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Thread: Blues for Beginners

  1. #1
    Registered User urucoug's Avatar
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    Blues for Beginners

    Long time no see. Too long since I've played guitar much, or interacted with you guys!

    I'm trying to put together a 1 hour introduction to Blues for a group of Boy Scouts, some of which have never played an instrument before. Some will be talented enough to play the background chords, but some are not even there. I'm thinking of playing the background chords myself, and having the boys play the solo on a keyboard. I plan to mark the keyboard with small sticky notes indicating the 'safe' notes for them to play during their solo for the key we're playing in, giving 5-10 minutes of instruction, and then have the kids go nuts.


    If I teach longer than 5-10 minutes before they start playing, I'll lose their interest. If you had only 5-10 minutes, what would you say, and how would you present it?


    Furthermore, in trying to simplify this, I realized my own fundamental lack of understanding of Blues. I think I've always played the major pentatonic scale for the chord I was on. For example, in the key of C, I would play C major pentatonic while I was on the 'C' chord, the F major pentatonic when I was on the 'F' chord, and the G major pentatonic when I was on the 'G' chord. In going through some tutorials online, it appears many people just use (if they were in the key of C) the C blues scale, which is the C MINOR pentatonic scale (emphasis on minor) with a flat 5 added. How does that make sense? The C minor pentatonic scale has a b3 and a b7 in addition to the added b5. The b3 clashes with the I chord. The b5 also clashes with the I chord. The b7 clashes with the triad for the V chord. Can someone help me understand how this makes sense? Why are we playing parts of a minor scale over major chords?


    Thanks in advance!

  2. #2
    Registered User Malcolm's Avatar
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    Why are you doing this? If it's to give them:
    • An appreciation of music.
    • An idea of how music thinks. Pentatonic scale over the chord.
    • A merit badge in Blues.
    • Or just to get them interested in music as a hobby.


    If it's music as a hobby, and you have one hour, keep it simple.

    An hour is not a lot of time to teach either chords or pentatonic scales.

    The Blues chord progression is simple and predictable. Three chords to start with. I'd start them with the chords and you play the melody.

    4/4 time and G7, C7, D7.

    I think chords would be easier for them to understand. Pentatonic scale for three chords, IMO little beyond an hour. Course a lot depends on what instruments are available...

    You could use a video of a blues backing track showing the chord progression and have them play along with the progression - either the chords or the pentatonic scale. You are then free to interact with the boys as the backing track is running.

    An hour is not a lot of time, however an hour is a long time to keep all of them focused. I think you will lose interest quickly

    Perhaps you play along to the video and then break them up into small groups and let them come up with where the chord changes happen. Have the lyrics shown on paper and have them insert the chords over the lyrics. Allow 10 minutes and then have each group show what they came up with. i.e. show and tell.

    Playing a song right off the bat I think is asking quite a lot.

    Good luck.
    Last edited by Malcolm; 11-05-2015 at 05:10 PM.

  3. #3
    Registered User JonR's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by urucoug View Post
    Long time no see. Too long since I've played guitar much, or interacted with you guys!

    I'm trying to put together a 1 hour introduction to Blues for a group of Boy Scouts
    Why blues? Are they blues fans?
    If not (yet), you'd need to explain why blues is cool. Demonstrating that could take the whole hour (examples from youtube, not just yourself).
    Quote Originally Posted by urucoug View Post
    , some of which have never played an instrument before.
    Uh-oh....
    Quote Originally Posted by urucoug View Post
    Some will be talented enough to play the background chords, but some are not even there.
    OK. What do you envisage for those who've never played an instrument? Blues is not as simple as you might think for absolute beginners.
    Quote Originally Posted by urucoug View Post
    I'm thinking of playing the background chords myself, and having the boys play the solo on a keyboard. I plan to mark the keyboard with small sticky notes indicating the 'safe' notes for them to play during their solo for the key we're playing in, giving 5-10 minutes of instruction, and then have the kids go nuts.
    OK, that's a reasonable plan.
    You'd have to be OK with the result being cacophony! Kids do like "going nuts" after all (especially younger ones - how old are they?)
    If they haven't heard much (or any) blues before, they'll have no idea what it's supposed to sound like, so going nuts will be the only option.
    One variation on your option would be to say they can only play the black notes on the keyboard, and you play your backing in Eb. So they'll be jamming on Eb minor pent. (Maybe tell them which note is Eb, and that's their "home note" - go back there if they get lost.) Then at least you'll get something sounding remotely musical.

