Blues Lines over Standards

Question by Phil
(livonia, Michigan, U.S.A.)

Hi Marc,

Just found your site. Very informative. Great video clips.

My question is about your “blues” scales video when playing a straight blues. Is there some formal way you use these ideas to get blues lines into a jazz standard?


M-A’s Answer:

(Here’s the video for those of you who didn’t watch it)

Hello Phil,

That is a great question and the answer is yes and no at the same time! Let me explain :

Yes: blues line can and should be played in improvisation on jazz standards.


No : there’s not really any formal way to go about that.

Here’s some food for thoughts…

Listening (to yourself and to others)

The first and most obvious way you can “plug in” blues lines over standards is by using your ears and your own judgment : Play what feels right for you and listen, listen, listen! The amount of “blues stuff” in one’s improvised solo (over non-blues form, of course) is a matter of personal taste and musical context.

Secondly, listening to your favorite jazz musicians (live or on recordings) can also guide your aesthetic choice vis-a-vis your blues lines playing. (I know, this point should have been mentioned first! I still wanted to stress the “personal taste” factor first though…)

See how Wes Montgomery played simple, tasty blues lines on standard tunes such as “Yesterdays” and “Days of Wine and Roses”. (Two transcriptions on this page )

Wes being the “perfect” example, it’s also advisable to check out other jazz guitarists for kind of playing : Joe Pass , Kenny Burrell, Grant Green , etc.

More modern players such as Metheny and Scofield also use generous amounts of blues in their improvisation over standards. Check them out!

(Non-guitar jazzers with bluesy feel: Oscar Peterson (piano), Clifford Brown (trumpet), Julian “Canonball” Aderley (sax), etc.) Now, that being said…

The Meaning of the Blues

In fact, other than making personal choices and listening to great players , you have to ask yourself why you wish to supplement your playing with blues.

Everyone has their own reasons for doing so. The general tendency, I believe, is playing blues phrases to create an authentic, “funky”, catchy, down to earth and honest feeling in improvisation. Pat Metheny once said in a interview that he played blues all the time. NOT as an idiom per se (or with “cliché lines” and licks) … but more on the human level. He explains that this is how he “sings his own song” so to speak.

Metheny also commented on the most successful blues player out there : they can effectively express their reality and human condition through their playing by using the blues. It can be seen as a “cry” of sort, if you’ll excuse the expression. So it really isn’t about “the notes” , but more about the feeling expressed through the blues.

Pheww… lots of stuff to think about, huh?! Let’s now lighten up with some playing advice.


Playing Suggestions

Jump right in and play blues stuff on non-blues form! A few great starting points :

  • Rhythm Changes

Begin by treating the first four bars as “major blues” and next four bars as “minor blues”. Tunes such as “I Got Rhythm” “Anthropology” “Cotton Tail” and “Oleo”. Listen to Sonny Stitts (sax) improvising over rhythm changes tunes, it’s scary!

  • On “Bluesy” Jazz Heads

Seek out jazz tunes that have blues implications in the melody (NOT standards aka “show tunes” that come from the Broadway era!) Tunes by jazz musicians such as : Horace Silver, Wayne Shorter, Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, etc.

  • On “Sitting” Dominant Chords

That’s what comes the closest to playing on an actual blues form. Seek out sections of standard tunes with 4 or 8 bars of just one dominant chord. The first tune that comes to mind is “Sweet Georgia Brown”.


  • On Standards


I suggest you pick songs that stay in minor key for a while at first. It’s always easier to imply blues in minor! Tunes such as: “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise”, “Yesterdays“, “Autumn Leaves”  and “Alone Together”

Later on, you can even try to add blues (in a tasteful manner) to real, straight-ahead standards with major II-V and II-V-I progressions. The rule of thumb should be to use the “major blues” on a major progression.

For example:

Dm7 G7 to Cmaj –> use C “major blues” aka A “minor blues”

But then again, listen to the “greats” and you’ll hear them break the rules every time (with taste, always!)

These are just suggestions, of course. I’m sure you could find dozens of different ideas to fit your own style and where you want your blues phrases to go in the big picture. The point is you have to work at it for “it” to become interesting.

On the same note: Don’t sacrifice the feel or expressiveness of your lines for the sake or “correct” not choices when playing blues phrases. It’s about “singing your own song” as Metheny says.

And let’s put it this way: It’s your own voice that should shine through, not “idiomatic and technical connectedness” of blues playing. Simply go for it!

… and lastly, use some caution…

Balance is Key: Too Much is Like Not Enough

No matter how much you like playing bluesy, always remember that your blues lines have to be “mixed in” with some regular changes-oriented improvisation! This especially holds true for blowing on “standards” from the Broadway era in which the proportion of blues stuff should be kept to a decent minimum. (Here again, it’s just my opinion.)

Even when improvising on actual blues form (12-bar or other), you can’t go on and play material that comes strictly from
blues scales (it would sound redundant and tasteless!) You have to play a balance between changes/scales/arpeggios and blues sounding phrases.

A great quote on the use of too many blues notes:

“The old folks would say, The person who curses
a lot has the fewest words at their command

-Barry Harris, legendary jazz pianist
My Final Advice (if your remember only one thing in this article, this should be it): In the end, if you play a lot of blues songs (and I mean a lot), this “sound” will permeate into your improvisation over jazz standards. Learn to properly express yourself on “real” blues, and this intuitive approach will guide the rest of your playing…
I hope this helps,
Practic well and blues it up!

Marc-Andre Seguin

Old Comments for Blues Lines over Standards

Apr 03, 2010
quite a difference
by: Anonymous

the major versus the minor blues is a key to spectacular

Mar 28, 2010
by: phil

Thanks very much for your in depth response.

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