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I'm learning Justin Guitar's beginner's course and just reached the blues improvisation lesson. I know the notes in the A minor pentatonic scale. To improvise with someone playing A minor 12-bar blues over and over (A7 A7 A7 A7 D7 D7 A7 A7 E7 D7 A7 E7), can i just play any notes of that scale at any time? Should I try to confine certain notes to certain chords or beats?

Of course whatever sounds good is good, but I'm curious if there are some other "rules" or rather guidelines? The only guideline that I know of is to stick to notes from the A minor pentatonic scale.

  • I'm a little surprised that nobody has mentioned major pentatonic scales here. A major pentatonic scale has the same notes as the minor pentatonic scale a minor third (three half steps) below it. So you can play an A major pentatonic scale by playing the notes from F♯ minor pentatonic. This can give you a nice new sound; for a blues in A you might try playing A major pentatonic on the A7, A minor pentatonic on the D7, and E major pentatonic on the E7. You still need to pay attention to how the scales sound against the chords, as the very good answers below suggest. – David Bowling Feb 2 '18 at 20:54
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You can, and there are many who do! However, you'll find if you play each note separately over each chord, that some will fit better than others. You'll also find that some individual notes will fit to two, and at a pinch, all three chords.

The root note, A, fits well over A7 and also D7, but not so well over E7. The next note, C, fits very well over D7, and in a bluesy manner over A7, although a lot of better players give it a tweak - a bend up, hinting , or even arriving, at C#, the maj. 3rd of A, where it fits perfectly.

I won't take each note in turn - that's your job! You may feel some fit better, or not at all... Obviously, the better fitting ones will be reflected in the prevalent chord, so will work best - on beats 1 and 3, with passing notes which maybe don't belong at all in between.

The other big issue is that, as said, you can widdle away with Am pent. notes all through, but how about Dm pent. notes on D7, etc? You'll actually find some notes from one are also from the other. That's why it works by itself - to a degree.

When you get a bit fed up with just those 5 notes (from A, or from a, D and E), there's a bitter-sweet note that sounds horrible and gorgeous together, it lives between the third and fourth note you play in min. pent. The blue note!!

And, well done for recognising 'guidelines' instead of 'rules'!

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    I appreciate your point that each person should go through the exercise of testing each note him/herself, but your advice on the A and C is super helpful. +1 I would love to see a discussion of the other notes too. (e.g., playing D over the A7 is unstable and wants to resolve; playing A over E7 isn't as strong because an altered sound is preferred to a sus sound; or whatever you think!) – jdjazz Jan 27 '18 at 17:43
  • @jdjazz - I'd have thought that D note over A7 is the same as A note over E7 - both sort of 'sus 4', but it'll depend where you are in the sequence and what else you play just before or after, and obviously where it comes in the particular bar. I wasn't going to provide a 'to do' list. It's too personal, and I prefer people who ask questions like this to go away and do a bit of homework. For their own good, you understand... – Tim Jan 27 '18 at 18:01
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    Fair enough. I agree that it's personal--I just found the couple examples you provided so helpful and wondered what other wisdom/advice you had about the other notes. But doing the work oneself is certainly the most important thing for improving on one's instrument. – jdjazz Jan 27 '18 at 18:15
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One of the most common improv tools is a technique called 'target notes'. These are the main notes of your improvised melody, and they will typically be one of the chord tones of the chord for that measure. For example, in the first bar of A7, the main notes of chord are A, C#, and E. Pick one of these notes as the 'target note' and then highlight it by playing it on the quarter note beats (the beats that the kick and snare hit). The other notes can be any note from the scale (or outside of it!), and add color to the melody. By focusing on playing chord tones on the quarter note beats, your improvised melody will sound more organized, and is the beginning to understanding phrasing.

