Jon MacLennan


How to play the Blues Scale on guitar

Ready to unlock one of the most powerful guitar scales that you can use in millions of songs today?

In this post, I’ll show you how to play the blues scale on guitar step-by-step.

WARNING: About The Blues Scale

Before we get into the meat of this lesson I need to address a concern I see with a lot of other lessons on this topic, and that is the combination of the blues scale with the minor pentatonic scale. 

From a player’s perspective, I completely get the fact that they are almost the same thing, however from a theoretical perspective they are actually two different scales. The pentatonic scale has 5 notes in it while the blues scale has 6.

Also, I want to address another common issue, it is important to know that the majority of the time musicians refer to the blues scale they are actually referring to the minor blues scale.

However, there is a major and a minor blues scale. For this lesson, I’ll be demonstrating an E minor blues scale and this would often be referred to as the E blues scale for short. 

What is the easiest blues scale to play?

One of the easiest blues scales to play is the E minor blues scale. To play this start on the open 6th string and play these frets:

6th string = 0, 3

5th string = 0, 1, 2

4th string = 0, 2

This gets you one octave up through the scale. The first and last notes are bolded and they are both the note E, one octave apart from each other.  

What is the formula for the blues scale?

There are a couple of ways of thinking about the blues scale in terms of formulas. You could think of it in intervals in relation to a root note, or you could also build the scale through a series of half-steps and whole-steps.

Let’s look at each starting with intervals. The 6 notes of a blues scale in intervals would go like this: 

1 (root note)

b3 (minor third)

4 (perfect fourth)

b5 (diminished fifth)

5 (perfect fifth)

b7 (minor seventh)

Now this could be played starting on the open 6th string for an E minor blues scale like this:

Here’s another way using a combination of whole and half steps.

  • Root note 
  • A step and a half
  • Whole-step
  • Half-step
  • Half-step
  • A step and a half
  • Whole-step

If I started on the open 6th string and played this formula the notes to follow would be these:

From there a great thing to do is continue the scale pattern and flesh out one full position on the guitar neck. This typically spans 4 frets and extends over two octaves anywhere on the guitar. 

So for example in the open position continuing the scale up beyond the first octave would give you these notes:

How do you play blue scales?

So now that you know how to play the E blues scale you may be thinking, “well now what do I do? Well, this is where a lot of instructors leave off but next, I want to share with you some simple blues phrasing ideas that can help you make your scale go from sounding like practicing to sounding like real blues music.

Example 1 is just a simple trill but it has been used by countless blues musicians from Jimi Hendrix, to Eric Clapton, and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

To play it we are going to use a hammer-on pull-off technique back to back. Start by plucking the open 4th string and then hammer-on to the 2nd fret. Immediately after this do a pull-off back to open and then repeat this over and over.


Here are two short examples of this lick in context.

In the Hendrix example, his guitar was tuned down a whole-step which got a huge sounding tone that made the simple lick sound even cooler.

Example 2 is in the style of Jimmy Reed and starts out with hitting the low 6th string. From there it jumps up to a hammer-on from the 4th string open to the 2nd fret. This is a classic blues move using a triplet rhythm.

From there the lick just walks down the notes of the blues scale pattern we learned above. Starting with the open 4th string and descending all the way down to the low E.  

Then the lick bounces back up the octave to the 2nd fret on the 4th string. Another common move used in countless blues scale licks, and finally finishes it off by going from the note G on the 3rd fret of the 6th string up following the scale to the note B on the 2nd fret of the 5th string like this:

All together the lick goes like this:

Here’s an example of Jimmy Reed using this in the context of a blues turnaround:

For a full lesson on this song watch this video:

Example 3 demonstrates another great way to practice the blues scale and that is descending down it for a blues ending. Here we’ll start on the 3rd fret of the first string and descend down the entire scale note-for-note. This continues until we get through the notes on the 4th string. At this point, we’ll skip down to the 6th string and play the 3rd fret to open low E like this:

Notice the riff comes in on the “and” of 1. This gives the lick an exciting syncopated feel. Also, note how it uses just enough of the scale before it veers off from playing too much of just the straight scale pattern. This is what the pros do. They’ll use notes from the scale, but never make it sound like practicing. So in general try not to play too much of the scale in a solo and this will make it sound more musical. Check out Tommy Emmanuel using this lick at the end of “Guitar Boogie”.

What is the blues scale for each key?

From there you can use these formulas to play the scale anywhere on the neck and in any key.

Whatever note you start on that is the root note and then you plug in the rest of the formula from there and voilà you’ve got the scale for that key. So for example an A minor blues scale on one string would look like this:

You could also play this same pattern here at the 5th fret as well.


Learning how to play the blues scale on guitar is a fundamental skill for any aspiring guitarist. The blues scale is an incredibly versatile tool that is used across a variety of genres including rock, jazz, blues, and many more. It is an essential technique for any musician who wants to add depth and emotion to their music.

In this post, I've provided a comprehensive guide to playing the blues scale on guitar. We've covered everything from the basic fingerings and positions to the more advanced licks using the scale. By mastering these techniques, you'll be able to add new sounds and textures to your playing, and you'll have a greater understanding of how to use the blues scale to convey the signature bluesy emotion and feeling.

One of the key takeaways here is that the blues scale is incredibly flexible. While it is most commonly associated with the blues genre, it is used in a variety of different musical contexts. By understanding the different positions and fingerings for the blues scale, and having some licks under your fingers you'll be able to apply them to a wide range of musical situations. Plus by learning how to improvise using the blues scale, you'll be able to create your own unique sound and style.

Ultimately, mastering the blues scale on guitar requires practice and dedication. But the more you work with it the more you will see it showing up in the songs you love. So keep practicing and for another great blues lesson check out “Crossroads” next!

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