs - notice that 2 of them (concert F and Bb) were ones we used for "Space Cadet" Bb Blues- all we need to do is add the Concert C / Trumpet D in

CONCERT F BLUES SCALE:
Note for Trumpets:        G  Bb  C   C# D  F  G
Valves for Trumpets:      0  1   0   12 1  1  0
Note for Trombone:        F  Ab  Bb  B  C  Eb F
Trombone Slide Position:  1  3   1   4  3  3  1

CONCERT Bb BLUES SCALE:
Note for Trumpets:         C  Eb  F  F# G  Bb C
Valves for Trumpets:       0  23  1  2  0  1  0
Note for Trombone:         Bb Db  Eb E  F  Ab Bb
Trombone Slide Position:   1  5   3  2  1  3  1

CONCERT C BLUES SCALE
Note for Trumpets:        D  F  G  Ab A  C  D
Valves for Trumpets(low)  13 1  0  23 12 0  1
Valves for Trumpets(high) 1  1  0  23 12 0  1
Note for Trombones:       C  Eb F  F# G  Bb C
Trombone Slide (low)      6  3  1  5  4  1  3
Trombone Slide (high)     3  3  1  5  4  1  3
So notice on that C scale, I gave both high and low finger/slide positions - they only differ on the first note, but still - starting on the high C might be too high. (If you're wondering, why is music in all these different keys, that's one of the reasons - sometimes changing the base key a piece of music is in puts in a different "range", either not as high or low, so it's easier for a certain instrument to play or a certain voice to sing.)