You might have noticed that the notes of the chord A are A, C#, and E, but the note in the A minor pentatonic scale is C, not C#. This is a common technique in blues where you use both the major 3rd and minor 3rd, sometimes right on top of each other. When you are soloing over this progression, you will probably want to use the note C as a target note, which will clash with the C# in the chord in a very 'bluesy' way. You can also bend the C up to C#, and then release it back down. You will probably recognize that sound from many blues songs when you play it.

Once you are comfortable using the 3 notes of the chord as target notes, try using the 7th. For A7, this will be the note G. The 7th is a very colorful tone of each chord, and emphasizing it as a target note can liven up your solos. By writing a simple quarter or half note melody of target notes, and then improvising around them, you will sound like you are playing a deliberate song, and will come to be able to create melodies from scratch, even if you have never heard the tune before.

  • Aren't beats 2 and 4 in 4/4 time the upbeats? 1 and 3 are the downbeats - usually the points where the kick drum is played. – Tim Jan 30 '18 at 8:16
  • That is true, I probably should have called them the up beats to be more accurate, but I was thinking in terms of the sound of the beat, the snare is the strong beat of the measure, and would be a typical place to place chord tones, especially at the beginning of learning to improvise. – Alex Y Jan 31 '18 at 18:30
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    Whichever they get called, generally we determine the time sig. and beginning of each bar by listening to a few bars. The first beat rarely has a snare hit on it - that's the kick drum's role. Same with beat 3 in 4/4, and that's where the chord changes, if there are any, will be, on 1 and 3. I don't often find a change of chord on beats 2 or 4. – Tim Jan 31 '18 at 22:38
  • The more I think, I agree with your comments and edited my answer to clarify – Alex Y Feb 2 '18 at 19:31
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You can play any note from the scale at any time and it will never sound completely wrong, but each note will have a different sound based on the chord being played.

I suggest to best way to learn the combinations and how they sound is to both improvise your own solos and learn other people’s solos, or at least parts of them. That way you are training your fingers and your mind at the same time.

A few immediate guidelines are that the keynote (A in this case) is a very important note that sounds like it fits better than the others, and less so with the fourth and fifth (D and E in this case). Overusing any of those three can quickly get boring. The third and the seventh (C and G) add more flavor but can clash more often.

One of us could write out a list of notes and combinations but it’s much better to learn to feel your way through it.

Oh one more thing about your last sentence. Once you have a good feel for the five notes of the pentatonic minor scale, you might start experimenting with notes outside of it. The guideline to stick to the scale is good for beginners. If you start learning other people’s solos you’ll find very early on that they will go beyond the scale to add even more color. Notes to experiment with include (for the key of A) C#, D# and G#.

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It's hard to play the same scale over every chord and sound great. The 4th scale degree (D over A7) should be used as a passing tone, not a tone to dwell on. Either slide/bend it up to the 5 quickly, or play something like 5 - 4 - b3 - 3 - 1.

Any note that's in the chord will sound good with that chord. Here's one approach:

Over A7, use the A Mixolydian scale using the flat 3 sliding up to the 3, and SKIPPING the 4 (the D) when ASCENDING:

A B C-C# E F# G A

In terms of scale degrees, that's 1 2 b3-3 5 6 b7 1

When DESCENDING, SKIP the 2, and use the 4 ONLY in the sequence 4 - b3 - 3:

A G F# E D C-C# A

In terms of scale degrees, that's 1 b7 6 5 4 b3-3 1

Do the same thing over the other chords:

Over D7, play D Mixolydian as described above:

D E F-F# A B C D (ascending)

D C B A G F-F# D (descending)

Over E7, play E Mixolydian as described above:

E F# G-G# B C# D E (ascending)

E D C# B A G-G# E (descending)

  • Of course, there are endless ways to improvise over a 12 bar blues, but this answer seems to mostly ignore the OP question of how to improvise using a pentatonic minor scale in favor of improvising instead using mixolydian scales. – David Bowling Jan 30 '18 at 23:48

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