#71 How To Play The Blues On Sax

improvising May 24, 2020

One of the genres that almost everyone in the Get Your Sax Together community says they love is the blues. I honestly have no idea what people mean when they say that as " blues" covers such a huge swathe of music, from John Lee Hooker, John Coltrane, Ma Rainey and Louis Armstrong to The Who, James Brown, Joe Bonamasa and even Ibiza House tracks, so in this special extended lesson on blues saxophone I thought the best thing to do would be to go right back to the origins of the blues and trace it forward, clearing up any confusion along the way and, most importantly, learn what sax lines we can play on the blues, in any context.

As always, you can get a (longer than usual!) PDF worksheet here for this free online saxophone lesson, which has two types of 12-bar blues chord sequence, five fantastic blues licks and every blues scale written out IN EVERY KEY! Plus, due to popular demand, you can also download free backing tracks from the video and, as a special bonus, I've created a Great Blues Sax Spotify playlist so you can instantly get your ears on some of the greatest blues saxophone performances of all time!

Here are the Q&A topics covered in this lesson, with video time stamps (min:sec). Clicking on the time stamp will take you straight to that portion of the video on YouTube (in a separate tab). Full Time stamps for the video and a complete transcript are at the bottom of the blog.


How do I play blues on saxophone? (6:09)

  • first of all you have to learn to play the saxophone itself a little bit!
  • then learn the "blues scale" for the key you're in. You can use any note from this one scale to jam on the blues
  • to play the blues even better, learn the major AND minor varieties of the blues scale and start to learn the chords of the blues and what notes to use from the chords to supplement the blues scale stuff
  • finally, to get a great feel on the blues, listen to other great blues saxophonists and learn to play exactly what they play. This is called transcription


Where does blues music come from? (2:07)

  •  blues music has it's roots in west African traditional music. Enslaved Africans in the American deep south blended their traditional music with western classical and church music to form acapella field hollers, work songs and spirituals that were collectively sung in the fields to ease their suffering
  • from the early part of the twentieth century onwards the original verse pattern of one line repeated four times was replaced with an A-A-B verse pattern, and when instruments were added this became the standard 12-bar blues structure
  • throughout the twentieth century different instruments and  musical genres became blended together to form a variety of sub-genres of blues music, such as blue grass, delta blues, Chicago blues, jazz blues, gospel, funk, soul and blues rock. Gradually from the 1950s onwards, blues music grew beyond its predominantly black American roots to become a multi-ethnic, worldwide phenomenon


What is a 12-bar blues? (4:09)

  • a 12-bar blues is a repeating chord structure used for blues music
  • the most common chord pattern is, in the key of C (one bar/measure per chord)... C7-F7-C7-C7-F7-F7-C7-C7-G7-F7-C7-G7. Or, in roman numerals... I7-IV7-I7-I7-IV7-IV7-I7-I7-V7-IV7-I7-V7
  • these same chords can be played with a variety of feels, tempos and variations
  • in a jazz context the chords would be a bit more complex


What is the blues scale? (7:46)

  • derived from West Africa and the vocal traditions of field slaves in the deep south of America, the blues scale is the root, minor 3rd, 4th, flattened 5th, 5th and flattened 7th of the key
  • in C this would be C, Eb, F, Gb, G, Bb
  • get your free PDF here to see the blues scale(s) in every key


What are "blue notes" in the blues? (9:01)

  • blue notes are the flattened third, flattened fifth and flattened seventh of the scale
  • as blues is a vocal tradition, these notes intuitively will be bent down in pitch and tonally coloured for emotional impact - we can recreate this on sax which is why it's such a great instrument for blues


How do I learn the blues on saxophone? (6:09)

  • you can use three broad (and overlapping) approaches to improvise blues saxophone
  • approach #1 - use one blues scale (10:44)
  • approach #2 - use two blues scales (major and minor) and a few select notes from the chord sequence (17:28)
  • approach #3 - use everything from #1 and #2, plus any chord note or chord extension, any relevant scale and chromatic or diatonic chord tone enclosures (20:18)


