Blues Dues – The V Chord

Soloing strategies for playing over the V chord in bar 9 of a 12-bar blues.

If you are a guitar player, then chances are you can't count how many times you've been asked to jam over a 12-bar blues. Not only is it a ton of fun, but everyone knows a 12-bar blues and it's a great way to break the ice when playing with someone or a group for the first time. 

Not only are the blues fun to play and a way to be musically expressive, but people love listening to the blues. I'm sure every time you go to a bar or somewhere they have a live band, you will hear a few 12-bar blues. One thing that I always pay attention to is how the soloist plays over the V-IV change that happens in bar 9 and 10 in a blues. Beginners and professionals alike usually sound great over the I and IV chords, but one thing that definitely separates the novice from the pros is how they handle that V chord. In this post, we're going to go over a few of the options available when playing over the V chord.

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The Tonic Minor Pentatonic or Blues Scales

For all of the example is this post, we're going to be working out of a 12-bar shuffle blues in the key of A. In our 12-bar blues in the key of A, we get the following chord progression: 


12 Bar Blues Form

The first approach we are going to look at is using the minor pentatonic or blues scale from the tonic chord (in this case A). As most players learn early on, if you're playing a blues in A, you can use A minor pentatonic or A minor blues over the entire progression. However, most beginners aren't told that all 5 (or 6) notes of the pentatonic or blues scale aren't created equally, and all notes won't sound great when targeted over each chord. If you do choose to play over the V-IV change using the A minor pentatonic or blues scale, be mindful of which notes you use to target the two chords. Example 1 illustrates using the A minor pentatonic over the V chord.


ex1

Example 1 begins with the A minor pentatonic being used over the V chord. The 4th (D) is bent up a whole step (E) to target the root of the V chord. At the end of the first bar we have an E bent up a minor third (G) followed by a line that mixes the A minor and A major pentatonic scales. The A major pentatonic is then employed in bar 3, as we return to our tonic chord.

Example 2 is another example of using the A minor pentatonic over the V chord. However, this time, only notes from the A minor pentatonic are used to play over both the E7 and D7. Pay attention to which notes are targeted on beat 1 of each chord.

ex2

The Tonic Major Pentatonic Scale

Mixing the minor and major pentatonic scales based off the tonic chord (in this case A minor and A major pentatonic scales) is a common device used in blues soloing. It takes time, experience, and a lot of listening to master mixing the minor and major pentatonic scales, but once you have the hang of it, it sounds great. The A major pentatonic scale contains the note B, which is the 5th of the V chord, and a strong chord tone to target. Example 3 illustrates using the A major pentatonic scale over the V chord (notice how the B note is targeted).

ex3

Example 4 uses a combination of the major and minor pentatonic over the V chord, and then uses strictly the A minor pentatonic over the IV chord.

ex4

The Minor Pentatonic or Blues Scale from the Root of the V Chord

Just like using the A minor pentatonic and/or blues scale to play over the I chord, we can use the E minor pentatonic and/or blues scale to play over E7 (the V chord). By switching to the E minor pentatonic scale to play over the E chord, we now have the b3 (G) that we can bend slightly sharp to give that characteristic blues sound (the blues curl). Example 5 illustrates using the E minor pentatonic over the V chord.

ex5

Targeting Chord Tones

We can abandon the idea of using a particular scale over the V chord altogether, and instead target chord tones. Example 6 uses the root (E) and major 3rd (G#) of the E7 chord. The major 3rd is a strong chord tone when playing over a dominant 7 chord, and since the G# doesn't appear in either the A7 or D7 chord, it's presence is very noticeable and lets the listener know that you are following the chord changes. Notice how the 3rd is approached by the b3, a great sound when playing over dominant 7 chords.

ex6

Repeating an Idea to Fit the Chords

If an idea is really good, then it's most likely worth using again. The concept in example 7 is to play an idea that fits the V chord, then to repeat the same idea down a whole step (2 frets) over the IV chord, and then once again down a 4th to fit over the tonic chord. When using this concept, you don't have to use the same idea all three times, in fact, you don't even have to use the exact same idea. Try play an idea that fits the V chord, then taking it down two frets to fit the IV chord. Now try the exact same thing, but this time use a variation of the first idea over the IV chord. These kind of lines work well because the listener likes to hear repeated musical ideas. It creates a sense of familiarity and makes musical sense to the listener.

ex7

Mixing It All Up

Now that you have a number of approaches when playing over the V-IV chord progression of a blues, try mixing together a number of the strategies. Example 8 illustrates playing the A major pentatonic over the V chord, and then playing the A minor pentatonic over the IV chord.

ex8

Conclusion

I just threw a lot of soloing strategies at you in this article, and the truth is, there are many, many more. Be that as it may, many a great guitarist has made a career at using just the tonic minor pentatonic or blues scale to solo over the blues. You don't have to use a different approach every chorus of the blues, but you do have to be musical. Try out each one of these approaches thoroughly, and incorporate your favorites into your playing right away. Later on, see if you can add others until they all become a natural part of your playing. Your ear will then tell you what to use and when. Most importantly, have fun!

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