Blues Soloing Basics: Learn to Improvise on the 12-Bar Minor Pentatonic Scale

Understanding these few simple ideas will help make your blues playing more satisfying and musical.

Blues soloing can sound deceptively simple. There’s really only one scale you need to use to get started, the minor pentatonic, and the beautiful thing about that scale is that it sounds good over all the basic chords of a standard blues or blues rock progression. However, just playing up and down the scale as the chords go by isn’t really enough. Because the materials are so simple, most of the sound of blues soloing depends on how you use the few notes at your disposal. 

In this lesson we’re going to focus on some of the essential elements of blues soloing, including building simple phrases around the root of the scale, using call-and-response phrasing, sliding into notes, targeting the roots of the IV and V chords, and distinguishing between phrases that start on the downbeat and those that begin with a pickup into the downbeat.

We’ll begin with the fabled minor pentatonic scale. Example 1 shows the standard fingering at the fifth fret. Because there are no open strings, this is a moveable scale form—the lowest note is the root of the scale, A, so wherever you move this scale on the fretboard, it becomes the minor pentatonic scale ofthat key. For example, move this fingering to the third fret and it becomes a G minor pentatonic; to the eighth fret and you’ll have C minor pentatonic, and so on. We’ll spend this lesson working in A, but you can transpose these ideas to any key just by moving the scale to another position on the fretboard.

Although Ex. 1 shows just over two octaves of the scale, there are only five notes in this scale; hence the name pentatonic, a Greek word meaning five(penta) and note(tonic). The five notes are the root, b3, 4, 5, and b7. Starting on the seventh-fret A, we can go up two notes to get the b3 and the 4 of the scale, as in Example 2a, and down two notes to get the b7 and the 5 of the scale (Example 2b). Now we’ve got the essential sound of the scale covered in one small area of the fretboard.

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While it’s deeply cool that we can cover all the notes we need with so little effort, the more important thing is that we can play a handful of basic blues licks with this little collection of notes, starting and ending on the root, A. Check out Examples 3a–d, paying careful attention to the rhythmic timing of the notes. All four examples have the same phrasing, starting right on the downbeat. Any one of these phrases will fit over any of the three chords of the basic 12-bar blues chord progression in A, shown in Example 4. Example 5 repeats a single phrase over every other bar for a total of six times over the course of the 12-bar form. 

Now it’s time to start reaching a bit beyond the zone we’ve been working in. The lick shown in Example 6 begins at the fifth fret on the B string. One of the fundamental concepts of blues soloing is the call and response—a good example being the way a guitarist answers a vocal line with an instrumental lick. You can create call-and-response moments within your own soloing, too. In Example 7a, the now-familiar lick in measure 1 is answered by the descending lick in measure 3. Example 7b has the same kind of phrasing, with different licks plugged in.

With a limited palette of notes to choose from, the way you play the notes becomes as important as whenyou play them. Electric guitar players rely heavily on bending strings to create a certain kind of fluidity, but on the acoustic guitar it’s often more effective to use slides from one fret to another instead. As you work on Example 8, try to hear the grace note at the fourth fret as an incidental sound, while hitting the fifth fret squarely on the downbeat. 

Working this kind of slide into the lick we had in Ex. 6 gives us the move shown in Example 9. Whole-step slides work well, too. Try the two licks that make up Examples 10a–b. Notice that the slides take you out of position—you slide up to where your first finger is no longer hovering safely around the fifth fret. It may take a little practice to be able to jump back down to the original scale position after making one of these slides.

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The first call-and-response examples we played relied on leaving space—the musical equivalent of pausing for a breath—between the call and the response. In Example 11, it’s the contrast between registers—a lick on the high strings versus a lick lower down—that gives the phrase a sense of call and response. The space comes afterward, in the remaining two bars, offering the opportunity for a response to you by another instrumentalist playing fills. The held note at the end of measure 1 gives you a little time to get back down to the fifth position after you’ve made the slide up.

Up until now each phrase we’ve played has started right on the first beat of the measure. But one of the most characteristic examples of blues phrasing is to start a lick before the downbeat of the measure. All four of the licks in Examples 12a–d start on the “and”of beat 3 of the previous measure and end on beat 1 of the main measure. The three notes before the downbeat are sometimes called a pickup, and this kind of phrasing is known as playing a pickup into the downbeat.

Example 13 shows how you could do call and response by playing a pickup into the downbeat, waiting for most of a measure, and then, with another pickup into the second measure, playing a lengthier line for the response. Note the slide into the first note, from the fifth to the seventh fret on the low E string.

Playing pickups into the downbeat opens up another possibility—hitting the root of the next chord in the progression. For instance, the first lick in Example 14a lands on an A note, which would work well on the I, IV, or V chord but works especially well going into the I chord in the key of A. In Example 14b, the last note has been changed to a D—the root of the IV chord, D7. And in Example 14c we land on an E note, the root of the V chord, E7.

The best way to see how this really works is to play through a full 12-bar blues, targeting the root of each chord as it comes along. Example 15 is a 12-bar solo that makes use of all the things we’ve been talking about—minor pentatonic licks, call and response, slides, and targeting the roots. Watch out for the ending lick in measures 11 and 12—it starts on the “and”of beat 1,throws in a b5 blue note (Eb) as the second note of measure 12, and ends with a groovy E7#9 chord.


12-Bar Minor Pentatonic Scale guitar lesson music notation sheet 1
12-Bar Minor Pentatonic Scale guitar lesson music notation sheet 2
12-Bar Minor Pentatonic Scale guitar lesson music notation sheet 3
Acoustic Guitar magazine cover for issue 344

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2024 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

David Hamburger
David Hamburger

David Hamburger is a composer, guitarist, and instructor based in Austin, Texas. He is the author of our best-selling Acoustic Guitar Method.

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  1. Thank you so very much for this lesson. Also, thank you for the “12 Ways to Play Better Blues Guitar” lessons that were published in 2022. Way to go Acoustic Guitar Magazine and David Hamburger.

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