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Today I want to show you how to play the blues on the saxophone. We’re going to look at 12 bar blues format and give you some tools so you can start improvising on a 12 bar blues and have some fun with it.
We are going to use the three chords used in 12 bar blues instead of blue scales.
A lot of people think about using the blues scale over blues, and that’s fine. In this lesson we are not going to talk about blues scales, we’ll get to blues scales in another guide.
Let’s dive right in.
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What is the 12 Bar Blues Saxophone Format?
The 12 bar blues is a standard musical format made up of 12 bars and only uses three chords. Depending on what key you’re in, it uses the I, IV and V chords. Only those three chords.
It’s a very common and simple format.
And you can have a 12 bar blues in any key.
In the D major scale (low D, E, F♯, G, A, B, C♯, and D), on the alto saxophone, for instance, the first note is low D, the fourth note, is G and A is the fifth. Those are the three chords using 12 bar blues.
For the C minor pentatonic scale (C, E♭, F, G, B♭, C), on the other hand, whose relative major scale is E♭ major pentatonic scale (E♭, F, G, B♭, C, E♭) the I, IV and V chords are E♭, B♭ and C.
How to Play Blues Saxophone
The chords in the first example are the chords we are going to use in today’s lesson. We are not going to use the blues scales (I’ll cover that in another guide instead).
We’re going to break this down note-by-note, and later I’ll give you a couple of tips on how you can improvise over it.
A lot of people think about using the blues scale over blues, and that’s a great way to go about it, but in this guide, I’m going to talk about it in a slightly different way.
The 12 Bar Blues for the D Major Scale
The best way to learn how to play, and improvise blues is with just a few chords. In this case, we are going to use just three chords.
Today I want to talk about some other chords — D, G, and A — which I think are great starting points for learning to play blues saxophone.
Let’s start with the first of the three chords, the D.
In blues today, every chord is what we call a seven chord. That means that when the piano player plays the chord, it’s going to be made of four notes — I, III, V, and VI notes.
A chord also implies that a piano player will play all four notes at the same time, yet on the saxophone, we play one note at a time. We simply play them one after the other.
Chord #1 — D
So just like we worked out the chords for the 12 bar blues format, if we look at the individual chord, we can work out which notes are in it.
So from (D, E, F♯, G, A, B, C♯, D), we get the I, III, V, and VI notes, that is (D, F♯, A, C♯). But instead of a C♯, we have a C natural.
The C natural comes about because we are using a variation of the major scale with the 12 bar blues, not the major scale.
Because the C natural is a seven in d7 chord. Don’t think too much about it, just accept that that’s what it is.
Here are the notes we end up with for the D chord:
Note that we are also adding the D on top.
We can spend a lot more time talking about the theory of it but for now, that will suffice for the D chord.
If we join up all the notes in between the chords we get the D Mixolydian scale (D, E, F♯, G, A, B, C, D).
Chord #2 — G
Let’s talk about the second chord in the 12 bar blues. That’s a G7 chord.
So, same thing, the chord tones for G7 are the I, III, V, and VI notes. From (G, A, B, C, D, E, F♯, G) we get (G, B, D, F♯, G) but instead of F♯, we get F natural.
Here are the notes we end up with for the G chord:
If we join up all the notes in between the chords we get the G Mixolydian scale (G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G).
Chord #3 — A
Okay, we’ve done the d7 and the g7, let’s look at the a7.
From the core tones (A, B, C♯, D, E, F♯, G♯, A) we get I, III, V, and VI, that is (A, C♯, E, G♯, A). But instead of G♯, we get G natural.
Here are the notes we end up with for the A chord:
Again, if we join up all the notes in between the chords we get the A Mixolydian scale (A, B, C♯, D, E, F♯, G, A).
Once you have the four notes of each of the three chords to bring the total to 12, all that’s left is to stick with those notes and experiment with rhythm and melody ideas.
You can just play around with them and make them as interesting as you want.
How to Improvise Blues Saxophone
In this section, I want to talk about the thing that almost always gets neglected when talking about improvising blues, or any style, really. Later on, I’m also going to give you a blues improvisation exercise to practice.
