Breaking Down the Blues, pt. 5: The Major Pentatonic Scale

This is the fifth part in my series on the system behind playing the blues on the guitar. In this part, I’ll talk about the role that the major pentatonic and major blues scales play when soloing over a blues progression.

The other parts in the Breaking Down the Blues series are:

I’ll be referencing parts 1 and 2 a lot in this article. If you’re unfamiliar with what those articles talked about, go ahead and read them first.

The Blues Scale: Quick Review

Part 2 covered the blues scale, which is a scale that’s formed by the minor pentatonic scale along with the blues note. Usually, when people refer generically to ‘the blues scale,’ they’re referring to this minor pentatonic based scale.

Now that we will be talking about two different types of the blues scale, I’m going to refer to that scale as the minor blues scale, since it’s formed from the minor pentatonic scale. Meanwhile, the scale that I will be writing mainly about in this article will be referred to as the major blues scale, because it’s formed from the major pentatonic scale.

So, we now have two different types of blues scales: the major blues scale (covered in this article), and the minor blues scale (covered in part 2).

The Major Pentatonic Scale Pattern

Luckily, you don’t have to learn any new scale patterns in order to play the major pentatonic scale. You can actually use the same patterns that I covered in part 2. For a quick review, here’s a picture of the minor pentatonic scale ‘box pattern.’:

the minor penatonic box pattern on the guitar

The black circles in the pattern are the root note. The white circles are the other notes in the minor pentatonic scale.

Now, here’s where it gets a little strange for some people. To transform this scale into the major pentatonic scale, you just have to think of a different note as being the root note, like this (for a more thorough description on moving scales based on root notes, see part 2):

the major penatonic box pattern on the guitar

You can see that his is exactly the same pattern of notes, but the black/root notes are in a different place. I don’t want to delve too much into the theory behind this right now, but if you’re curious you could read up on relative major and minor scales.

The significance of the root note is that it determines where you will move the scale to place it in the key in which you want to play. If you are playing in the key of A, you want to move the scale pattern to where the root notes are on A notes, like this:

the A major penatonic box pattern on the guitar

This would make it the A major pentatonic scale. For another example, if you were playing in the key of D, you would move the pattern further up the neck so that the root notes are on D notes, making it the D major pentatonic scale:

the D major penatonic box pattern on the guitar

The Major Blues Scale Box Pattern

In part 2, we learned about what I’m now calling the minor blues scale. This scale is created by taking the pattern for the minor pentatonic scale, shown above, and adding the blues note to it. Here’s a picture of the minor blues scale box pattern, with the blues notes shown as squares:

The minor blues scale box pattern on the guitar

To make this into the major blues scale, we just have to think of a different note as being the root note, just like with the major pentatonic scale. The blues notes will be unaffected by this.

The major blues scale box pattern on the guitar

Major vs. Minor Blues Scales

To hopefully clarify this further, let’s look at this from another angle. Let’s say you are playing over a blues progression in the key of A, and you wanted to solo using the A minor blues scale. You would position the box pattern of the blues scale so that the minor root note is on an A note, as shown below:

The A minor blues scale box pattern on the guitar

Then, let’s say that you wanted to use the A major blues scale. You could just move the same pattern of notes down to the 2nd fret, which would put the major root note on an A note, like this:

The A major blues scale box pattern on the guitar

That’s all you would need to do to go from using the minor blues scale to the major blues scale.

The Extended Box Pattern

In part two, I talked about the extended box pattern of the blues scale. The extended box pattern of the minor blues scale looks like this:

The minor blues scale extended box pattern on guitar

To make this into the extended box pattern of the major blues scale, you again just have to think of the root notes differently in the same way that I have already described:

The major blues scale extended box pattern on guitar

When to Use the Major Blues Scale

You can use the major blues scale when soloing over any part of a blues progression. So, if you are playing a blues progression in the key of E, you could use the E major blues scale. If you are playing over a blues progression in G, you could use the G major blues scale, and so on.

That means that you have two scale choices for any key in which you are playing. What I mean by that is if you are playing over a blues progression in E, you could use the E minor blues scale or the E major blues scale. If you are playing over a blues progression in G, you could use the G major blues scale or the G minor blues scale.

You could also change back and forth between major and minor blues scales as you are soloing. So, you could do a few licks using the major blues scale, then switch and do a few licks using the minor blues scale, and so on.

I find that the minor blues scale works pretty well over any chord in the blues progression. The major blues scale, on the other hand, works better over some chords than others. The major blues scale sounds great when used over the I chord. It sounds OK over the V chord, and can possibly sound not so great over the IV chord (if you’re confused about what I mean by these roman numerals, read through part 1 again).

You just have to be careful with the IV chord. Lots of the notes in the major blues scale will sound fine over it, but there are a couple that will clash with the chord in an unappealing way. I personally prefer to use the minor blues scale over IV.

Up Next

Understanding these concepts and actually using them can be two different things. To help you get an even better idea of how the interplay between the major and minor blues scales can take place in a solo, I’m going to quickly follow up on this post with an ‘example’ solo, with an in depth article breaking down what’s happening in it.

I had originally planned on including an example solo with this article. But, I then realized that to give it a good amount of explanation would push this article way too long.

So, keep a look out for my next post, which will feature a video recording and tab of a blues solo using the major and minor blues scales. I’ll give a phrase by phrase break down of what is happening in the note choices I made, as well as talking about some other things like phrasing and building up tension within a solo. It should be up in a couple weeks.

Photo credit: monosnaps / CC BY-SA

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