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If you’re in need of some inspiration to freshen up your blues phrasing or looking to add a little jazz-like colour, John Wheatcroft is back with another series of 3 blues lessons which will help you broaden melodic, rhythmic and improvisational horizons. All 3 parts will include full audio examples (rhythm, solo, backing tracks), PDF and Sibelius tabs and textual explanation with scales and tips.



One of the primary devices employed within music, and also many other forms of communication, is the setting up and resolution of tension. Without it there is no real compulsion within the listener to carry on listening. For example any form of tension promotes expectation by implying that a balancing ‘answer’ is coming at some point soon, rather like the punch line to a good joke. Music with no inherent tension would be a rather bland and uninteresting experience for all concerned so composers and improvisers alike have experimented with numerous ways to embed such devices within their music for centuries.

Within contemporary musical styles, it’s arguably jazz that pushes the ‘tension envelope’ furthest. The highly chromatic nature of the harmony and the often fast and frequent key changes means that even the most basic ‘standard’ can be a potential minefield to the uninitiated. It’s heartening to remember that the devices employed are not necessarily ‘difficult’, more likely ‘unfamiliar’, the difference being than the former will often remain psychologically hard, even when you know what you’re looking for! For many, the basic I IV V harmony of the blues is the perfect place to begin expanding our harmonic and melodic palette, and as we saw in the previous blues series, at one point in history the difference between both styles was minimal at best, and further, the mournful and often dark melancholic dominant nature of the blues lends itself much more effectively to the addition of tension than say the upbeat, bright major tonality of country music. I’m generalizing, of course, but I’m sure you get the idea.

To this aim we have a selection of musically cohesive and complete studies for you in these 3 articles, in a variety of styles ranging from a funky 16ths riff based blues, through a straight Latin-inspired 12-bar and finally a bebop major blues sequence that incorporates the kitchen sink of reharmonization and chord substitution. Each rhythm part is followed by an accompanying solo study. Whilst it is a great idea to learn these solos in their entirety, you will get much greater mileage from this article if you ensure the conceptual and technical approaches are fully digested from both a cognitive and a physical perspective. The written parts are just one potential ‘solution’ to the puzzle of playing through the changes. If you understand the code, you’ll be able to figure out your own parts, and get one step closer to that elusive goal of developing your own style in the process.

For the last few years now one of my own personal practice techniques is the ‘one for one’ rule. Anytime I learn anything from anyone else, either from transcribing from a recording or attending a clinic, I’ll always attempt to compose an idea of my own, similar in style perhaps and utilizing the same concepts and/or techniques but in my own way. By doing this, it’s possible to remain ‘inspired’ and ‘influenced’ whilst still developing a unique and artistically credible voice. Why not try this yourself and write some alternative solo and rhythm studies? As always, enjoy…


Study 1: Funky 16ths Blues

Rhythm: Arpeggio Riffs

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The mighty Robben Ford directly inspires our opening example groove. Harmonically speaking this is a fairly neutral part, spelling out our I IV V sequence with arpeggios derived entirely from the relevant dominant 7th chord (R, 3, 5, b7). I’ve purposefully avoided all reference to the fourth degree of each chord in both rhythm parts. Tonally, you should aim for a clean and dry tone with plenty of attack and ‘snap’ from an articulation perspective. Interestingly, with parts such as this a bit of fret buzz in the mix can actually add something to the tone, introducing a natural and ‘human’ element.


Rhythm: 9th Chords & Sidestepping (2nd page in above tab)

Our second complementary rhythm part is derived almost exclusively from 9th chord voicings for each of our I IV & V chord (R, 3, 5, b7, 9), although notice how frequently we miss the root note altogether to allow the bass part some room to breathe. The main device employed his is called ‘sidestepping’, and literally means just slipping in and out of each harmonic event by moving up or down by a semitone, or in the case of bar 10 approaching upwards in semitones from a starting point a tone below. It’s a good idea to remember that anything we can do with chords, we can also do with single notes. This is an approach often favoured by Larry Carlton to obtain an ‘outside’ sound against static chord and it’s a device you should certainly experiment with when you improvise.


Lead: Pentatonic, Mixolydian, Lydian b7, Superlocrian

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If you are no stranger to the melodic minor scale and the potential attributes of its inherent modes then you know that the most useful of which from a blues perspective are modes the Lydian b7 (R 2 3 #4 5 6 b7), and the Superlocrian (R b2 #2 3 b5 #5 b7). Lydian b7 is most frequently employed against ‘non-functioning’ dominants (I.e. anything that doesn’t resolve up a 4th or down a semitone), with the #4 acting as a colourful extension and being the reason why I avoided the natural 4th in the rhythm parts, whilst the Superlocrian works best when resolving in the way dominant chords naturally like to unfold (i.e. up a 4th or down a semitone). All that extra tension, in the form of all the sharp and flat notes, is dissipated when the chord gets to where it is going so things should sound perfectly natural and surprising logical and ‘correct’.


Backing track

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If you’re in need of some inspiration, get yourself a copy of Robben Ford’s 1988 release, "Talk To Your Daughter" (Warners) or you could try "Handful Of Blues" (River 2005). Mike Stern’s 1999 release, "Play" (Atlantic Jazz) is equally fantastic and also showcases the formidable talents of both John Scofield and Bill Frisell on several tracks. Whilst on the subject of Sco, the album "Works For Me" (Polygram 2001) is highly recommend. Staggering playing all round!