    How many kids and how many keyboards? One each or one between them all? Any of them playing guitar?

    For the Eb idea, maybe any guitars should be tuned down a half-step, or even tuned to an open Eb chord (open E down a half-step). You can then show them the 5th and 7th fret positions for the IV and V chords.
    Quote Originally Posted by urucoug View Post
    If I teach longer than 5-10 minutes before they start playing, I'll lose their interest. If you had only 5-10 minutes, what would you say, and how would you present it?
    Tricky! You have to make it cool to start with. Whether you can do that yourself with a quick demo, or rely on a youtube, up to you. Whatever you play obviously has to have some kind of wow factor, that they want to emulate. Shouldn't take more than 5 minutes. Then you can move to a basic demo of the keyboard (such as the black notes idea), so they can bash around on that, freely for a while (before you start to organise a group jam). Everyone has to get a rough idea of how to use the notes available before you start organising anything like a groove or backing chords.
    Quote Originally Posted by urucoug View Post
    Furthermore, in trying to simplify this, I realized my own fundamental lack of understanding of Blues. I think I've always played the major pentatonic scale for the chord I was on. For example, in the key of C, I would play C major pentatonic while I was on the 'C' chord, the F major pentatonic when I was on the 'F' chord, and the G major pentatonic when I was on the 'G' chord.
    Whoah! That works, but it ain't blues!
    Quote Originally Posted by urucoug View Post
    In going through some tutorials online, it appears many people just use (if they were in the key of C) the C blues scale, which is the C MINOR pentatonic scale (emphasis on minor) with a flat 5 added. How does that make sense?
    The C minor pentatonic scale has a b3 and a b7 in addition to the added b5. The b3 clashes with the I chord. The b5 also clashes with the I chord. The b7 clashes with the triad for the V chord. Can someone help me understand how this makes sense? Why are we playing parts of a minor scale over major chords?
    Sounds like you need to actually LISTEN to some blues.
    No blues player ever asked "why?" in that way. It makes sense aurally. I.e., it sounds right, yes? (If you think it actually sounds wrong, then I'd suggest you don't try teaching it at all .)
    If you think it doesn't make sense theoretically, that's just a misapplication of theory.
    Blues is not major key music - and it's not minor key either, it's something in between (almost anywhere in between).

  4. #4
    Registered User urucoug's Avatar
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    Well, a confession. I love to jam with friends and play solos over each other's chords, but I've never been a 'Blues' purist. Chances are, this night will probably flop, but worst case scenario, it's a not-very-memorable scouting night, and a flop-of-an-hour. Best case scenario, I get some boys interested in practicing and instrument, and open a world of music for some boys. My parents have done a lot of cool things for me, but one of my favorites is that they bought me a guitar, and enabled a hobby for life.

    Two of the boys are 12-13. The other 4-5 are between 14-16.

    It was actually the boys who picked blues. I asked them, "do you want to try to put a song together, or play 12-bar-blues?" They picked 12-bar blues. Obviously, I'm a hack if I don't even know you're not 'supposed' to switch which pentatonic scale you're playing, and have an all-major sounding solo. It's a fair criticism that I need to listen to more blues. But, I reserve the right to get smarter! I am going to bring a couple friends with me that have some pretty good chops, so we should at least be able to put on a good demo during the 5-10 minutes at the beginning.

    I guess the bigger question out of the two questions I posed is why does it work? JonR, you always have an explanation for everything music-theory related. Why does this work? I'm an engineer, so knowing the theory behind why it works fascinates me almost as much as playing it, and I try to use theory to educate my licks rather than vice-versa. Probably a weakness.

