Blue Notes In Bluegrass? What You Need To Know!

Blue Notes In Bluegrass? What You Need To Know!

Marcel Ardans

Marcel Ardans

Blue notes get used a lot, you can find blue notes in countless genres and they certainly appear (sometimes too frequently) in bluegrass. But do you know exactly what a blue note is? Are you ever confused when people use the term? Does it have something to do with blues or jazz? Don’t worry, I’m going to cover what you need to know about blue notes when you play bluegrass in this blog post!

No, this has nothing to do with the iTunes logo.

First we need a scale to start with, and though you may have mastered the major scale from this previous blog post, we’re going to be using the major pentatonic scale right now.

The good news is the major pentatonic scale is derived from the major scale. To think about the major scale let’s name the seven notes in the scale: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7. Original, I know. These notes work great but not all of them evoke bluegrass over the chords that would be native to this scale. For example, the one chord. The notes in this chord would be the root, third, and fifth. From the major scale blog post you may notice that notes 3 and 4 would be a half step apart and notes 7 and 1 would be a half step apart. That means playing notes 4 or 7 over the one chord (1, 3, 5) could create some unwanted dissonance. So let’s get rid of notes 4 and 7 to save our ears some trouble.

Don’t make me listen to a maj7 chord or sus4 chord again!

That leaves us with just the major pentatonic scale, notes: 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6. You’ve likely seen the open position of this in G major if you play bluegrass.

Oh yeah! This is the one that looks like a capital ‘K’ when you squint.

The notes in this major pentatonic shape are safe, approachable and easy to use. You really can’t create any dissonance over the one chord with these notes. Only consonant sounds all the way, baby!

But let’s say we get bored of this sound and want to introduce some dangerous notes. Well we can borrow some dirty notes from the parallel minor pentatonic scale, G minor pentatonic. This scale will be comprised of notes: 1, b3, 4, 5, and b7.

This scale shape maybe less familiar but take a gander anyway.

When you squint maybe this one looks like a dresser with a drawer pull out?

This scale is going to create some more ‘acceptable’ dissonance. The minor third feels good as long as it resolves up to the major third or down to the second. The dominant seventh also feels good as long as we don’t hang on it (unless we want to imply G7). However, you may have noticed that one note from before snuck in, the fourth…

This is a trickier one to include sometimes but once again we don’t really want to hang on it and you can resolve it down to the third or up to the fifth. Otherwise you might be left with a hanging suspended feeling.

Here’s where things get important. We haven’t really created a new scale, per se. This is more like the G major pentatonic with some other notes that we can include when we want to. Maybe think of them as spices.

Alright, the squinting game is getting tough. Maybe a spider on a web?

The pink notes are actually ‘blue notes’ borrowed from the minor pentatonic, the black notes are major pentatonic. Remember, minor pentatonic notes we don’t necessarily want to hang out on because they’re not as consonant as the major pentatonic notes. Leaning on them too heavily can imply different chords or create more of a blues feel. Both of those things are valid in certain contexts, just not really what we’re doing right now.

There is one more blue note to include though, some people call it ‘the’ blue note and it comes from a blues scale. You know, that one extra guy that sometimes slips into the minor pentatonic scale to make it a blues scale?

You’ve probably seen it in a scale like this.

My old friend squinty 'K', we meet again.

That note is a flat fifth. This note is a very safe chromatic passing tone between the fourth and fifth and generally is used as a little highway between those notes. It also functions much better when you used it in a context where you are implying more of that blues sound.

It fits into our scale like this.

This one looks like one of those vision tests to see if you’re color blind.

That takes us right to the end, which means all of the common blue notes are the minor third, the dominant seventh, the flat fifth and the natural four can party too because we’re actually kind of cool with him. The important thing is to not think of the completed scale shape as a scale shape. These are notes that like to be used in specific ways to invoke the standard hot bluegrass sound: Minor third resolved up to major third or down to the second, Dominant seventh down to fifth or up to the root, flat fifth is a passing tone to connect the fifth to the fourth, and the fourth works well moving to the major or minor third.

Can they be used in other ways? Yes! But normally that happens under extenuating circumstances. If you want more info on practicing this approach in a practical way you might check out my Bluegrass Improv Exercises video.

And lastly you may be saying, “Marcel, you’re practically using the chromatic scale at this point!” That is a solid statement, using specific rules and convention you can easily include all the notes of the chromatic scale over almost any chord. You can see a little more about that in my What Scales Do I Use For Bluegrass video.


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3 thoughts on “Blue Notes In Bluegrass? What You Need To Know!”

  1. Hey Marcel, This is great! I have always been confused when people refer to “blue notes” or “the blue note” and have never really understood which note/s they are talking about despite a bit of googling (thanks for nothing Wikipedia!). I’ve drawn myself a slightly extended/labelled version of your “colour blind test”, which I have affectionately named “squashed cane toad” ; )
    This also explains the notes you’ve used in the 8th– 9th measure of your Salt Creek Intermediate tab! It follows the rules(?) of flat 5 as a passing tone to the 4th and the 4th then going to the minor 3rd! I remember asking about it in a lesson but not really understanding at the time.
    G F D C# C A# C# C // A#
    5th Flat 5th 4th m3rd Flat 5th 4th // m3rd
    Don’t worry I’m not getting too distracted and am still working on my tags in G!

  2. Amazing thanks! Your written descriptions along with the videos are super helpful. I’m just getting into guitar after years of bass playing and you’re making the transition very easy and enjoyable.

  3. Bob Fowler, who played guitar with Monroe in the 60’s, including on the Bean Blossom album, told me that Monroe and Kenny Baker had this wonderful insight. He told me this 45 years ago, so I hope I’m getting it right. He said that Monroe and Baker realized that the American ear was so used to hearing the minor third as ‘blue’ that replacing it with the major third when the blue note was expected was actually BLUER than the minor third. They felt that ‘inferring’ the blue note was more powerful. He pointed this out to me on some of the work they recorded. (These guys were deep thinkers.)

    This actually put me in mind of some forms of Japanese painting where inferring some elements is more powerful than rendering them directly would be.

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