A Blues Key

Lately I’ve seen a lot of confusion over the word, “key,” as it applies to the blues.

For example, when we say a blues is “in the key of E,” it’s not, really. That’s just something we say. And if you’re new to the blues, and new to music, in general, this can be pretty confusing.

So let’s start with the basics first:

What’s A Key?

Simply put, a key is a collection of notes that play well together. They are in no particular order, which is all that separates them from a scale, but one of the notes in the key, the root, is the most important.

Keys can be major, or minor, and they (basically) work the same so I’ll only discuss major. (For all you theory junkies that want to pontificate on how minor keys aren’t actually exactly the same as major keys, save it. I know, and I’m skipping that because it doesn’t matter for the sake of this discussion.)

Imagine back to when you were a kid, and you might have had those little Alphabet blocks – each block had a letter on it, and you had 26 of them, one for each letter…

Well, in a key, you’ll only have 8, and the most important one, the root, you’ll have 2 of those.

So you might have a C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and another C… and if you put all of those blocks in a bag, that would be the key of C (major.)

And I might tell you that those notes in that bag are the notes you’re allowed to play with.

You can’t play with the Bb – that’s not in your key… and you can’t play with the F#, that’s not in your key either.

Then What’s A Scale?

Well, let’s say you take the notes out of the bag for the key of C… and you put them on the floor in order, starting with the root (the one we decided was most important.)

You’d get:

C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C

on the floor, in that order. And that, is a C Major Scale. So really, the only difference between the key of C, and the C Major Scale, is that the scale goes in order. Otherwise, they are the same notes.

But That’s Not Blues, Is It?

Nope, not even a little bit… blues doesn’t follow traditional rules.

Let’s say we’re playing a blues “in the key of C.” We’d have 3 chords, C7, F7, and G7.

If we break those chords apart into their individual notes, we have 

C, E, G, Bb (C7), F A C Eb (F7), and G B D F (G7).

Putting those all together we get

C, D, Eb, E, F, G, A, Bb, B, C – which is too many notes, for one thing. And secondly, you never have Eb and E together, or Bb and B together. In a key, you can only have one of each letter (it might have a sharp or flat, but there will be only one.)

That, my friend, is why the minor blues scale is used. It doesn’t fit perfectly over any one of those chords – but it gets pretty close to all of them, and it’s a sound we’ve grown to love, so we use it.

In a blues, the first chord (of the 12 bar blues form) is the “key,” even though the key actually changes with every chord change.

I try very hard to say, “a blues in C,” instead of “the key of C,” because “key,” in that context, is used incorrectly. But it’s a subtle thing and sometimes I get lazy because we speak incorrectly so commonly.

So What?

The main thing here is to remember that, by and large, the classic, diatonic major scale has no place in blues. I never use it, BB King never used it, and I’ve never met a blues player that used it and had it work out.

Always remember that when you play a blues, fundamentally each chord is its own key. But you don’t have to think about it that way while you solo, that would be really hard.

That is why we have a blues scale, and why we love it so much.

41 Comments

  • Michael Chappell

    Reply Reply January 29, 2018

    Hi Griff, Great explanation. I have learn’t both the Pentatonic and Blues Scales and how to play Blues in majority of Keys. Always a good refresher here. Blues seems always around the 1 IV and V chords.

    Michael-Sydney-Australia- 30 Jan 2018

  • Hod Putt

    Reply Reply January 25, 2018

    If I am playing blues in C would I be playing in C minor pent. only?
    Or could I also be playing the C minor pent. when I play the C7 chord
    and when playing F7 chord the F minor pent.
    and G Minor pent. when I get to the G7 chord?

    It would seem to sound right both ways but I’ve often heard that the C minor pent. would be sufficient throughout the song.

  • JohnnyB

    Reply Reply January 25, 2018

    Not sure where this leaves us. I get that, in a sense, the key changes with the chords. I also get that we can’t play the blues scale in the matching keys over chord changes (eg, F blues scale over F7, G blues scale over G7, etc.). We don’t have to do that because the C blues scale pretty much covers everything. Pretty much.

    But it has to be said–sometimes the C blues scale won’t sound good over your example in certain places. I’ll be playing box 1 over a chord and it sounds great, then the chord changes and at least one of the box 1 notes sounds wrong.

    Is this as complicated as it seems or is it just me?

  • CHR

    Reply Reply January 25, 2018

    You can of course play:
    D major scale over the A7 chord
    G major scale over the D7 chord
    A major scale over the E7 chord
    i.e., the mixolydian

  • Tim

    Reply Reply January 25, 2018

    So I guess I have to know the scales ?
    Getting on it !
    Thanks guys

  • Tim

    Reply Reply January 25, 2018

    Your still my favourite but still struggling
    Good thing you don’t answer all these posts or you wouldn’t be playing your guitar!
    Keep on rockin’
    Always a big thanks from me even if I don’t always post!
    Tim

  • Paul Wilson- white from England

    Reply Reply January 24, 2018

    Great stuff Griff as normal,but I I understand it like this form your lessons.
    Say we are playing blues in A,using A7 D7 E7 when the 1 chord the A7 plays then you play box 2 starting on the root note A.
    that is your major sound right there.
    then when chords 4 and 5 come round,play box 1 that’s the minor sound.
    Then you can start to target individual notes to finish on when moving to the 5 chord.
    which for me the light bulb switched on and the blues started sounding like the blues. It’s great try it if you have not.
    Then learn how to target all the A notes in each box so you can then land anywhere on the neck on the correct root note A in this case A.
    I have found some amazing sounds now I can move freely round the neck.

