Blues Guitar Institute

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3 Ways to Play Through the Chord Changes in a 12 Bar Blues

Lesson ID: TB392

Improvising a blues solo can feel like navigating a minefield of wrong notes.

If you’re like I was in the beginning, you’ll probably retreat to the safety of familiar licks. But churning out licks isn’t what we’re after. We want to play a solo that actually leads the music. Fortunately, there are a few tried and true approaches to jamming that help us sound bluesy and avoid those wrong notes.

In this lesson, we’ll get into three approaches to soloing that do just that.

Let’s get started.

Use One Scale to Solo Over Every Chord

The go-to scale for many blues guitarists is the minor pentatonic scale. For good reason.

You can play tons of great blues tunes with little more than a command of the minor pentatonic scale. It’s a no-frills sounding scale that cuts the fluff and sounds great in a blues jam.


Well, in a typical 12 bar blues jam, you’ll hear a lot of dominant 7th chords which contain a flat 7th interval. The minor pentatonic scale also includes the flat seventh interval. That commonality helps make these two a perfect match. That means we can play the minor pentatonic scale that matches the chord we’re playing over. For example, play the C minor pentatonic scale when the band plays a C7 chord.


As you can see from this chord chart for a typical 12 bar blues progression in C, that can get you through eight of the twelve bars.

But what happens when the chord changes to F7 or G7? Can you still play the C minor pentatonic scale?

Yes, but you’ll likely want to highlight different tones from the scale.

See this in action in this lesson on how to jam with just four notes.

But sticking with one scale for the entire 12 bar progression is an excellent way to get started. By sticking with one scale for the entire progression, you have space to think about what you’re playing. And you also have to find ways to make 5 notes sound good! This type of forced constraint is an excellent way to teach you to lean on phrasing and expressive techniques like bends, slides and legato.

After jamming like this for a while, you’ll be ready to take your next step.

Switch to the Minor Pentatonic Scale of the Chord Being Played

We know the minor pentatonic scale and the dominant seventh chord make an excellent pairing. Let’s lean into that.

Instead of sticking to one key of the minor pentatonic scale for the entire jam, try switching the key of the scale to match each chord.

For example, we can play the C minor pentatonic scale when the I chord comes around in a blues progression. Now, shift your scale pattern up (or down) into F when the F7 chord comes up in the progression. Do the same thing for the G7 when it rolls around.

You’ll play licks from each chord’s respective minor pentatonic scale through the progression. Like this:

This will help you naturally bring out the sound of the chord. But your leads will still have the bluesy, gritty edge courtesy of the minor pentatonic scale.

Here’s the big win of this approach: you’ll sound connected to the music.

Tips for Matching Scales to Chords

  • Learn the minor pentatonic scale in different positions on the neck so you can shift scales as the chords change
  • You don’t need the full scale, just a few notes from the scale can target the sound of each chord
  • Compose a short lick and shift it down a whole step (two frets) from V to IV chord, think of this as a matched pair. My favorite example of this is in Clapton’s acoustic solo for Before You Accuse Me.

Create Flowing Phrases by Playing in the Same Position

You could learn one pattern of the minor pentatonic scale and just shift it up and down the neck to match the chord. That works but there’s another tool for your toolkit that doesn’t sound quite as abrupt and forced.

Try changing the scale to match the chord while staying in the same spot on the fretboard. This is where you’ll need to take all shapes of the minor pentatonic scale to the woodshed. I highly recommend my CAGED Pentatonics Map to help you see these connections.

Here’s a sample of the scale over C, F and G in two positions.

Playing leads in position will naturally sound connected. That’s because when you stay in position like this and change scales, you’ll naturally find notes that are close to one another. That closeness helps craft a smooth sound.

So, practice with a two chord group like C7 and F7. Jam the changes over a loop while staying in position. Then, as you get comfortable with this, incorporate the G7.

If you want to take this further, you should check out the Fretboard Roadmap inside myBGI. You’ll learn how to:

  • Use fundamental music concepts to avoid memorizing tons of patterns
  • Build bluesy chords anywhere on the fretboard
  • Map the entire fretboard so you never feel lost

That, plus a whole lot more is included with membership to myBGI.

Click here to become a member.

When you are ready, there are two ways I can help you:

Back Porch Blues Course:  A proven system to fingerpicking the blues.  This step-by-step course guides you through building fundamental fingerpicking skills.  Plus, you’ll learn three levels of a delta blues style performance study to put your new skills into action.

Become a myBGI Member: Membership comes with access to Back Porch Blues plus over 70 step-by-step courses.  Get proven results with one of myBGI’s structured Roadmaps.

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