Mo’ Better Blues


 The last two Fridays we had fun studying the notes on your guitar. If you missed those, go back and check out Part One, then Part Two. There’s a good chance that what follows won’t make any sense if you’re not up to speed.

Now that you know all those note names, what in the hell are you going to do with them?

Today we’re going to use your note knowledge to reverse-engineer some music theory from what you already know. Then we’re going to use it to jazz up your blues.

Like I said in the first installment of this series:

There’s a world of information hiding in the music you already know how to play.

Help! I’m Trapped In The Blues Box!

As guitar players, most of us know how to play a bit of blues. When someone calls a “blues in A,” most guitar players immediately reach for this:A Blues Scale These five or six notes sound good over these changes.

 12 Bar Blues in A


You might use them to play something like this:


But now that we know our note names, check out what else we can do.


A helluva lot better, amiright?

This is called playing the changes. In other words, I’m changing which notes I use so that they reflect the chords. Each chord has a different set of notes that will sound good over it.

You can get frighteningly complex with this idea, but it’s totally unnecessary. You can get some very usable, cool new sounds in your playing with some deceptively simple ideas.

Two Rules For You To Live By

If it sounds good, it is good.

If the note is in the chord, the note will sound good over the chord.


So here are our three chords, in open position.

A7 D7 E7Using our note knowledge, we can decode what’s in these chords. Play that A7 on your guitar. What notes are in it?

[Oh and by the way: just reading this article isn’t going to help your playing one bit. You need to spend some time playing through the exercises each day to get the benefits. No sweat if you’re reading this on your phone right now, and your guitar is miles away.  

Just understand that it’s on you to schedule the time to work through this stuff. It’s so worth it. I put a detailed breakdown of the syllabus at the end, so you have no excuses now.]

What notes are in that A7? Yep, the notes A, C#, E, & G. These four notes are all going to sound great over an A7 chord.

Because if the note is in the chord, the note will sound good over the chord. And if it sounds good, then it is good.

Does it matter what order they’re in? Nope. If it has those notes, it’s an A7.

What if there are redundant notes? Doesn’t matter. Many of the voicings (different ways to play the same chord) that guitar players use have loads of redundant notes.

Now do the same for D7. You should get D, F#, A, & C.

Let’s Get Ready To Stumble

Before we tackle the whole set of blues changes, we’re going to start by switching between A7 & D7, two bars each.

So for the first two bars, play only the notes from A7: A, C#, E, G. Then for the next two bars, play only the notes from D7: D, F#, A, C. Rinse and repeat.

Does it matter if they’re in order? Hell no. So long as the notes you’re playing over the chord are in the chord, they’ll sound great.

Where should you start? We’re going to cover all the positions (four-fret windows) in time. But for now, start with your index finger on the A on the 6th string.

Is it OK to reach outside this window? Abso-freaking-lutely.

  1. Download this track, then set it to repeat in iTunes (or whatever). It should loop seamlessly.
  2. Set your timer for 5 minutes.
  3. Play quarter notes––that’s one note for each click. Use only the notes in the current chord.
  4. Be musical with what you’re playing. Take pride in your craft.
  5. Do as many 5 minute sprints as you need until you can comfortably play the right notes over each chord, then up the difficulty one notch.
  6. The next notch up is playing eighth notes––that’s two notes per click.
  7. The real goal here is to increase your speed of musical thought.
  8. One more notch up is to use this track, which is only one bar of each chord.
  9. Do quarter notes again, then eighths.

Once you feel comfortable here, repeat this process, covering the space between the nut and the 5th fret. Then do it twice more with 9th & 12th positions. Feel free to reach outside whatever position you’re in, blend two positions together, etc. It’s your world.

Cutaway To Training Montage

Keep in mind that it might take you several minutes or several days before this starts to click for you. That’s ok.

What you’re really trying to do is get to the place where you’re barely hanging on. If you’re getting it some of the time, but failing horribly at other times, you’re doing it right.

I repeat: this is the sensation of learning. This is your new compass. If you continue to show up in this space, you will get better. It won’t happen overnight, but it will most definitely happen.

