The Lap Steel Guitar

The Blues Scale in C6th Tuning for Lap Steel

by Andy Volk

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There are many styles of music that feature some degree of improvisation, such as jazz, blues, Hawaiian, country, and even certain classical music styles. In fact, in Handel's time, any self respecting harpsichord player in a duo or trio would be expected to improvise his or her accompaniment from a sketch of the bass line - much like reading from a "fake book".

In the music we play today, improvisation can run the gamut from slightly altering a melody to spontaneously composing a new melody over the chord changes of a tune. Improvisers notebook will look at musical tools and ideas useful for people who want to learn to improvise on the steel guitar.

The blues forms the backbone for much of 20th century American popular music. As one listen to Sol Hoopii or Benny Nawahi will confirm, even Hawaiian music wasn't untouched by the blues.

So ... when B.B. King rears back and takes a searing blues solo is he so overcome with emotion that his fingers just find the right notes? Nah, he knows several scale positions to use that will yield notes that sound good in a blues tune. (Not to say that emotion isn't a part of playing the blues - it's the hardest part!)

One of the most infallible ways for a beginning improvisor to create pleasing improvisations is to use the "blues scale". That's because all of the notes in the scale will sound good with almost any basic blues tune, in a major or minor key. The important thing is to use the scale with the same root name as the key you're playing in. The "blues scale" let's you play one scale over the entire chord progression with virtually no chance of hitting any "clunker" notes.

"Blues scale" is really a slang name for a scale whose formal name is the Pentatonic Minor scale. All the following examples are in the key of A and can be played in C6th tuning ( bottom to top string: C E G A C E) over a blues chord progression in the key of A.

Let's first look at the structure of the Pentatonic Minor scale in the key of A. Penta means five, but we've added the lowered 5th of the scale as a passing tone making this a six note scale. To understand the structure of the scale, we'll first play it entirely on the E string..

Scale degree: root b3   4th   b5th  5th  b7    root
E____________ 5____8____10____11____12___15____17___
C __________________________________________________
A __________________________________________________
G __________________________________________________
E __________________________________________________
C __________________________________________________

The flat 3rd, flat 5th, and flat 7th are the "blue" notes that give this scale its characteristic sound.

Here are some positions for the A Minor Pentatonic scale in C6th Tuning. They all begin on the A root note.


This position allows a long, espressive slide to the 5th fret root :


Here's a two octave version for more bar movement and a more "singing" legato sound:


B.B. King uses a variation that starts from the 6th, adds the 9th and offers a more jazzy sound.

Scale degree:
6th   root 2nd/9th b3 4th  5th

The Pentatonic Major scale is basically the same as the Pentatonic Minor except it's found 3 frets below each minor pentatonic position and doesn't contain that extra note. The major pentatonic has a bright, sweet sound to most people's ears when compared to the "harder", "darker" sound of the Pentatonic Minor. The Pentatonic Major is used a lot in country music and you can also use it to add a blusey feel to a non-blues song.

Some Pentatonic Major positions:


Learning to improvise is similar to learning to speak a language. Before you can speak in complete sentences, you need to the learn vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure, etc., but with time and effort, you'll become more and more conversant. But don't just play these scales from root to root. Seek out the melodies within the scale. Try playing the Pentatonic Minor over the I chord and the Pentatonic Major or BB King scale over the IV chord. Experiment to find the sounds that best express your own feelings.

Like Hawaiian music, the source of the blues sound is the human voice. The best blues instrumentalists imitate vocalists. Luckily for us, the steel guitar is perhaps the most voice-like of all musical instruments. One hint: vibrato is one of the most individualistic aspects of steel playing and blues playing seems to lend itself, especially at slower tempos, to use of vibrato. (Again, listen to B.B. King!)

Sources for more information: Like any other music you want to learn, listen to the phrasing of master artists in the idiom. Here's a short list of some of my idiosyncratic, personal favorites for blues:

  • Sol Hoopii (steel)
  • Nat Cole Trio (piano)
  • Louis Armstrong (trumpet)
  • Earl Hooker (slide guitar)
  • Albert Collins (guitar)
  • Freddie Roulette (steel)
  • Little Walter (harmonica)
  • T-Bone Walker (guitar)
  • James Cotton (harmonica)
  • Rod Piazza & the Mighty Flyers (great harmonica & guitar playing)

Rhino Records has a 15 volume series of individual CDs or cassettes called the Blues Masters Series. The series highlights classic performances in all types of blues from the hardcore Chicago sound to swinging 1940's Jump blues. They're widely available in record stores, or call 1-800-35-RHINO in the USA.

If you have questions, suggestions for improvements, or additional information, please let me know.