This article first appeared and can still be found in the educational blogs of JMI (Jazz Music Institute) at
Blues Phraseology - Part I
This is the first in a series of articles aimed at developing a better understanding of the nature of blues phraseology and its importance in jazz and bebop.
Part 1 is designed to clarify the distinction between the true nature of blues phraseology and the somewhat troublesome “Blues Scale”, and to guide students toward a better understanding of blues phraseology.
Part 2 demonstrates how blues phraseology can be utilised within jazz and bebop in the context of the “major ii-V-I”.
Part 3 demonstrates how blues phraseology can be utilised within jazz and bebop in the context of the “minor ii-V-i”, and as jazz language against the various secondary dominant chords that can appear in minor key harmony.
Caveat 1: Countless scholarly works exist that discuss the origins and cultural significance of the Blues and the Blues Scale, and these articles do not intend to add to them.
Caveat 2: The articles are not about the 12-bar form known as “the blues”. They are inspired by a definition of the blues given by Reggie Thomas during an Essentially Ellington workshop:
"The blues is a way of articulating melody."
Blues Phraseology v. Misleading Blues Scale
This article is pragmatically aimed at providing a direct method of understanding and reproducing blues phraseology. Familiarity and competence with blues phraseology in all keys is a necessary first step before exploring ways of utilising it in jazz and bebop settings.
A Very Quick Look at the Origins of the “Blues Scale”
In The Music Of The Most Ancient Nations (Engel, C. 1870 John Murray, London) Dr Carl Engels describes the tuning of a Senagambian mbira (thumb piano) as: A D#/Eb E D G A C D. Although the order is different, this clearly constitutes what ice call the A Blues Scale or the A minor Blues Scale. (24% of kidnapped Africans transported to America came from this region, now Senegal and Gambia.)
In early twentieth century America, “Western” music theorists analysed African American music and independently derived more or less the same scale.
Why is the Blues Scale Misleading?
The Blues Scale is best likened to an alphabet - a collection of elements that can be assembled into both meaningful and meaningless combinations, just like the English alphabet. Knowledge of the scale does not guarantee or even engender knowledge of the language - imagine learning the Coptic alphabet and then assuming you could speak Ancient Egyptian.
Blues phraseology is a language. Languages are learned by listening and copying. The Blues Scale can help in the learning process only by reminding the student which of the twelve notes they may choose from. The restricted choices mean a student can predict the sound that certain combinations of notes will produce, and can therefore play 'by ear' from the earliest beginnings of their journey into improvisation.
The Blues Scale is also misleading because it simply presents six notes without differentiating their function or hierarchy other than designating a tonic.
A Better Description of Blues Phraseology.
Blues melody is fundamentally pentatonic. This is key. You can reduce most blues melody to a simple pentatonic melody, but in doing so some of the bluesy nature is lost. The “blue note” is best thought of, not as a melodic element in itself, but rather as part of the embellishment of the notes between which it sits, the 4th and 5th. It is this embellishment that gives the pentatonic melodies their “bluesiness”.
If we are to have an “alphabet” of the blues, it needs to look more like this:
Fig 1: Alphabet of Blues Elements
This “alphabet” contains the five unembellished notes of the pentatonic scale, (since they are not necessarily always embellished,) and the most common examples of embellished versions of the 4th and 5th degrees. (This list of embellishments is in no way exhaustive, but certainly sufficient to get started.) Notice that the “blue note” does not appear as a discrete element.
You can create authentic blues phraseology by playing strong pentatonic melodies,
substituting blues embellishments for the plain 4th and 5th of the pentatonic scale.
Converting Pentatonic Melody to Blues Language
Consider the following melody snippet - play it on your instrument with a swing feel, and you will hear that it is clearly a bluesy melody.
Fig 2: Unembellished pentatonic melody
Now here are two examples of the same snippet, with some blues embellishments substituted.
Fig 3: Pentatonic melody with blues embellishments
(The embellishments are written for piano. If your instrument is capable of bending notes, that is an equally legitimate way of achieving the blues effect. Guitarists can slide, bend, hammer-on and pull-off to achieve a variety of expressions.)
The next question should be “How do I articulate this?”, and the answer is “By listening and copying.” The notation could be expanded to include a variety of articulation marks regarding note-to-note dynamic differences, legato and staccato, but this would not guarantee the correct execution. Only listening can do that.
The following is a collection of familiar blues phrases presented first as pentatonic melodies, then with blues embellishment.
Fig 4 Some pentatonic melodies and their bluer versions
How to practice blues phraseology
There are probably a million different ways, but here is a method that allows you to focus on a single scale for as long as you like, while still providing a little harmonic movement.
Use iRealBook or your preferred sequencing software to set up a loop - one bar of Cm7, one bar of F7, or use the audio file below, and play blues language in C minor. It's of the utmost importance that you do not take the 'hit and hope' approach - random combinations of notes make no more sense than random combinations of letters. You’ve heard plenty of blues language in every rock guitar solo ever recorded; try to imitate the phraseology that you are familiar with. In this context, 'cliche' is not a dirty word. You must learn the cliche first in order to speak the language freely.
When you’re ready, transpose to a new key. Repeat through all keys. (This is not one day’s work, but you could reasonably expect to achieve some proficiency in 12 keys within a week.)
You need not wait until you have achieved mastery of all 12 keys before proceeding to the next part in this series; in fact, a quick look at Part 2 might convince you of the value of applying Part 1.