@slim mentioned in this answer that:

In Blues music for example, some notes are deliberately flattened -- but others are not, and a listener with experience of the Blues would still spot badly pitched notes.

While I have long been aware of flattening and partial bends in blues, I had not realised this was a standard part of blues and can't seem to find any definitive description or instruction.

So my question is:

When will notes be flattened, and by how much, in the blues tradition?

  • 1
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_note - 3rd, 5th and 7th. When I'm feeling bluesy, the main thing I do "automatically" is to play thirds that are somewhere between major and minor third, by starting on the minor third and bending up. Wikipedia draws attention to the phenomenon of playing minor thirds over a major chord changes.
    – slim
    Jun 1 '15 at 11:49

Tim is correct that it's about the 3rd, 5th, and 7th, but I don't agree that in the blues they are flattened by exactly one semi-tone. That is an approximation when writing down the notes or when playing them on a piano, but on any instrument on which in-between notes can be played, these notes will be intonated differently. Especially the 3rd and the 7th will be played at a pitch that is somewhere in between the corresponding minor and major intervals. So when playing the blues scale, traditionally notated with a minor third and a minor seventh, these two notes are usually played a bit sharp.

In my perception things are a bit different with the b5, mainly because that note is neither part of the major scale nor of the minor scale, so it sounds a bit off anyway, even when played as a perfectly intonated b5. So I think that that note is usually not changed as much as are the (b)3 and (b)7. However, often notes are bent between the 4 and the 5, so in practice any pitch around the b5 will be reached, but not as a stable note that is held for a longer time.

  • There are a few blues solos that split the tritone into five or six different notes, but as you say, none is held for long.
    – Tim
    Jun 1 '15 at 15:50

I thought that the flattened notes in Blues were the 3rd, 5th and 7th. However, they're traditionally taken to the next semitone down, as in C, E to Eb, G to Gb and B to Bb. That puts them squarely on the notes mentioned, rather than 'just a bit flat', which may be what's mentioned here. The same three notes are sometimes hinted at, particularly on instruments which can 'play in the cracks', like guitars, by partial bends that are often called 'quarter tones'. Best ask @slim!


Every note in the blues scale gets bent all the time. Although we almost always bend up, we can increase the tension of a bend by approaching the target note, but not quite reaching it (which is hitting it flat.)

In order to get the hang of this, practice octave double bends on the top two strings.You hold a note with the index finger on the first ring and then bend a note on the B string with your third or fourth finger until they are in unison. you can get the sense of how much tension is created by not pushing all the way up to the target simply by stopping short.

The third and seventh are only flat relative to and clash with major and dominant progressions. Only the flat five retains its tension in minor over the I-7 chord.

This is all a vast oversimplification because the blues scale is always played on the root of the key, not chord, so as the chords change so does the sound of the scale, and the notes you are more likely to bend also change. So be prepared to bend them all.

To be honest, however I believe most of the times you have a poor string bending sound it is because the player fails to use wrist rotation to power the bend instead pushing straight up with their fingers which makes a very lame sound. Also the string resists you in the upward part of the band yet it pushes you in the downward part called the release. so turn up and let the string push you back down to create an even bend and release.

Remember we are used to hearing the variable acceleration of the wrists circular motion pushing the string. The pitches are easier to spot when they ramp up properly.

Be very wary of Wikipedia. Btw the 7 and 8 note blues scales on it are bogus and yes I read all the articles they cited.

  • Hi Jay - this isn't answering my question at all. I know the how (have been playing blues for over 25 years)
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Jun 2 '15 at 5:26
  • I think my answer was well within a reasonable interpretation of the question. Since there are far more beginners than master players I try to not assume that what we may see as obvious will be apparent to the less experienced. Having not heard you play, I couldn't be sure.
    – Jay Skyler
    Jun 12 '15 at 10:40
  • Your 1st, 3rd and 4th paragraphs are related to the question, but the others could be removed (as they answer a different question) - then I'd upvote.
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Jun 12 '15 at 10:44

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.