I'm using the right scales etc, why don't I sound good playing the blues on sax? (9:30)

  • using the right notes is only the beginning - to sound good on blues sax you need to have a strong tone, great rhythm, good articulation, good tuning and a keen sense of phrasing
  • transcribing other players is the best way to achieve this (as well as disciplined and smart practice!) (11:21)


How do I get some great blues licks on sax? (22:10)

  • you need to find a blues saxophonist you love and work out exactly what they play. Then transpose it into every key so you can use the lick anytime, anywhere
  • after a while you'll just get an intuitive feel of what licks sound good and create your own
  • there are five examples of great blues sax licks here and they are written out in every key in the free PDF here


What genres can I play blues sax on? (22:58)

  • blues licks that you learn on sax will work on almost any soul, pop, funk, disco or house track if used carefully
  • to see the exact same blues scale licks used over different genres check out theses demos - blues shuffle, funk, housy dance music


So that's it for this week. I really hope you enjoyed learning how to play the blues on saxophone. In closing though, don't forget that the most important factor in the blues is the feeling of the music, so never sacrifice the expression of your heart for more notes or faster phrases. The blues is a feeling. A universal expression of longing, melancholy or suffering that transcends chords and scales.

Next week - you asked, and I've delivered - every sax line on Them And Us by Pink Floyd! Happy saxing, Jamie :-)


Video Time Stamps

0:00 - opening performance

0:16 - brief intro and titles

0:40 - intro

1:36 - how to get the free one hour masterclass

2:07 - the history of blues music

4:09 - 12 bar blues form

6:09 - three approaches for blues sax

7:46 - the history of the blues scale

9:01 - blue notes: why sax sounds great on blues

9:30 - why the notes are the least important thing for blues


11:21 - why transcribing is better than anything else

12:51 - using blues approach two

13:49 - but the blues scale doesn’t fit any chord?

15:34 - using selected chord tones in the blues


18:02 - approach 3: bebop jazz blues


20:45 - from blues to soul, funk, rock, pop and electronic

22:10 - BONUS: 5 great blues licks

22:21 - blues lick #1: David Sanborn

22:28 - blues lick #2: Maceo Parker

22:34 - blues lick #3: Michael Brecker

22:42 - blues lick #4: Grover Washington Jr

22:51 - blues lick #5: Rusty Bryant

22:58 - how to use any blues lick on any genre




25:53 - sign off and end cards


Video Transcript

Hi, I’m pro saxophonist Jamie Anderson, saxing up your Sunday once again right here on Get Your Sax Together. Almost every player I’ve ever encountered has said they like listening to or playing blues music, so in today’s free online lesson you’ll be learning how to play the blues on saxophone.

Whether you’re a complete beginner on sax, a developer or an expert and whether you play alto, tenor, or any other sax the blues is the one genre that is universally accessible to all. Today we’re gonna unpack the origin story of blues music, all the genres associated with the blues, what the musical structure of a 12 bar is and of course what notes you can use to be bluesy, and make sure you watch right to the end cos I’ve got a very special bonus for you that will instantly get you sounding better when YOU play the blues. Playing the blues is so much more than just a cerebral concept to be understood though.

The best blues is usually a visceral expression of hardship or challenge, a universal feeling that transcends creed, colour, age or nationality. Before we start learning to play the blues on sax let’s briefly delve into the history of the word itself - where it comes from, what it stands for and how time has re-shaped it’s definition.

Just before we get well and truly bluesed up though, I want to quickly mention an awesome gift I created for you guys. I’ve called it the Saxophone Success Masterclass and it’s a zero fluff, one hour lesson designed to help you get the sound you’ve always wanted, transform your timing and learn a whole bunch of pro tips and tricks to take your playing to the next level. Best of all though, it’s totally free! The link is in the description, or you can visit getyoursaxtogether.com/masterclass. Hopefully you’ll enjoy that and now let’s back to the blues.

