Learn The Blues Scale!

Blues Scale – This blues piano lesson explains and illustrates the one scale that is perhaps responsible for turning more heads in a room than any other due to the nature of its construction and flexbility. Let’s first take a look at what it looks like. In particular, we are looking at the C blues scale here:

C Blues Scale

Blues Scale | Blues For Piano

Although fingerings for the blues scale will vary depending on key, the following fingering guide works well
for the C blues scale as well as a few others like G, D, A, and E:

1 2 3 4 X 1 2 3

(thumb, index finger, middle finger, ring finger… cross thumb under… thumb index finger, middle finger)

To repeat the scale another octave, simply cross the thumb (1) under the 2 to begin again on C rather than using the 3:

1 2 3 4 X 1 2 X 1 2 3 4 etc

Analyzing the construction of this scale becomes easy if we relate it to the C major scale which is:


As we take a look at the notes on the keyboard illustration above when we define it in relation to the notes in the major scale, here is what we have:

1 b3 4 b5 5 b7 1

When we look at this analysis closely, we can see that this scale is actually a minor pentatonic of the same root, C minor pentatonic (a pentatonic scale is a 5 note scale) with one additional note added, that being the flatted 5th. Considering that this scale is played over all major chords (specifically, dominant 7th chords) in the basic 12 bar blues, we are playing a minor scale over major chords… this is one of the characteristics of the blues scale that makes it sound so unique. Another interesting aspect of this scale is that this one scale can be played (and often is) over all the chords in the blues form. In other words, a C blues scale can be played over a C7, F7, and G7. So, it is not necessary to play an F blues scale over the F7chord and a G blues scale over the G7 chord. Actually, it’s usually a preference not to do that because it would result in losing a chief quality of using the earlier approach. You see, when thinking “C blues” we think “C blues scale.” Although we are not limited to simply playing a blues scale exclusively when playing the blues, this one scale, when used in a tasteful fashion, really gives the blues the character that it has.

Here is what happens when we play the blues scale over each of the primary chords in the blues:

When playing a C7 chord, the scale tones of the blues scale in relation to that chord are:

1 b3 4 b5 5 b7 1

When playing an F7 chord, the scale tones of the blues scale in relation to that chord are:

5 b7 1 b9 9 4 5

When playing a G7 chord, the scale tones of the blues scale in relation to that chord are:

4 b13 b7 7 1 b3 4

Now, when it comes to playing the blues, do we need to consider such an analysis? No, it’s not necessary. Looking at this chord/scale relationship simply makes it more evident why that scale sounds so interesting over all these chords… just look at all those colors! We’ve got, b9’s b13,s (altered tones) dispersed with chord tones and more. It’s quite a mixture. Why is this important? Well, when we consider that music consists of “tension and release” we can see that we have a lot of that going on here when we play a blues scale over the various chords. For example, when playing a C blues scale over a C7 chord and moving from that b5 to the 5, we establish a bit of “tension and release.”  The b5 sounds “tense” but when we move to the 5, we get a feeling of “release” because the 5 is in the chord, so we get a sense of “relaxing” when going to it. When playing these same two chord tones over an F7 chord, we have a b9 moving to a 9. We get a similar effect but this time, we are moving from an altered tone to an extension (b9 to 9), both colorful in their own way. Playing the same two notes over the G7chord results in a major7 moving to the root. Now, that’s interesting, would you agree? We are playing a major 7 over a chord that has a b7! You see, it’s all good! Tension…release…tension…release… etc. It’s easy to see that when playing one blues scale over a number of chords, we have at our fingertips a cornucopia of color!

Once again, let’s acknowledge that this bit of analysis above is only presented to shed a little light on why the blues scale works in such an interesting fashion over all the chords in the blues. However, when it comes to playing the blues, just dive in and get started playing!


1) Familiarize yourself with the 12 bar blues form

2) Become comfortable with playing good sounding voicings for the three primary chords with your left handover the 12 bar blues at a slow tempo

3) Start having fun with playing notes from the blues scale with the right hand while holding the chords with the left hand. Keep this simple at first. One approach is to simply play each chord once in each measure and hold it for 4 beats while you have fun with the right hand a little. Keeping the left hand relatively inactive allows your attention to be placed on the right hand activity, thus giving you the freedom to have some fun improvising.

Let’s emphasize here that maintaing a steady tempo is an utmost priority… and, yes, that can be reallllly slow! Steady and slow is the ticket toward development at this point.

In other lessons, we will take a look at how to specifically have some fun using this blues scale as we explore the wonderful art of improvisation when playing the blues!

James Cotton Playing Slow Blues