The very first step when improvising is to use the four notes we looked at in each of the three chords over the bars.
Most of the time when sax players are thinking about improvising, they talk about the notes. We’ve just talked about what notes to play for blues.
The result is often too many notes. I hear it all the time, and I’ve been guilty of it myself far more than I care to admit.
It’s almost as if we are always searching for some more interesting notes to play in the right spot to make everything sound better.
Or, we’re trying to stuff as many notes as we possibly can into a small space trying to make it sound better.
#1 — Too Many Blues Notes Only Make your Improvisations Worse
Unfortunately, this often has the exact opposite effect. It doesn’t make it sound better, it makes it sound worse.
The problem is compounded by two things.
First, the saxophone players we love to listen to, a lot of times play a lot of notes fast. And that sounds great and we want to do that ourselves.
Second, this type of playing appears, on the surface, to be the hardest and the biggest challenge to sounding good.
So we end up spending the bulk of our practice time trying to learn how to play a lot of notes, fast, at the expense of what is important.
If we go back to what is important, here’s what we learn…
#2 — Focus on the Rhythm, instead of What Notes to Play for Blues
The truth is, it is not the number of notes that we play, or the speed, or the uniqueness of the notes we put in here and there, it is the rhythm of what we are playing.
All notes have to be played in time for them to sound good.
Let me put this another way…
You don’t need to play a lot of notes to sound good. But, the notes you play have to be in time to sound good.
#3 — Learn to Improvise by Ear, Entirely (Avoid Blues Saxophone Sheet Music)
The best way to learn how to play and how to improvise solos over the blues, especially for complete beginners, is entirely by ear.
This is simply because this approach removes the biggest obstacle to playing rhythmically and in time — learning to read sheet music.
When you rely on reading when learning how to improvise, you put way more importance on the notes themselves, and very little importance on the rhythm.
Unless you are a very experienced reader at a professional level, you are probably not going to be able to read the sort of rhythms and syncopations that are in blues or jazz music rhythmically.
If you learn improvisation by ear, your chances of success go significantly up.
Rhythm is more important than notes. It is always the rhythm that carries the notes.
That fact is easily obscured when you hear lots of great saxophone players playing tones of notes at fast. But, if you listen carefully, the rhythm is always there, and t’s the rhythm that carries the music.
So why are we always talking about what note to play for blues saxophone?
The Blues Saxophone Improvisation Exercise
When practicing and improvising blues saxophone, your challenge is to improvise while playing only rhythmic things, and in time.
The best way to do this is by limiting your note choice. Take only the notes from the blues scale, for instance, or even fewer notes.
Again remember, this exercise is not about notes, but rhythm — your rhythm.
If you do not yet know the blues scale or your pentatonic scales don’t worry. Here’s are the scale with the fingering charts.
Here are the most comprehensive scales guides for the saxophone on the web.
- The Note-by-note Saxophone Major Pentatonic Scale guide (with saxophone main and alternate finger charts)
- The Note-by-note Saxophone Minor Pentatonic Scale guide (with saxophone main and alternate finger charts)
- The Note-by-note Saxophone All Major Scales guide (with saxophone main and alternate finger charts)
- The Note-by-note Saxophone All Minor Scales guide (with saxophone main and alternate finger charts)
Learn to use lots of space in blues improvisation exercises
For this exercise, you’re also going to want to use a lot of space.
You don’t want to play any more than 50:50 ratio for notes to space.
Space is what allows you to hear the rhythm you want to play next. Space is also what allows you to hear what you just played, and formulate a coherent reply to that.
Space will also help you physically execute the rhythms and notes more accurately on your instrument.
The easiest thing you can do to cure the urge to play too many notes, too fast, is to start with fewer notes, and then space them out. Get in the habit of using space every time you improvise.
For this challenge, you can use one single note if you want, and then bring in the others once you’ve mastered the use of space. You need to be able to play rhythmically on one note before bringing in more.
If you are not able to do that, then you need to go back to the drawing board and focus on your rhythm.
Space is the easiest thing you can use to sound better right away.