One of the key secrets to playing the blues… well… you might have guessed it… is being able to play the blues scale. Here’s a simple lesson to get you started:
This lesson is intended for players who already know how to play single notes cleanly, but doesn’t require that you know how to bend notes. If you’re struggling to get clean notes, check out my single notes lesson.
I have a C harmonica here. Any 10 hole diatonic harmonica in the key of C will allow you to follow along with this lesson.
What’s a Scale?
If you look at all the black and white keys on the piano you’ll notice that there are only 12 that repeat over and over from left to right. A scale is some, but not all of those notes you see on a piano. Different scales use different notes which create many “flavors” of sound. And blues scales use the notes that sound bluesy, of course.
On the harmonica, most beginners play too many blow notes when playing the blues scale. Here’s a pro tip for you: when playing the blues, most of the notes we want to play to sound great are draw notes, so give most of your attention to them. And that’s why I’m gonna start by teaching you…
Level 1: “The Simple Walking Blues Scale”
I learned this scale from JP Allen, and you can think of it as the training wheels of the blues scale:
3 -3 -4 -5 6
-5 -4 -3 3
The 6 is the highest root note of the basic blues scale, and the lowest root note is the 3. (For now, just think of root notes as the main note or notes around which a scale is built.)
Side note: The lowest root note can actually be the 3 or the -2 since they’re both the same note but played different ways. I’m writing the tabs as 3 because it’s gonna be easier than -2 as your lungs will quickly fill up with air with all that drawing. But if you wanna challenge yourself more, try playing the -2 instead of the 3.
We’re gonna play this along with a 12-Bar Blues at 2 speeds. Playing this might not wow anyone, but it will start to give you the framework for learning where the important blues scale notes are on the harmonica.
As your technique improves, and as you begin to learn blues songs and licks, this scale is going to give you a context for seeing songs and licks that will help you learn and remember music more quickly and easily. This is the power of scales!
If that feels challenging, keep working on it for a couple of weeks or a couple of months. Don’t be in a rush. Enjoy the process. Always remember this is play, not work! Once that feels easy for you, let’s take it to the next level. I’m gonna teach a scale I’ve named…
Level 2: “The Almost-Blues Scale.”
This is going to be a bit more challenging. To start with, we’re gonna replace our 3 with the -2. Remember, more draw notes = a more bluesy sound.
To play the -2 and have it sound good…
- Drop your jaw.
- Make sure your teeth are far apart.
- Make sure the back of your tongue is lowered like it is when you yawn.
In addition to playing the -2 instead of the 3, we are going to add the blow 4 to the scale which will add a bit more spice. So now the harmonica tabs for The Almost-Blues Scale are:
-2 -3 4 -4 -5 6
-5 -4 4 -3 -2
Ok now we are going to add 2 more notes that will give us all the important notes in the blues scale that we can play without bending. The new notes we are adding are the blow and draw 1 which will take us all the way to the bottom of the range of the harmonica for the lowest notes we can play in this blues scale.
We still start on -2 go up to 6 and back down to -2, but then we’ll continue to play down to -1 1 -1 before finally landing back on -2 to finish 1 repetition of our blues sclae exercise. Let’s try just that new ending phrase starting on -2 to get it dialled in:
-2 -1 1 -1 -2
Level 3: “The Fully-Legit Beginner Blues Scale”
Now let’s get those training wheels off, put it together and play something that might just wow your buddies:
-2 -3 4 -4 -5 6
-5 -4 4 -3 -2 -1 1 -1
Congrats on taking the time to start learning the geography of the blues scale on the harmonica. You are on your way to playing some big boss blues!
If you’re hungry for more, then here’s another more in depth beginners’ blues lesson for you. And if you’re up for a challenge, then you might want to check out my lesson on bending to take your blues game to the next level.