  • David Chaffe

    Reply Reply January 24, 2018

    Your blog is perfectly timed as I was struggling with just this today. I was writing a song using the notes of the A pentatonic scale over the A7, D7 and E7 and it sounded all wrong. Now I know why. Thanks

  • Rod

    Reply Reply January 24, 2018

    I have long been a bit confused by the words “key” and “scale” and Griff’s explanation helped but also did not seem quite right either. I would now say a tune is said to be in a particular key, say C major for example, if it uses the notes applicable to the scale of C major ie, C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C, where C is the “tonic” or “root note” for the tune. The tonic is the note that the tunes revolves around or wants to return or resolve to. Nobody says for example “The key to this tune is C major” (say), but perhaps it would be a better way of expressing things! Incidentally, a good practical way to help decide the key if you are listening to the tune is to pluck your sixth string and move up and down the fingerboard until the note sounds right or appropriate. One could decide on major or minor by listening to whether the tune sounds bright and cheerful (major) or sombre and moody (minor). I am not sure how you would decide whether a tune in a minor key is in a natural minor key or perhaps in different mode. Anybody care to say something about that?

  • Doug McCarten

    Reply Reply January 24, 2018

    Thanks Griff,

    I too have always known this, but you put it in such simple terms.

    Thanks,
    Doug

    • PAUL

      Reply Reply January 24, 2018

      confusion!! I know the ntes location on the fret board. I know th pentitonic mjor and minr box’s and i juts know the first chord is the hey! i don’t think baout where my lick is going to be in key with th cords i juts play it by ear! i did get your concept! thanks Griff!

  • Chaplain Ed

    Reply Reply January 24, 2018

    Thanks Griff. See, you can teach an old dog… just can’t teach him much 😉

  • Gerry Luby

    Reply Reply January 24, 2018

    Thank’s Griff. Love the way break down music theory into layman’s terms. Makes it so much easier to follow.

  • john lawson

    Reply Reply January 24, 2018

    This helps – thanks! Another piece of the puzzle – no pun intended…maybe a little.

  • tony

    Reply Reply January 24, 2018

    i got a new pair of roller skates you got a brand new key . the old 1 4 5 love it. a lot of things come to light thanks

  • Bill45

    Reply Reply January 24, 2018

    This may not fit exactly into this line of discussion but it is closely related. I read an article some time ago that stated that blues has its roots in African based musical constructs which treat the 3rd of the I (Tonic) chord as being half way between a minor 3rd and a major 3rd. This in part would explain why the minor and major pentatonic scales work over the I chord. Jus a thought.

  • Mike Bertin

    Reply Reply January 24, 2018

    Hey Griff. Thanks for this. Being quite new to musical concepts, I have found some of these things confusing. This does shed some light on it. The bag of blocks description really helps. Thanks again.

  • Paleoblues

    Reply Reply January 24, 2018

    I’ve heard some refer to the “blocks” in the bag as the “C Major Collection.” Then putting them in order is the C Major Scale. Same difference. Just another way of expressing the “key”.

  • Joe Jackson

    Reply Reply January 24, 2018

    griff you are the best and a godsend.
    joe

  • Dave

    Reply Reply January 24, 2018

    David and Lain, I tried that idea of playing the different blues scales over their root chords (G blues scale over G7, D blues scale over D7, etc) and really thought I was on to something. Then I played with other people and it sounded horrible. Asked Griff and he set me straight. It doesn’t work for sounding like what our ears know to be true blues. On the other question, Lain, about following the chords, I find it’s like cooking spices. A touch works here and there. It opens things up and adds a subtle, surprise shift in flavor for a moment. Like whiskey with “peppery citrus notes in the finish.” But just because a little spice works doesn’t mean dumping it all in will be better. It’s all about taste. Listening with your ears and playing with your soul rather than regimentally driving your fingers. When it really seems to open up, I find, is when I think about leading the song rather than just following the chords. Making a definite, particular statement over the chord structure. You definitely have to know what chords you’re playing over to target the best notes. But truly leading seems more about getting out in front and carrying the melodic center, the main element listeners are hearing. Have found landing on 7th notes, major third notes or 9th notes (2nds) of the chord I’m playing over, rather than just roots of the chord, helps a lot. Griff can say all of this so much better and much more simply. Just sharing my thoughts. Oh, and he’d say, “Count out loud,” for sure, right about now.

