Soloing and the Blues Scale

From "Harmonica World" Oct-Nov 2008

The previous issue outlined ideas for practice, and introduced an exercise based on the major scale. Some years back I spent much of a summer holiday playing this exercise with a metronome. The benefits were lasting.

This time we look at the blues scale, and how it can enrich you solos.

First we need a notation, or tab. Reviewing the one introduced in the last issue, a B indicates a blow note, a D indicates a draw note. So 4B means blow into into hole 4, 4D means draw on hole 4 and so on. A half bend is a single apostrophe, a full bend is a double apostrophe. So, the full bend on the 2 hole draw is written as 2D", the half bend (assuming you can do this one) is written 2D'.

Most blues is played in second or cross position, that is using a harmonica key which is a 4th above the key of the tune. Hence a C harmonica is used for blues in G. I was first told this 30 years at a folk festival in New Zealand. It was like a light being switched on. Incredibly, the person who told me then loaned me his instruments to try out this "new" technique. To this day I remain grateful.

Following this cross position idea, an A harmonica is used for blues in E, a Bb harmonica for blues in F, an D harmonica for blues in A, an F harmonica for blues in C, a G harmonica for blues in D. Most of you no doubt know this, for those who don't the information should be as useful to you as it was for me so many years ago.

In second position, there are three root notes, the 2D, the 6B and the 9B. We start with the blues scale between 2D and 6B. The notes are:

2D 3D' 4B 4D' 4D 5D 6B

Play this scale slowly, up and down. Notice the two bent notes, 3D' and 4D'. If you can't do these bends yet, then just play 2D 4B 4D 5D 6B.

Now play a blues solo, using all of the notes in this scale, but no others. Use a jam track, there are good free ones at

Many players solo using a few familar patterns. Improvement comes by introducing new ones, which is best done by putting familiar moves aside. For example, play the following blues scale notes:

2D 3D' 4B 4D

If these notes seem very familiar, you may be starting most of your solos with them. If so, force yourself to avoid this pattern. The result will be new ideas. Similarly, identify three ways that you commonly start your solos, then force yourself to not use them for a while.

The 3D' is a minor third within the blues scale (for those familar with scale degrees). The scale and your blues solos will sound better if the 3D' is a little sharp, that is, just bent down a touch from the 3D. This is a subtle but important point. Listen to your favorite blues players, and hear how they place this note.

Great blues players seem to get endless variety from the bottom holes of the instrument, partly because they know the blues scale. Try these extra blues scale notes:

2D 2D" 1D 1D' 1B

Play these notes slowly, from the 2D and back again. This sequence is part of the blues scale, starting at the root note (2D) and moving down. The harmonica runs out of notes before completing the scale, however this pattern is very useful.

Now try another solo, using all of these notes, but no others. Use a jam track, and persist with these notes only. If it is hard then it is doing you good. If it sounds different to normal, even better.

Scales are often considered in terms of "scale degrees", the interval between the a given scale note and the root. For the blues scale, the scale degrees are: 2D root, 3D' minor third (or flat third), 4B fourth, 4D' flat fifth, 4D fifth, 5D flat seventh (or just seventh), 6B root an octave higher.

Now try the second position blues scale from 6B. Start with these notes

6B 6D 7D 7B 8D 9D 9B

They don't sound right, from a blues perspective, because there is no flat third and no flat fifth. Unless you can do overblows ( for details), then these notes are not available. An alternative however is the following scale:

6B 6D' 6D 7B 8D 9D 9B

Play it slowly up and down. It has a bluesier sound than the previous top octave scale. Again, try a blues solo with a jam track, using all of these notes but no others. If you avoid the top octave (many blues players do), then this scale may get you started.

The best way to appreciate these ideas is to hear them played, rather than written. Try this lesson, which provides sound samples for the scale exercises here.

Future articles will look at blues phrasing, as well as ideas for first, second and third position tunes.