Breaking Down The Blue Note

Weekly Newsletter #65

November 5, 2022

Many players who are familiar with the blues have heard of the concept of the “blue note”. 

It is a foundational concept in blues and jazz and forms one of the most iconic sounds in 20th century music. 

Look for it and you’ll find it in nearly every one of your favorite hit songs. 

The blue note is so important in fact that without it, it’s nearly impossible to sound like an authentic blues player at all. 

As most guitarists will understand, the pentatonic scale (namely the minor shape) is one that we all revert to for that classic blues sound. 

Many will use this common scale and throw in the blue note without realizing it, essentially changing it from a minor pentatonic scale to a minor blues scale. 

After all, pentatonic means five, and adding the blue note gives you a six-note scale. It’s therefore more appropriate to refer to this as a minor blues scale. 

However, many of us get stuck in this minor pentatonic, or even minor blues shape and have a hard time breaking out of that. 

Today we’ll discuss the value of the blue note, how it relates to major and minor pentatonic scales (yes they’re different), and how to effectively use it to create better melodies and licks. 

The Blue Note Connection 

When thinking about the blue note, it’s vital to imagine it as a note that connects two other notes within the major or minor pentatonic scale. 

It’s basically a passing tone, but a really important one. 

Let’s look at the A minor blues scale to start. 

Begin by playing your standard A minor pentatonic scale in 5th position... two notes per string. 

Adding the blue note creates a situation where, in this shape we have three notes that occur on two different strings. 

The first of which is the 6th fret of the A string. 

Initially the notes of the A minor pentatonic are: A-C-D-E-G or 1-b3-4-5-b7 

The D and E are the two notes on the 5th and 7th fret of the A string, but when we add the blue note, we’re actually adding the Eb or b5 to the scale. This gives us three notes on the A string. 

There is one other spot in which this note appears in this 5th position shape. 

On the G string, we normally play 5th fret (C) and 7th fret (D), but the Eb blue note lies on the 8th fret of this string. 

Obviously it’s a huge advantage for any player to be able to name and envision the notes of the scale they’re playing. This is true with blues scales as well. 

Doing this allows you to stop playing from repeated finger patterns and start to target specific notes on purpose. 

If you can see the minor blues scale and envision the note names (or the scale degrees) then you should be able to see that the blues note merely connects the 4th to the 5th of the scale. 

This connection between the D and E within the A minor blues scale is where a lot of the action occurs. 

Learning to see the 4th and 5th degree of the minor blues scale allows you to target that connecting note and bring it to the forefront of your licks. 

Remember, this only pertains to the minor blues, the major blues scale follows a similar pattern, but uses a different blue note. 

The Major Blues Scale 

Learning to break out of the minor blues scale is crucial for any player. 

The addition of the major blues scale is often what is needed to take your playing to the next level. 

For more information on how to incorporate the major pentatonic scale into your playing, check out Newsletter #22

If you analyze the major pentatonic scale, again in the key of A, you actually end up with an entirely different set of notes and scale degrees. 

A major pentatonic: A-B-C#-E-F# or 1-2-3-5-6 

Adding the blue note to a major pentatonic means we must follow the same principle of connecting two notes with a chromatic passing note. 

As you can see, adding a b5 wouldn’t achieve that because there is no 4 to connect. 

Instead, with the major pentatonic scale, it is the 2 and 3 we are connecting. 

This means that the blue note within a major blues scale is actually the b3. 

A major blues scale: A-B-C-C#-E-F# or 1-2-b3-3-5-6 

Using The Blue Note 

To recap: 

-Minor blues scale, the blue note is the b5. 

-Major blues scale, the blue note is the b3 

If you’re playing a blues in A, most likely the chords will be A7-D7-E7, it is entirely appropriate and even necessary to utilize both A major and A minor blues scales. 

You might have noticed that when you solo over an A7 (A-C#-E-G), you can happily use the A minor blues scale and sound great. 

It may seem strange at first because the minor blues scale has a C (b3) and the A7 chord has a C# (3). 

According to “theory” this shouldn’t sound good, but yet it does. 

The A7 is technically a major chord because of the major 3rd or C#, so why does the C or b3 sound good? 

Well, take a look at the blue note of the A major blues scale. 

That’s right, it is the C or b3. 

When you use the minor blues scale over a dominant 7 chord like an A7, every time you hit that C you’re actually playing the blue note of the major blues scale without realizing it. 

Analyze any of your favorite blues licks by your favorite players and notice that when they play the minor blues scale and they hit that b3, they very often give it a slight bend (you probably do that to without noticing). 

When you do that you’re actually bending from the blue note of the major scale up to the 3 of the major scale. 

Additionally, by switching between major and minor blues scales you can create a very useful form of question & answer phrasing. 

Adding the blue notes to each of the two scales allows you to create tension within that phrase, and then resolve the tension with a great sounding note at the end of the lick. 

A great advanced concept is combining the two scales within one lick to give you a blend of both tonalities. 

Take a look at what happens when you combine all the notes from the A minor blues and the A major blues scales: 

A-B-C-C#-D-Eb-E-F#-G or 1-2-b3-3-4-b5-5-6-b7 

You end up with a chromatic run from the 2 to the 5. 

This can be incredibly useful to build tension and to incorporate what may sound like “outside” notes, but actually make sense within the context of both scales. 

Another common blues idea is to play the major blues scale with the addition of the b7 taken from the minor blues scale.


This allows you to highlight the major sound of the A7 chord but add in the chord tone of the G (b7) into your lick. 

In short, there are numerous ways to incorporate the blue notes of both scales and the way in which this is done is why certain blues players sound so distinct. 

BB King, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robben Ford are all masters of the blues and each one sounds totally unique…and yet they use the exact same two scales all the time. 

By studying the licks of your favorite players and analyzing whether they’re using the major or minor blues scale for that particular lick, and how they’re incorporating the blue note into it will give you great insight into advancing your blues vocabulary. 

Study the blue notes and the two scales they’re derived from and you’ll soon find yourself on a whole new playing field. 

-Max Rich