Powerful Back to Basics: 3 Awesome Jazz Blues Fundamentals

Powerful Back to Basics: 3 Awesome Jazz Blues Fundamentals

This is more of a "ready fire aim" type of blog post on jazz blues improvisation for jazz guitarists. Highly recommended: download the following backing track, read some of the suggestions and get cracking. If I were you, I'd even read the post with the guitar on my lap. ;-)

At first, take the time to understand what the three exercises are all about.  Each of the three steps below shouldn't take you more than 5-10 minutes to figure out. Then just improvise lots using the jazz blues concepts ... and chase your own tail a little bit. We all need it sometimes!

In a few words: if you like jazz blues, guitar ... and jazz guitar blues in general, then you know exactly what you should practice next. Over the weekend perhaps? In any case, I recommend you tackle the three topics below on consecutive practice days. (Read: don't try to do it all at once, in one sitting).

Backing Tracks

The backing track below loops the 12 bars a total of 8 times.  Nevertheless, one round through a backing can be considered as one "trial" of each exercise below.

Download here:

Bb Jazz Guitar - Tempo 104 bpm -- mp3 audio file


The Form

The generic Bb jazz blues form we'll use is the following.

Bb jazz blues - 12-bar form chords only

Of course, the Bb jazz blues can be modified in several interesting ways (the topic of an upcoming lesson, I promise!) For instance, bar 4 could be a plain Bb7 for one bar. But it's more interesting to have Fm7 to Bb7. You know why? Because Fm7 - Bb7 is a II-V in the key of Eb. And guess what, Eb7 is our next chord!

Same thing could be said about that G7 in bar 8. People make it a Dm7b5 to G7(alt). But you don't really need to know this. Well, not until you'll graduate from your Ph.D. in jazz guitar studies. [laughs]

But for now, let's not worry too much about the intricacies of the theory, and let's just play already! :-)

Using Pentatonics: the Grown-ups Version

The blues scale again?


But now let's add a twist to it. It will prevent the pentatonics from sounding like every rock guitar solo in the 70's and easily transform them into something Miles Davis would actually have played.

The materials: Bb major pentatonic and Bb minor pentatonic scales, both with "blue note" added.



Oh, and did you notice these two things?

  1. Bb major pentatonic / blues scale contains the same notes as G minor pentatonic / blues. Think of that "box" with you index aligned with the 3rd fret.
  2. The fingerings in the image above are diagonal sort of. Don't fight it, just embrace it. More linear lines come out of this than your usual "fretboard boxes".

The secret sauce: mix and match the major and the minor pentatonic scales for Bb.

The Exercise: improvise using the Bb major pentatonic for the first 4 bars of the 12-bar blues form. Then use the Bb minor pentatonic for the last 8 bars of the form.


It is *extremely* effective. Especially if you start phrasing a little more like a jazzman (in 8th-notes) and not like Oktoberfest came early this year.

Pro tip: once you get to bar 8, play that B natural note like your life depends on it. It's the third degree of the G7 chord. Yeah, I know it sounds strange to use a B natural note during a B flat blues. But hey, jazz.

In fact, that G7 chord is the VI chord in the key of Bb and the "reason" (at least, one of the good reasons) we can distinguish between blues ... and blues as played by jazz musicians. See this video on YouTube by yours truly.

Jazz Blues Arpeggios: More than You'd Expect!

The material: bare bone, 1-3-5-7 arpeggios on every chord. But I'm sure you can already do this with your eyes closed. ;-) Notice this time, we'll add the Dm7(b5) in front of the G7  in bar 8, just to make arpeggios more interesting.


The secret sauce: resolve to the 3rd of the next chord. (Oh, and: Don't sound like a frustrated jazzer.)

The exercise: arpeggios by themselves are "right" in theory, but make for very boring improvisations. So, if you must use arpeggios, make sure they resolve nicely to the next chord. Here are two choruses to get you started thinking about these ideas.

In the first example below: notice how that whenever an ascending arpeggio is used, it goes to the 3rd of the next chord immediately. This is very "chord defining" and the best way to start sounding like a real jazz improviser. Notice also that I used some scale passages to complete the lines.


And in the second example, we incorporate descending arpeggios for variety. Notice that the descending arpeggios start from the fifth degree (i.e. 5-3-1-7 descending) and still resolve to the third of the next chord. And yes, this is a pimped version of the next arpeggio, as 3-5-7-9. I find this exercise is a great entry point into 3-5-7-9 materials, since it's not too technical and we begin with the end in mind. (i.e. we're not working on the 3-5-7-9 for their own sake, but rather, in a cool harmonic context).


Pro tip: after you got these down, start to improvise and "fudge" the rhythms a little. Make it swing, and create a little magic in your solo (before falling back on your typical blues licks). Think Kenny Burrell and blend blues licks seamlessly with more cerebral jazz lines.

Other pro tip: advanced players, whenever you hit a G note on the F7 chord, you can make it a Gb note to get the F7(b9) sound.

Jazz Blues Scales: Simplifying with the I-VI-V

You know how "regular blues" (B.B. King, Buddy Guy, etc.) is only using mostly the I, IV and V chords? Well, that's really the foundation of traditional (so-called) blues. In the key of Bb, it would mean to use on the following chords for the entire 12-bar blues: Bb7, Eb7, F7.

And guess what?

In order to lean a little more towards bebop, we'll use just these three chords in the form of scales. It makes for an easy entry point into 8th-note lines: you get to play lots, but actually with a limited amount of materials to memorize. That's the essence of bebop, on the linear level. 8th-notes in jazz are analogous to pennies in financial currency.

The materials: Bb7, Eb7 and F7 scales. Also called Bb, Eb and F Mixolydian.


The secret sauce: make the scales align with the bars, bebop stylez ... playing a stream of 8th-notes. And make sure to come down to a B natural note in bar 8. Remember, it's the third of G7, and since we're not playing the G mixolydian, because well ... jazz.

The exercise: This is an easy-breezy exercise to finish off this post. Ascending 1 to 7 for chords that last one bar. Ascending to the 7th and back down to 1 for chords that last. Memorize this one!


Notice how this is just 1-3-5-7 arpeggios with more notes in between? In fact, the added notes are the 2nd, 4th and 6th degrees of the scale. And this is possible because we're playing in 8th-notes and not in quarter-notes. :-)

Pro Tip: can you improvise convincingly mixing the arpeggios from the previous step (nicely resolving to thirds) and the scales from this last step? Throw in a little blues lick here and there (major and minor), as covered at the beginning of this post, and VLAM! you sound like a jazz guy!


Want to get all the exercises and materials from this post in nice convenient PDF file? Here you go:

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