So, what is the blues anyway? Well, above all else blues is a fusion. A melting pot. Originating from the plaintive work songs, field hollers, spirituals and chants of enslaved Africans in the American Deep South, fused with the tribal musical traditions of West Africa and classical music, the blues as we would start to recognise it today arose around the 1870s, and became MORE prevalent at the start of the 20th century, with the first reference to blues in printed music in 1908.

The word itself may have come from the phrase “the blue devils”, coined in the UK in the 1600s, referring to severe alcohol withdrawal, but the first contextually accurate use of the word “blues” was recorded in the diary of African American Charlotte Forten in 1862, in relation to her depressed and lonesome state of mind. From it’s humble origins of acapella vocal verses, blues music steadily diversified and began incorporating various additional instruments through the 20th century, gradually branching into many sub-genres such as delta blues, bluegrass, country blues, Chicago blues, jazz blues, gospel, rhythm and blues and eventually blues rock and even electronic music.

The blues has always been synonymous with an expression of suffering or loneliness, with most early blues verses dealing with oppression, natural disasters like floods, lost love and general hardship, but through the ages the intensity and poignancy of these emotions can often be more elusive, with the music itself simply following a blues chord structure without being overtly “blues-y”.

The MUSICAL factor that has almost always defined blues music through the ages is a repeating, relentless rhythm. Originally simple, chugging guitars or harmonica and later repetitive walking bass patterns and backbeat drum grooves, the insistent, trance-like pulse of blues has always taken people away from their everyday mindset to a more transcendent place. This has never been more true than in the ecstatic, transformational tradition of Gospel music. 

Originally a simple line repeated four times, the start of the 20th century saw the emergence and eventual dominance of the standard 12 bar blues that we all now know and love, with an A-A-B verse pattern. There are many other blues chord patterns that aren’t 12 bars long, like Herbie Hancock’s "Watermelon Man” or Ray Charles’ “I’ve Got A Woman”, but for the purposes of this lesson we’ll just be focusing on the 12 bar blues.

If you go down into the description and click the link you can get the free PDF for this video, which has got these 12 bar blues forms written out IN EVERY KEY, along with EVERY blues scale. That is a seriously good resource, so be sure go to down there, click the link and pick up your copy. 

So this is what the original 12 bar blues looks like, with the roman numerals representing the chord from that step of the home key, and the chords as they would be in the key of C. This is the kind of chord progression you would be using if you were playing something like “Sweet Home Chicago” or “Route 66”. Now let’s look at a different variation - this is what the 12 bar blues looks like in a jazz context. There’s an additional II-V-I in the fourth bar, to lead to chord IV, there’s an additional III-VI in bar 8, and the V-IV-I turnaround in bars 9 and 10 is now replaced with a II-V-I. This is the kind of chord progression you’d be using if you were playing a Blue Note style Hard Bop jazz tune like “Billie’s Bounce” or “Straight No Chaser”. 

Now, what I want to know is - have YOU got a favourite 12 bar blues? Stick it down in the comments if you have, and I’ll get the ball rolling by telling you that my favourite blues of all time has gotta be Jeep’s Blues by Duke Ellington, recorded live at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956, a legendary concert also famous for Paul Gonsalves’ 27 chorus blues solo on Diminuendo In Blue that ignited both the crowd and Duke Ellington’s failing career. Anyway, we now know the history, we know the chords but what what NOTES are we actually gonna play?! And that’s what we’re gonna learn now.

Okay we’re now at the point where the rubber hits the road - and that is what notes we actually play when we improvise on the blues. So to keep this nice and simple I’m gonna break this into three broad approaches, three tool kits to use, each with it’s own level of complexity. In approach one, we’re gonna use one blanket blues scale and effectively ignore all the chords. I call this the Lord Of The Rings approach - one scale to rule them all! 

