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I had a guitar entrance exam yesterday regarding improvisation. The guy put on a A blues backing track and told me to improvise. As I'm not a blues guy myself, I went and improvised on the A major scale (Ionian mode). After a few seconds he stopped me and asked me if I was playing on the pentatonic, I said no and that I'm currently playing on the Ionian mode. He told me that the pentatonic is more appropriate to blues and to play on it. I said ok and proceeded to play on the F# minor pentatonic scale, since its A major's relative minor. He stopped me again and told me to play the A minor pentatonic scale, saying that's what gives it the blues feel- playing the minor scale on a major chord progression (Am pentatonic on A blues chord progression). He failed me at the test (even tho my improv wasn't anything close to bad).

Note: this was not a 'blues improvisation exam', but simply an improvisation exam.

Now my question; was my 'mistake' that serious? Yes, I'm not a blues guy and my improv was not so bluesy probably, but still, failing me felt totally out of the blue.

Edit for clarification, since this came out more as a rant: Is it obvious and known that minor pentatonic should be played on major chord progression (Am pentatonic on top of A) in blues, and are other scales (pentatonic on relative minor/other modes) used as much in blues improvisation.

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    I think the obvious answer is that yes, in the eyes of the adjudicator, your mistake was that serious. But I'm not clear on exactly what your question is. Are you asking why you failed the exam? Are you asking what would be expected at a blues gig? There's a lot of information missing here — especially what the purpose and extent of the audition was.
    – Aaron
    Jul 27 at 5:37
  • @Aaron Yes you're correct. I guess my question is- is it obvious and known that minor pentatonic should be played on major chord progression (Am pentatonic on top of A) in blues, and are other scales (pentatonic on relative minor/other modes) used as much in blues improvisation. I'll edit my question since its unclear.
    – Sapper
    Jul 27 at 5:50
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    'Failing me felt totally out of the blue,' - gettit?
    – Tim
    Jul 27 at 14:06
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    A lot of us don't live in US either. So it might be of use in an answer. It'll be useful for personal anecdotes, maybe.
    – Tim
    Jul 27 at 14:38
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    @blueskiwi I see what you meant now. BTW On the Scottish Pentatonic page, scroll down to the "Common Names" and you'll see it's also known by some [who?] as "blues major", and by many other names around the world. It's of course just a mode of the major pentatonic.
    – Theodore
    Jul 28 at 16:03

2 Answers 2

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There are a variety of scales that can be used in blues improvisation, depending somewhat on the specific style involved. However, using a A minor pentatonic over an A blues is the most basic. It's a very typical first scale taught in blues improvisation, and it would be reasonably expected in an audition or examination that this would be known.

An A major blues contains three main chords: A7, D7, and E7. The A minor pentatonic — A C D E G — contains pitches common to those chords so provides a simple way to begin improvising. A slightly more advanced improviser might use the A minor pentatonic over the A7 chord, then switch to different scales for the D7 and E7.

There are also blues scales, mixolydian scales, and bebop scales, all of which are frequently used in blues (or jazz) improvisation.

Blues itself comes in many variations with many different chords and alterations to those chords, so there is a corresponding proliferation of scales that could be used.

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  • Its so basic yet I had no idea. I always thought to find the relative minor for the pentatonic whenever I met with blues, that this is how its done. Appreciate the info.
    – Sapper
    Jul 27 at 6:19
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    "then switch to D minor pentatonic over D7" ...no I don't think so, that would sound wrong for the IV chord. E minor pentatonic over the E7 (the V chord) yes, but not on the IV chord, stick with A minor pentatonic for the D7. Basically the "minor melody over major chord" sound of blues only applies to the I and the V. Soloing-wise the IV chord is more like an extension of the I chord, the 7th giving it a more minor-key flavour (from perspective of the I chord, the home key).
    – blueskiwi
    Jul 27 at 14:39
  • @blueskiwi - funny, cos that's worked for loads of us for decades ('switch to Dm pent for D7'). Why the heck wouldn't it work? If Am pent works over A7 and Em pent over E7, then Dm pent has to work over D7. And it always has. And always will. Yes, stick with Am pent over D7, but, boring. Several notes belong to both, though...
    – Tim
    Jul 27 at 14:52
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    it sounds wrong and inept on a major key blues, that only works for "minor key" blues where the chords are minor too. the IV chord does not have a minor/major clash like the I and V do, in idiomatic blues
    – blueskiwi
    Jul 27 at 14:57
  • I have to chime in and agree with blueskiwi. It logically makes sense to say Dm pent works over D7 but as a IV chord the F creates a rub with the key of A to my ear. Blues players tend to improvise over tonalities as opposed to chords like jazz players do. If making a change my preferred option is to use A major pent over the I then switch to Am pent for the IV. Jul 27 at 16:04
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It's common to use the minor pent. over a Blues, and most Blues will use major, or more likely dominant seventh chords throughout. Major pent. will work, but won't sound too bluesy. It'll sound fine over the tonic (I), but not work over IV or V so well. You moving to F♯m pent. gave you exactly the same set of notes,(as A major pent.) no wonder he stopped you again!

Your teacher should have warned you that minor pent. works over both major and minor Blues songs, but major pent. will not work over minor Blues.

The main notes that make something Blues are ♭3, ♭5 and ♭7, (the 1st and last of which occur in minor pent.); none of which you would be using with major pent. No wonder he stopped you. You should still have played a decent solo over the sequence, but it wouldn't have sounded too bluesy.

Blues players will usually mix major and minor pents. in their playing, adding bends to particular notes. These would be expected in someone asked to improvise over a Blues sequence. And probably there was none of that, as the notes you stuck to didn't allow that to happen. Or maybe you bent notes that shouldn't need bending?

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