    Blues in C:

    C chord: C E G
    F chord: F A C
    G chord: G B D

    C minor pent: C Eb F G Bb

    (I'm judging by your responses, Malcolm and JonR, that there is no major pentatonic blues; I saw some internet videos of guys talking about switching between major and minor pentatonics in blues, but they sounded like they didn't know what they were talking about)

    The Eb clashes hardcore with the E! The Bb clashes hardcore with the B! I guess it just doesn't sit well with the concept of a key. Playing C, F, and G seems to say I'm in the key of C maj, so it seems so funny to be playing a C min pentatonic scale. Should I be playing power chords to get rid of the clash, or just use Eb an Bb as passing tones when those chords are played? Or is that clash what it's all about?

  5. #5
    Registered User JonR's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by urucoug View Post
    I guess the bigger question out of the two questions I posed is why does it work? JonR, you always have an explanation for everything music-theory related. Why does this work? I'm an engineer, so knowing the theory behind why it works fascinates me almost as much as playing it, and I try to use theory to educate my licks rather than vice-versa. Probably a weakness.

    Blues in C:

    C chord: C E G
    F chord: F A C
    G chord: G B D

    C minor pent: C Eb F G Bb

    (I'm judging by your responses, Malcolm and JonR, that there is no major pentatonic blues; I saw some internet videos of guys talking about switching between major and minor pentatonics in blues, but they sounded like they didn't know what they were talking about)

    The Eb clashes hardcore with the E! The Bb clashes hardcore with the B! I guess it just doesn't sit well with the concept of a key. Playing C, F, and G seems to say I'm in the key of C maj, so it seems so funny to be playing a C min pentatonic scale. Should I be playing power chords to get rid of the clash, or just use Eb an Bb as passing tones when those chords are played? Or is that clash what it's all about?
    As I said, blues is a mysterious music which is somewhere in between the western concepts of "major" and "minor" - which are artificial after all.
    Our fixed 12-tone tuning system was imposed in order for our equally artificial key system to work freely. Our 12-tone "equal temperament" is actually completely "out of tune" with any natural idea of "in tune", but not so much that most of us notice.

    So the theory by which you are judging blues - diatonic major key theory - is irrelevant, not applicable. It's the same thing as looking at a boat and trying to judge it with reference to a car - "the boat has no wheels, it doesn't make sense!" . Just because they are both modes of transport, doesn't mean you can apply your knowledge of one mode against the other.

    Blues - like some old European folk, incidentally - is a vocal music which features "neutral" 3rds, which are midway between minor and major, and can actually swoop around between the two. Because we are forced to use instruments with fixed tunings, we represent that by using major chords with a minor scale.
    We can represent the scale in the chords to some extent. Adding Bb to the C chord. Adding Eb (minor 3rd of the key) to the F chord.
    (Or indeed adding Eb on top of the C7 chord too, to get the so-called "Hendrix" chord, which of course predates Hendrix by some way. It's called "C7#9" by convention, but "C7b10" makes more sense in a blues context.)

    Melodically, the minor pentatonic is as close as we can get to the "natural" blues vocal scale. Adding the b5 is a crude way of reflecting how the 4th can be bent up, or the 5th flattened, to variable degrees. I.e, it represents the centre of a whole step pitch region.
    On guitar, of course, we can bend notes, which is what makes the guitar so ideal for playing blues. We can take that Eb and bend it up to E - or, to get the "blue 3rd", not quite all the way to E. We can take the F and bend it to F#/Gb, or take the F#/Gb and bend it to G.

    On keyboards, blues pianists will play the Eb and E together, or the Eb as a grace note before the E, to represent that swoop up as best they can (check 0:25 in the piano video below). Same with the b5: Gb and G together, letting the G ring. Or on the F, adding the Gb as a grace note embellishment.
    But if these details are too fiddly for your beginners, the plain minor pent will work fine against the major chords. The clashes are what make it "blues".