In approach two we still mainly use a blanket approach but we choose between the major AND the minor varieties of the blues scale and we selectively throw in some carefully chosen notes from the chords. The final approach, approach three, is an all inclusive approach that potentially incorporates the blues scales, all the notes from all the chords and chromatic and diatonic passing notes. This is DEFINTELY for more advanced players! BUT! What’s really important to remember is that approach one is no worse than approaches two or three. In fact, some of the best blues and soul players like Grover Washington and Maceo Parker almost exclusively use approach one to great effect, whereas the newly graduated college whiz-kid who’s all over approach three can drastically miss the mark by using approach three out of context. Let’s get into this then, and we’ll start with approach one.

So, just before we just steam in and start jamming, let’s back it up again on our journey through the blues and take a brief look at the history of the blues scale. As explained on the website “composer’s tool box dot com”, Carl Engel’s 1870 book “The Music Of The Most Ancient Nations” contains an example of a scale that the author found on an mbira, or thumb piano, from the Senegambia region of Africa, now modern day Senegal and Gambia. Importantly, some 24% of enslaved Africans came from the Senegambia region. The notes on the mbira were noted as A, Eb, E, D, G, A, C and D which, when re-shuffled, match our standard A minor blues scale exactly. The author also cites an example of a very similar scale from the Congo.

Taking into account the prevalence of the standard pentatonic scale in many other African musical traditions and the fact that the music of Western Africa often sounds strikingly like blues music anyway we can say with some certainty that the blues scale has it’s roots in Africa. So, from the tribes of West Africa via the horrors of the slave trade and filtered through the melting pot and vocal hollers of early America get our humble blues scale: Root, minor third, fourth, flattened fifth, fifth and flattened seventh. An unconventional, six note scale that somehow conveys the universal emotion of human melancholy. (mind blown) 

So, before we start playing the blues scale it’s important to understand that the blues scale comes from a VOCAL, non-notated tradition. The flattened third and the flattened fifth are only a best approximation of the vocal notes that are “between the cracks” of the piano tempered scale. However, the good news for us, and maybe one of the reasons blues sounds so good on sax, is that we can smear these blue notes just like a singer. So we’ve got our Lord Of The Rings scale for approach one - the blues scale, and I’m about to demonstrate how you can use this scale now.

But! Just because we have the blues scale ready to go, doesn’t mean you’re gonna sound good using it! Why not? Because the rhythm and groove of what you play and your sax sound is even more important than the notes. On the card linked above is my video with three tips to get you sounding better without playing more notes, and after that you’ll see the card for my lesson on getting a great tone using overtones, although BOTH of these things are covered in my Saxophone Success Masterclass which you can access for free using the link in the description. So whatever approach you’re gonna use ALWAYS remember to play with a strong rhythm and let the music breathe. Okay, here’s a demonstration of just using the blues scale on over a standard twelve bar.

I’ve knocked up some backing tracks for this lesson that you can download for free along with the PDF - just click the link in the description. I’m only gonna be using the notes of the concert Bb minor blues scale - that’s C minor blues scale for tenor and G minor blues scale for alto. Here we go…

Whether you’re gonna use approach one, two or three, sooner or later you might wonder why you don’t sound as good as your heroes. There could be a number of reasons for this - maybe you need to improve your tone, maybe you need to learn how to growl and use bends and falls to shape your sound more, maybe you’re not playing with a strong rhythmic feel, you might need to work on your articulation or your basic technique - all these things are vital if you wanna sound like a great blues saxophonist.

My series on technique linked above has loads of resources to help you with all this stuff, as well as the Saxophone Success Masterclass linked in the description, but arguably the best thing you can do is to spend loads of time listening to your heroes and try and mimic what they play. When you mimic someone you learn what it feels like to play like them and you take on their qualities. That’s why transcription is so valuable. I’ve put together a playlist on Spotify with loads of examples of great blues saxophonists and I’ve included a link to that playlist in the description.

If you get the free PDF in the description there’s also a full track listing and the name of each saxophonist to make things easier to find where ever you listen to your music. Listening is VITAL. What you’ll accumulate when you do this is a bank of great licks that you can then transpose into every key, setting you up to sound much better when you express yourself through the blues.

