Updated: May 1, 2021
Blues is a fundamental part of a guitar player's education and I believe it is something that most teachers miss. In my experience, teachers will teach the five positions of the pentatonic minor scale, the proper chord progressions, and then maybe a song or two before having them improvise. My approach is similar but the focus is to study the five positions with a steady flow of blues etudes. The goal is that this will give the student a more obvious idea on why each particular position is unique and thus be used appropriately.
The Five Positions
The above diagram is a; blues chord progression, the five pentatonic minor positions, and a diagram of the notes on the fifth and sixth strings. I have named the positions based on where the immediate root note is located. For example, the first position is called the 1-6 pentatonic minor because the root puts your first finger on the sixth string. This is an important distinction that defines this particular scale position. When it is labeled as position one, or something similar, it is just ink on paper. When you consistently reminded the student of where the root note is and how it relates to the scale, this can give them a better idea functionally but it is also a great lesson in eat training as well.
Learning The Scales
The fundamental rules that I follow when teaching these scales are; start on the root, play all of the notes, and end on the root note. For example, I rarely want a student to play the 1-5 scale position and starting and ending with first first finger 6th string. They should usually start and end on the root as in the example below:
1-5 Pentatonic Minor
This is how you can create an environment where we can escape the bland nature of learning these positions as just blocks on the fretboard, improving your students' technique and ear.
Once the students have a good handle on the 1-6 and 1-5 pentatonic minor scales, it is time to introduce etudes. These are not complex nor should they be anything but basic. A mistake I see some teachers make is bring improvisation into the equation too soon,, telling the student to just play something; for example, “just play whatever you want!” This usually paralyzes the student, in giving them to few or to many options. A steady diet of personalized etudes, that highlight why we use these ideas, will eventually lead to the student developing his or her own idea of improvising, as well as a myriad of additional advantages. Below are two examples of these etudes.
I recommend every teacher write their own to suit the needs each specific student.
Notice how we start to introduce some notes from the blues scale and start to add some new flavor. You can now start to incorporate changing scales positions over the chord progressions.
Fourth Finger Scales
Now we add the fourth finger scales. Although these can be a bit awkward, they are still important and can be very flexible. I recommend that you use the same key as the etudes for the 1-6 and 1-5 scale position. This will give a more complete idea of the fingerboard.
Now that they have progressed to the next set of etudes we can start to add different ideas, such as rhythms and shifting. Again, all of this is to create an environment where a student can naturally discover and explore the blues and where they can start to make easy connections between the different positions.
Final 1-4 scale
By now the student will have a fair grasp of the pentatonic minor scales and we can start to introduce more advanced ideas. Here we can see that bends, shifting, and different rhythms are all introduced in one 12 bar blues etude.
Blues is the very fabric of much of western roots, pop, and rock music together. it is my opinion that student learn these concepts properly. Treating these scales as more than just shapes will help the development of your students to not only improvise, but create.
There will be further articles to come taking deeper dives into the topics in this article so stayed tune for more.