When you’re no longer failing regularly, that means you’ve improved. Again, this could be five minutes or it could be five days. Once you’re not failing much anymore, you need to up the difficulty so that you can continue to improve.

What’s Next

Can you play eighth notes over one bar each of A7 & D7, all over the neck?

Good. Now let’s add the E7 chord. Same deal: what notes are in an E7? The notes in the chord will sound good over the chord. And if it sounds good, then it is good.

Here’s a track that’s only A7 & E7.

Same sequence:

  1. Download the track, set it to repeat.
  2. Set your timer for 5 minutes.
  3. Play quarter notes, only the notes in the current chord.
  4. Sound musical.
  5. Do as many 5 minute sprints as you need, then up the difficulty.
  6. Eighth notes.
  7. Remember, we’re trying to increase your speed of musical thought.
  8. This probably means thinking ahead.
  9. Use this track, which is only one bar of each chord:
  10. Do quarters, then eighths.
  11. Repeat the process all over the neck.

The Blues At Last

So now that we’re comfortable playing the chord tones from A7, D7, & E7, we’re ready to turn our new skills loose on the blues. Here’s that progression again:

12 Bar Blues in A

You’ll need to keep this front & center in your mind as you play. Again, you’re starting with quarter notes, then eighth notes, then repeating in a new position. Here’s the track.

Quarters, Eighths, new position. Then all the positions. Then mixing quarters, eighths & rests into little musical sentences. You know, improvising.

Hey Josh, I Spent Two Weeks On This Crap And It Doesn’t Sound Awesome Yet. WTF?

Now that you’ve pushed yourself way outside of your comfort zone and increased the speed of your musical thinking, we’re ready to add a few more weapons to your arsenal.

Which is good, because at this point you’re probably getting bored with trying to make great-sounding solos with only four notes.

Nine Times, Mrs. Bueller

The next stop on this voyage is to add “the 9” to each chord. This might cause your eyes to glaze over, but even if you don’t understand 99% of it, you’ll still be able to apply it. Bear with me…

From our two rules (the notes in the chord will sound good over the chord, and if it sounds good, then it is good), we can extrapolate a third rule:

You can extend most chords.

So what the hell does it mean to “extend” a chord? Well, we’ve been doing it this whole time. We “extended” the chords A, D, & E to get A7, D7, & E7. In other words, we added a note to each of them, making them each just a bit more tense & interesting. We’re going to do that again.

I’m going to skip over most of the theory here so as not to get overly complicated.

  • A 9 chord is just a 7 chord with “the 9” added.
  • You can find “the 9” a whole step (that’s two frets) above the root.
  • The root note of A9 is A. (root note = the note that gives a chord or scale its name).
  • Two frets (a whole step) above A is B.
  • Thus, the 9 of A is B.
  • A9 = A7 with an added B.
  • A7 = A C# E G
  • A9 = A C# E G B

If you read that without a guitar in hand (and/or without having done the preceding exercises), it probably sounds like gibberish. That’s ok. 

Once you’ve done the exercises, and you’re reading this with guitar in hand, it’s going to be perfectly obvious. I promise.

Meet The New Rule,

Same As The Old Rule

You can extend most chords is one of the many, many applications of if it sounds good then it is good. In this bluesy setting, using A9 instead of A7, D9 instead of D7, and E9 instead of E7 sounds good.

If “most” chords can be extended, how do you know if it’s not ok to extend a particular chord? Does it sound good? Then it is good. Use it.

Does it sound crappy? Ok, then don’t use it.

There are many, many other extensions we could put on these chords, but most of them don’t sound very good in this setting. 

The flip side of this is that A9 instead of A7 doesn’t sound good in every setting.

There’s more to this than is appropriate to put in this article, but for now, sounds good-is good is all you need to know.

Meet The New Rule Again,

Still The Same As The Old Rule

Good news: because we extended our three chords, we now have an extra note we can play over each.  Because of course, any note in the chord will sound good over the chord.

