I have a question which is bugging me for some time.

Given I have a classic 12 bar blues in Am, what notes should be played during chord changes? In this particular case, we have A (chord 1), D (chord 2) and E (chord 5). What I usually end up doing is playing Am over all chord changes and maybe, very rarely, try something rhythmic but atonal (random, but rhythmic) on the 5th chord to create tension.

I also tried to switch keys on chord changes, e.g. went from Am to Dm, but it's not sounding as it should as i'm not fluent and fast enough to change the keys in time. I'm not sure this is the right way and therefore I'm not investing more time in this until i get some feedback.

Is there a recommended way (according to theory) to play over chord changes? I couldn't find any straight answer.

  • I'm actually not sure what a "classic 12 bar blues in Am" would be. Classic blues is typically not a minor blues. Don't get me wrong, I love playing over minor blues but it's not all that "classic" so I'm just wondering if I'm understanding you correctly. Are the chords you're talking about: Am, Dm, E7 or Am, D7, E7 or A7,D7,E7? Is there a song you can point to that has chords similar to the ones you're asking about? – John Scalo Sep 21 '17 at 21:39
  • I'm reffering to the standard 12 bar blues progression (chords 1,4,5 as 1111 4411 5511). The chords can be changed with any chord variations, e.g. A or A7. In my head i see this as a baseline which is adjusted depending on the key you play. For example in a minor context i would play Am, Dm, Em. In a major context, it would be something like A,D,E. This makes perfect sens in my head, don't know if it's 100% correct though. I hope this clears it. Thx – Gabi Sep 23 '17 at 13:47

You haven't given enough info., But let's assume you mean you're playing Am pent. notes. You can just about get away with using those over all three chords, but beat' in mind there are some avoid notes, which will still sound o.k. on unemphasised parts of bars.

Yes, you will sound better 'playing the changes',so moving to Dm pent on Dm bars, and Em pent. on Em bars will always sound like you know where you are and what you're doing! The E may be major, so E maj. pent. would be a better fit.

A simple way round speed for now can be use the shape you know well, and move it around - up five frets more for Dm and another two for Em. It's not so cohesive, but it'll get you started.

So, in summary, always try to play the changes, whatever they are. Listen to a good player, and even without the chords being played underneath, you'll know which one they're on.

  • So keeping the same scale as the key alone (Am or Am pentatonic in this case) works but it sounds better if one was to move to other scales which need to match the chord changes (e.g. play Dm or Dm penta on D chord change) and this way it will sound better. Is there any other method to apply to this? – Gabi Sep 21 '17 at 18:03
  • Also, you mentioned that in this context the E may be major. How is that possible in an Am context? I know that the chord progression on Am key starting from I to VII is: A minor, B diminished, C major, D minor, E minor, F major, G major, right? – Gabi Sep 21 '17 at 18:07
  • Not entirely right. The notes which are played in Am can include F, F# G and G#. This means that in Am, an E major or seventh chord could and often is used, containing that G#. So E maj or E7 are commonly found.The theory reflects this when you go deep enough, but experience will also prove it to be true. – Tim Sep 21 '17 at 19:02
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    Too early to mark as accepted answer! Others may give you more info! – Tim Sep 21 '17 at 19:30
  • You are correct, I've unmarked it :). Your answer was similar with my assumptions, and this way I managed to check myself. But let's see, maybe others will have other interesting answers. Thx – Gabi Sep 21 '17 at 21:03

Interestingly, one of the ways you can easily break down blues soloing is to check out cross-harp harmonica. Harmonicas are, more or less, a single octave, the notes tend to be fairly clear, and many of the examples you can find are not so fast as to get completely lost.

Emulate the cross-harp on your guitar.

  • I had no idea cross harp is another name for harmonica :). Nice – Gabi Sep 21 '17 at 21:13
  • @Gabi - cross harp is the term for playing a diatonic harmonica 'in another key' , as in a song in E, the A harmonica gets used when playing blues, for instance. Not certain how this relates to this question though. – Tim Sep 22 '17 at 7:54
  • @tim: as for how it relates to the question it is a technique for soloing/improvisation on 12-bar blues that is very easy to learn by ear; for which there is a ton of simple instruction easily available; and is a way to play over chord changes. – Yorik Sep 22 '17 at 14:25

I love the blues because there's so many ways to approach improvising over it. I'll offer up two of my favorite approaches with this caveat: these scales, modes, and chords feel a lot like rules and when it comes to music (and life actually) my mantra is this:

  1. Follow the rules
  2. Break the rules
  3. Make the rules

So in other words, learn to follow these guidelines, then try throwing in some different notes here and there, and even switching between the different frameworks, and eventually (down the road) throw it all out the window and make your own rules.

I'm also assuming the chords are A7, D7, E7. For minor blues where the chords are Am, Dm, E7 (or Em) I would have a totally different answer.

Approach #1: blues scale

This one's simple: play the A blues scale over all three chords. You probably know this already but in case not the blues scale in A is:

A C D D# E G

So it's just a minor pentatonic with the D# passing note thrown in. Using just this scale you can get so much mileage it's not even funny. After all, B.B. King, Albert Collins, Albert King, &c &c played almost nothing but those 6 notes their entire career.

Of course you don't just play those notes up and down in sequence over and over. That would sound awful. To avoid that repetition learn to rest on the right notes for the right chords.

On A7, rest on A, C, and E.

On D7, rest on A, C, and D.

On E7, rest on D, D#, E, and G.

And since this is the blues you'll want to be bending notes liberally. The most common bends to use are (on the top 3 strings):

D to E

D to D#

G to A

If you want to spice it up a bit, try throwing in F# over the D7 (F# is the 3rd of D) and B over the E7 (B is the 5th of E).

Approach #2: jazz blues feel

Here you play the mixolydian scales (or modes to be accurate) over the A and D chords and play the blues scale over the E chord.

So over A you play: A B C# D E F# G

Over D you play: A B C D E F# G (note the only difference is C vs C# here)

And over E7 you play: A C D D# E G

I'm not even getting into rhythm because that depends so much on the song, suffice to say rhythm is crucial. With bad or boring rhythm, great notes sound awful. With amazing rhythm, almost everything sounds great no matter the notes. For now just think about mixing things up. If you're in 4/4, try grouping your 8th notes into groups of 3, 3, and 2 (adds up to 8 for a full measure) or 3, 3, 3, 3, and 4 (adds up to 16 for two full measures).

Hope that makes sense and is helpful. Good luck!

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