    • Iain

      Reply Reply January 24, 2018

      That’s my take too Dave. I can play following the chords, but as I said, it’s not the blues. Interesting, but verging onto poor jazz. No doubt in the hands of a good jazz player it would say much more. I mix major and minor a bit, use the 2nd sparingly, and the 6th even more sparingly, and the Red House move of descending to the Maj 3rd is effective now and then. But like most people, the blues scale for the blues!

  • Roger Reeves

    Reply Reply January 24, 2018

    Griff: I wish I would have known you when I was younger. It was teachers that turned me against learning guitar: Keep up the great DVDs. Thanks Roger Reeves

  • Mark M

    Reply Reply January 24, 2018

    Thank you for this blues tip. It’s aways a pleasure to get different (or any) ideas in playing the Blues. Rock On ✌️😎

  • Peter Johnson

    Reply Reply January 24, 2018

    Superb explanation – thanks.

    This is something that’s been confusing / bugging me for ages.

  • Paul

    Reply Reply January 24, 2018

    Thanks Griff. Coming from Michigan, I didn’t know there was a ‘differnce.

  • Terry b

    Reply Reply January 24, 2018

    For those who asked about if you change scales to match the chord change, griff has something called the blues soloing cheat sheet. I have it saved to my favorites,but I don’t know how to link it here. Griff maybe you can help here.

    • Robyn

      Reply Reply January 28, 2018

      I would love to get a copy of that Blues soloing cheat sheet. DEMISTIFY.

  • Alex Mowatt

    Reply Reply January 24, 2018

    Thank you Griff for outlining the fundamental process for folks like me. I have had a life long interest in areas of education I skipped over whilst at school. Maths would be a classic example, made up of many aspects of maths that I could not see of any relevance to my chosen path in life. How wrong was I?
    The distinction between maths and music is a myth. You need maths knowledge to even get the basic out of life when carrying out DIY for instance and definitely getting to grips with music theory.
    Your presentation of the he facts is never judgemental regarding the readers existing knowledge base, Fof that I sincerely thank you.

  • cowboy

    Reply Reply January 24, 2018

    nice explanation Griff…later.

    cowboy

  • David Barron

    Reply Reply January 24, 2018

    Been playing acoustic 5 to 6 years and have started getting into your blues cd course that I ordered sometime ago. I had a understanding of keys and scales but have never seen it explained as well as you did in this blog. It helped clear up the way I thought about it. Thanks Griff.

  • Davy

    Reply Reply January 24, 2018

    Thanks for clearing that up Griff.

  • David

    Reply Reply January 24, 2018

    I’m still not clear about this. Are you saying that if you play a blues in C that you improvise all through the 12 bar on C blues scale or do you change to F blues scale on bar 5 and G blues scale when G7 comes around?
    dp

    • Iain

      Reply Reply January 24, 2018

      That’s what I’m asking below. I think “no”, but I’d be interested to hear from others, and from Griff.

      • Warren

        Reply Reply January 24, 2018

        Griff covers this in one or more of his courses (eg. Major minor blues shapes, Slow blues supplement). You can stay in C minor blues scale throughout, but also use the 1, 4 and 5 chord major pentatonic (including blues note) when playing those chords. ( Also 4 and 5 chord minor pentatonic and/or major/minor composite, but the major will sound best when playing the 4 or 5 chord). Switching between the major and minor pentatonic when on the 1 chord is key to improving your blues playing!

        • Casey Brose

          Reply Reply January 24, 2018

          Keys are so confusing….especially playing harmonica blues. A lot of guitar players will play in any key for you, but I like to tell them I will catch up with them later. I know this is wrong, but not very many know the answer. ( I usually play in a key 4 notes down.)

  • Steve Watson

    Reply Reply January 24, 2018

    Very well described Griff I’ll go with that one

  • Rob Johnson

    Reply Reply January 24, 2018

    Great explanation, Griff. Makes it clear and simple. Give my regards to Joburg, Steven Cohen. I’m mostly a Durban ou, in the UK since ’94 but lived in Joeys from ’67 to ’75. Showing my age here 🙂

  • Iain

    Reply Reply January 24, 2018

    Yes. And a blues with three dominant chords can’t be in one key.

    • Iain

      Reply Reply January 24, 2018

      But hete’s Another thing. If you “ follow the chords”, and the theoretical “ key change” , to my ear it stops sounding like blues, and in my case is more like bad jazz. Ok the odd major third, sixth, or blue not in passing, but it seems that our ears are tuned to a “ home key” at the tonic, or 1 chord. Do others find this? Do most of us stick to the minor pentatonic from the 1 chord? Do any of you “ follow the chords”?

  • Robert Chaney

    Reply Reply January 24, 2018

    I’ve all ways known this, but never been able to put it into words. Thank you for doing that!

    Best Regards

    Bob

  • Steven Cohen

    Reply Reply January 24, 2018

    Well done Griff.
    Wish you would’ve taught me maths at school.
    You have a great way of analogizing concepts.

    Steven (from South Africa Johannesburg)

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