    Here's a classic blues in C using a C7b10 chord (along with F7 and G7 chords), with a melody and solo entirely in C blues scale (minor pent with b5) - just so you can hear how "right" it sounds...
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mP0flneNfaQ
    ... and because it sounds right, we then have to adjust our theory to fit. (Theory only describes in any case - it doesn't prescribe, or dictate how music should be.)

    This is a pretty good lesson for blues piano in C:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PY4304sV5fY
    His idea for the one-note solo is also a great way for novices to begin, because it forces you to think about rhythm - which is more important than note choice! A rhythmically interesting solo on one note is better than a solo with lots of notes and poor rhythmic content. Blues is about groove at least as much as it is about chords and scales! Also, rhythmic patterns are usually easier for beginners to pick up and copy than melodic ones.
    Last edited by JonR; 11-06-2015 at 10:15 AM.

  6. #6
    Registered User Malcolm's Avatar
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    How to explain Blues to 14-16 year olds --- the Blues grew out of the cotton fields of the South. Head field hand would call and the rest of the field hands would respond. Listen to that call and response - that's what sets the Blues apart.

    • Woke up this morning. -- Feeling mighty poor.
    • Yes I woke up this morning, -- found my baby gone.


    Old beat up guitars played like a drum, then the three major chords came into the picture. Then the major seven was added. Why? Just something extra to add. Why the minor pentatonic with a flat 5? It sounds good, so it stuck.

    Blues does sound good and if it sounds good it is good. Something else in the Blues favor; Blues is easy to play, the chord progression is predictable, however, it will take a lifetime to play well. So let's get started with _______________.


    Good luck.
    Last edited by Malcolm; 11-07-2015 at 04:35 PM.

  7. #7
    Registered User urucoug's Avatar
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    Thanks for your responses. Just wanted to let you guys know that the activity went well. I had my friends play the background chords and drums, and had the more musically experienced kids play their solos first (notes of the c minor pentatonic scale were marked with sticky notes on the keys themselves). After they were done, I had the next kid try their solo while I explained to the experienced kids who finished their solos how and when to play the background chords. I think everyone enjoyed it, and some of my best successes were with the kids who had never played a note in their life. despite being intimidated at first, they played the instrument and learned some rhythm and got a taste of playing music.

    That piano tutorial starting with one note at a time was helpful. And thanks for straightening me out on the need to play a minor pentatonic over the chord progression.

    I'm curious, and maybe this is a good topic for another thread. I feel like I've put a lot of energy learning which notes are in a key over the years. So blues plays a blues scale over an essentially major chord progression (the sevenths for the I and IV chords are not in the major key). Do rock and jazz do similar things? Can I infer when playing rock or jazz that when I see chords that indicate a major our minor key that I can play a major or minor scale on top, or do rock or jazz behave similarly to the blues, and occasionally play minor scales over major progressions?

  8. #8
    Registered User Malcolm's Avatar
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    Yes, and maybe. IMO not as much. Has to do with like notes. Treble clef notes and bass clef notes sound good together if they share some of the same notes. "Out of key notes" may clash. Normally the same major chord taken minor does seem to work. But a complete scale maybe not.

    And then there is that old saying; "If it sounds good it is good".

  9. #9
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    Hi all
    First: I'm glad your session went well. Any time you can (young) people interested in music it's worth while.

    Don't give up on that "major blues" idea, some great feel and classic licks have come from those major pentatonics, (even mixolydian, if you like). Mix and match, you can use ideas from more that one scale over a single chord, time permitting.
    As for rock and jazz, I think you find examples of every approach. '50s rock tended to stay closer to the chords/key, unless you were the sax player The "classic rock" of late 60s - 70s made great use of minor scales over major chords. Jazz can also be found in straight up diatonic fashion, or moving through every alteration you can get away with Part of the fun with jazz is hearing the way different players interpret a song. A straight, recognizable minor scale over a major progression is less likely with jazz, I think ..... unless they're playing blues.

    -best,
    Mike

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