Everybody wants to break out of the standard pentatonic box. While the standard pentatonic box is a great start for learning to improvise, particularly over the blues – it can soon become limiting. Here are three simple methods you can use to “break out of the box”.
They will expand your sound, provoke new ideas, and allow you to play “through” the changes rather than just “over” them.
The 12-Bar Blues
What does it mean to play through the changes? To begin with, “the changes” in our context for the next few minutes refers to blues changes. The 12-bar blues is a time-tested, universally embraced, foolproof basis for playing the blues. The most basic form of the chord progression is as listed below.
A Basic 12-Bar Blues
We won’t go into variations for now, but for more information on the 12-bar blues, see here.
When comes to soloing (or improvising) over this chord progression, Blues player Josh Smith describes a key difference between playing over the changes and through the changes.
You always hear about guys “playing the changes”. Well, there’s two ways to play the changes. There’s playing over the changes and, to me the important one is, playing through the changes. The difference is: Playing over the changes means that when a chord change happens, you then play something that works over that chord. Playing through the changes is: How do you connect one chord to another.Josh Smith
When blues guitar players play “over” the changes – playing notes that fit over that particular chord – they typically use a pentatonic box like this:
But, as Josh describes, there are techniques you can use to transition between chords. These techniques exist to create bridges between chords and to create tension.
3 Ways To Play Through The Changes
Here are three ways to create tension between chord transitions. This tension increases the interest for the listener as you build up and eventually release that tension by resolving into the next chord in “the changes”.
Chromatics are simply moving from one chord to another using a chord one half-step away from your destination. So, for example, instead of moving from A7 to D7 directly. You insert a C#7 for one beat:
| A7 / / C#7 | D7 / / / |.
There are lots of ways to do this. And it doesn’t have to be just a single chromatic chord. You can string them together to walk up or down to a destination chord.
Chromatic movement applies to single notes as well. You can utilize individual notes from the chromatic transition chord as part of your solo. Your solo will then utilize the tension of that implied chromatic chord to move you into the next chord.
For demos, examples, and tabs of these concepts, check out the course, “Blues Highways”, by Josh Smith.
Diminished or Augmented Chords
Diminshed and augmented chords create tension really, really well. For example, playing a C#dim chord makes you WANT to move to the D chord so bad. It’s just begging to resolve up into that D.
You can use this in your solos by using a diminished scale to imply a diminished chord right below (or a tritone away from) your destination chord:
| A7 / / (C#dim) | D7 / / / |.
ii-V-I turnarounds (called “two five ones”) are used throughout music. In fact, many jazz songs are written using only this turnaround (usually recombined in a few different ways, and in different keys).
One of the important things about the ii-V-I turnaround is that it’s very effective and directing your ear to the “I” chord. When you hear the “ii” and then the “V” in a given key, you know exactly what the home key – the “I” – is going to sound like.
You can use this in blues changes to transition your way into the next chord. Instead of just moving from A7 to D7, you can use a ii-V-I to transition you way into the D7. This would look like:
| A7 / Em7 A7 | D7 / / / |
In order to transition to the D chord, you’ve taken the ii chord from D (which is an Em7) and the V chord from D (which is an A7) and constructed a ii-V-setup to lead you to your new home chord of D.
Using solo note choices that emphasize the Em7 – A7 transition naturally moves you into the D7 section.
The pentatonic scale is foundational to music, and essential to the blues. But if you’re looking for some new creative ways to break out of the pentatonic box, these are three techniques to experiment with.
Get The Full Course:
This article is excerpted from the course “Blues Highways” by Josh Smith.
Blues Highways is one of the highest rated blues courses on TrueFire. So if you want hear Josh play examples of the concepts above, get some tabs of solo samples, and hear the rest of the course, check it out on TrueFire.