So, without further ado, let’s talk about approach two. We’re gonna keep everything we learned from approach one, our basic minor blues scale, but add in the major version of the blues scale as well. So before I explain what the major blues scale is, don’t stress about having to learn a new scale. Because you’ve already learnt all your minor blues scales in all twelve keys (wink wink), you’ve already learnt all the major blues without even knowing it. This is because the major version of the blues scale is the same notes as the minor blues scale but down a minor third.

So on a C blues, you can use the C minor blues scale AND the A minor blues scale, except starting on C. For example - when we start an A minor blues scale on C we get the root, 2nd, major AND minor 3rd, 5th and 6th. This is our major blues scale in C. The most distinctive feature of this scale is that it has a minor third AND a major third and YOU can choose which one you use.

One strange thing about playing the blues is, especially with approaches one and two, many of the notes don’t fit the chords, in THEORY. For example, the first chord of a C blues is C7. the C minor blues scale has an Eb, an F and an F# in it. If you played a C7 chord on the piano then added an Eb, F and F# it would sound terrible, however, these blues scales have such a strong integrity of their own that they just independently float over the chords.

That’s one of the weird things about the blues scale - you could even throw it over a major seven chord which would mean that apart from the root the major seven chord and the blues scale have only got one note in common, which should sound awful, but it still works - as long as the blues scale is played convincingly with strong rhythm and phrasing. That’s the key. So be warned - if you indecisively frip about on an Eb and F# on a C major seven chord and think it’s gonna sound bluesy you might be in for a nasty surprise! lol

So, we now have two scales to use using approach two - the minor blues scale of the key and the notes from the blues scale 3 semitones beneath the key. We could leave it there, ignore the chords and crank out strong phrases using those two scales, and that would sound really good, however, with a bit more knowledge of the chords in a 12 bar blues we can demonstrate that we really know what we’re doing. In approach three you’ll learn all the notes of the main chords in the blues and use those notes at the right time in your solos, but for approach two, we’re just going to focus on one aspect of the chords and that is the major third and the minor third of the key.

So, let’s say we’re playing a simple rhythm-and-blues 12 bar in the key of C. The first chord is C7 and the third is an E natural. The second chord is an F7 and has an Eb in it. The seventh of F7 is Eb. Then we’re back to C7 for two bars, so we need to go back to the E natural. We get to the fifth bar and the chord is F7 for two bars, so we flip to the Eb. Then it’s C7 again for two bars so use the E natural. At bar 9 the chords are G7 for a bar and F7 for a bar. This time we’re gonna emphasise the third of each chord. That’s B natural for the G7 chord and A for the F7 chord. If you don’t know what the notes are for different chord types go to the video linked above now. For the last 2 bars of the sequence just jam out on the two blues scales.

So that now gives us some target notes to build our phrases round. You can use you the blues scales, but focus on the difference between the chords with E natural (the C7 chords), the chords with Eb (the F7 chords) and the B to A change in the turnaround in bars 9 and 10.

This will get you out of the rut of approach one and the blanket blues scale thing. It does take a bit more knowledge and practice though, and it’s common for people get lost in the chords as they try and think of what notes to play! lol Don’t worry, this is very normal. If this is you, then try playing one note to per measure to start with to get the harmonic rhythm embedded. Right, all that being said, let me try and demonstrate approach two. If you want some examples of players who play like this go to the list of tracks I’ve put in the free PDF linked in the description - we’re talking Lee Allen, Jr Walker, King Curtis, Grover Washington etc. We’re still using the basic 12 bar blues chord pattern for this example. Here we go…

In the third and final approach we’re using a variety of more sophisticated devices, a more complex chord sequence and more chromatic notes. It’s the kind of hard bop style that you would associate with the classic Blue Note records of the mid fifties to the early sixties. Hank Mobley, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt, Dexter Gordon, Cannonball Adderley, those sorts of players.