But here’s where this gets really cool: if no one in the rhythm section is playing the 9, but it WOULD sound good there, you can play it as if it were part of the chord and still be covered by the in-the-chord/over-the-chord rule.

It’s like a phantom chord extension, performed by the soloist.

This of course is a VERY deep rabbit hole that I can’t in good conscience address in this particular article. But let’s just say this about our little blues jam: pretending that 7 chords are 9 chords sounds good, and gives you some cooler soloing options.

That’s right, all of that dense-ass theory talk just to tell you that:

  • B sounds cool over A7,
  • E sounds cool over D7, and
  • F# sounds cool over E7.

Go Forth And Play

So now your job is to add the 9 to each of the three chords. This is the fun stuff!

Run that same sequence of quarters -> eighths -> improvising. If doing it over the whole progression is too tough, go back to the two-chord vamps.

Here are some faster tempos for this blues vamp, so you can continue to challenge yourself and increase the speed of your musical thinking:

Blues @ 80

Blues @ 90

Blues @ 100

Right Back Where You Started From

Did you think you were done? Ha! Now comes the fun stuff––blending all of this playing the changes stuff back into your standard blues box repertoire. There’s gold in them there hills. Go find it.

I’ll leave you with a little T.S Eliot:

We shall not cease from exploration 

And the end of all our exploring 

Will be to arrive where we started 

And know the place for the first time. 


Much thanks to Eric Justen’s rant on reddit for inspiring this one.

Appendix: Syllabus

If you just read (or skimmed) this article, you may be feeling slightly overwhelmed. Not to worry. This article isn’t meant to suddenly shine light on the inner workings of playing the changes. You can’t get where you’re going by reading, only by playing. 

The Way Of The Badass is to put one foot in front of the other, walking directly towards the scary unknown. Here’s how.

Day 1

  1. Identify the notes in the chords A7 & D7.
  2. Find those notes on your guitar between the 4th & 9th frets.
  3. Download this |A7|A7|D7|D7| track, set it to repeat.
  4. Set a timer for 5 minutes.
  5. Try to play a chord tone (any note from the chord that’s currently being played) on each beat.
  6. When the timer goes off, stretch. Then do another 5 minutes.
  7. Do as many as you have time for that day.

Phase 2

Repeat this each and every day. At the end of each day, schedule your next practice session: what you’ll do next, and when you’ll do it. When you stop failing miserably, make it just a little bit harder. In this order:

  1. Switch from one note per beat (quarter notes) to two notes per beat (eighth notes).
  2. Switch to this |A7|D7|A7|D7| jam track. Do quarters, then eighths.
  3. Repeat the entire process (from step 2 in Day 1) for the space between the nut & the 5th fret.
  4. Repeat the process again for the space between the 9th fret & the 12th fret.
  5. Repeat the process again for the space between the 12th & 17th frets.

Phase 3

By now you know where to find the chord tones from A7 & D7 all over your guitar. Now we need to add the chord tones from E7.

  1. Identify the notes from E7.
  2. Use this |A7|A7|E7|E7| track to jam with.
  3. One chunk of the neck at a time.
  4. Quarters until not failing regularly.
  5. Eighths until not failing regularly.
  6. Use |A7|E7|A7|E7| (until not failing regularly).

Phase 4

Now that you can find the chord tones from all three chords, let’s try them over the blues. Do as many 5 minute sprints as you can fit in a day, every day, until you can comfortably navigate the blues changes. Keep in mind that you’re improvising real music here, even if your palette is somewhat limited. Here’s the track:

Phase 5

Alright. Now you’re going to add the 9 to each of the chords. Again, as many 5 minute sprints as you can fit in a day, every day, until you can comfortably navigate the blues changes.

Phase 6

Now the real test: can you move between your standard blues boxes and the chord tones? Congratulations, you are now more bad ass.


About Josh Frets

Guitarist, singer, and songwriter. On a mission to transform guitar instruction. Why? Because at present, the state of guitar instruction is a freaking travesty. Hit me up on Twitter or Google+.