Of course, we still take forward everything from the first two approaches, and strong phrases from both blues scales can still be thrown over any chord. I can’t cover this approach in detail in this video as it would involve teaching you how to play bebop in it’s entirety, and anyway this video is specifically about the blues rather than bebop II-V-Is, but here it is in a nutshell. All the chord notes from every chord can be used, plus their extensions and any connecting scales, plus, certain chord notes can be approached diatonically or chromatically with surrounding notes from either direction. This is called using enclosures.

Learning all this stuff is arduous and disconnected in theoretical terms, and it’s better just to transcribe lots of bop players and see what they do to really understand the style. I created a three part series to help you with transcription and it’s linked on the card above. The biggest danger here is that the true feeling of the blues is lost in a sea of meaningless notes. It’s still a 12 bar blues, but there’s nothing stylistically to distinguish it from any other bebop chord sequence. However, the master saxophonists I just mentioned all internalised their craft to such a level that they still maintain a keen sense of the blues being a blues, especially at slower tempos, and radiate a poignant “bluesy” feeling throughout.

For example, check out Charlie Parker on Parker’s Mood, Hank Mobley on Greasin’ Easy or Sonny Stitt on Blues For Yard. I’ve changed the backing track for approach three to reflect the chord pattern and groove more often used in jazz, and you can see an analysis of what I play in the free PDF linked in the description. Again, the backing track is also available for free with the same link. Here we go… 

So we’ve followed the blues all the way from the tribes of West Africa through the work songs and spirituals of Mississippi Slavery into the 12 bar blues of the early twentieth century and right up to the blues of Blue Note, honkin’ R&B and the soulful bluesy jazz of the fifties and sixties. But the journey didn’t stop there for blues sax. In fact it had only just got going! The blues scale, with it’s mournful and emotional flattened blue notes duly became the de facto sound for virtually all soul, funk, rock, pop and electronic dance music ever made.

As I mentioned earlier, the blues scale has such a strong and cohesive internal integrity that it fits over a huge range of styles, including my own theme music by the way! If you go through my Hall Of Fame playlist you’ll see that tracks as diverse as Jubel, Pink Panther, Lily Was Here, Born To Run and Baiana all use the blues scale, as does virtually every funk, soul, rock or pop solo ever played. To know the blues on sax is to hold the keys to the kingdom, and the beauty of it is - a fant  astic lick you’ve learned from a 1950s Earl Bostic song will sound just as good over a 2019 bangin’ house track.

Now, as promised, here’s that special bonus you’ve been waiting for. I’m saving you a bit of hassle and giving you five great blues licks to get your lick library off to a great start.

To get you started here’s five awesome blues licks. I’ve only given the pitches for tenor as you should learn the licks in every key anyway, whether you play alto or tenor.

Now, as I mentioned earlier, the blues scale has been appropriated by a huge swath of music genres so the great news for us blues saxophonists is that you can take your best blues licks, from Brecker, Jr Walker, Charlie Parker or anyone else, and slap them right over a wide variety of grooves and tempos. To demonstrate this I’m gonna get the five licks I just taught you and string them all together. Then I’ll play them over a blues shuffle, a dirty funk groove and finally an electronic dance beat. This way you’ll see that the blues scale is a universal tool, with the sound of west africa, the cotton plantations, early 20th century black music and everything in-between and after echoing through the ages. Here we go…

That’s it for this Sunday, I don’t generally do things by halves and I want you guys to get maximum benefit from these lessons, so it’s been quite a long one! With any luck you’ve now got a much deeper understanding of the blues and one of the three approaches is a good fit for where YOU are with your sax journey right now. So just before we get to that funky, and BLUESY end card music, if you wanna learn some more in-depth sax stuff go to getyoursaxtogether.com/masterclass and get your free one hour lesson with me, and as always you can support me by giving this video a thumbs up, subscribe to the channel, click the bell icon to be notified when I upload new content, check out my Instagram feed and like my Facebook page. Phew! That’s a lotta love to give! Until next Sunday, even though it’s a massive contradiction in terms, happy bluesing!

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