To Mars, The Red Planet: Perfect For The Blues

mars approachHopefully you are enjoying the sensation of musical weightlessness after this past week of improvising! No written notes to hem you in, rather the opportunity to play almost anything you want, whenever you want. Within a few necessary guidelines (like keeping your spacesuit on), you are free to improvise, to create, to express yourself. You never have to play the same thing twice, if you don’t want to.

And now you want to reach higher, try out some other tools in your arsenal.

The next place to explore, the most logical next step on our odyssey is:


The red planet. The god of war. The best movement of Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” and the home of Marvin the Martian.

Mars. The planet of strife, of clashing, and of dissonance. This is absolutely the best next place for us to go.

Musically, we’ve been not only keeping it pretty simple, we’ve been playing it safe. Making sure the pentatonic scale tones we play fit wonderfully with the chord we’re hearing. When the chord changes, so does our scale.

But as we bend the parameters a little, we find we can also play another mode (remember, that’s an altered scale) as we hear the major I, IV and V chords. And it sounds pretty cool, pretty cosmopolitan. It’s the Minor Pentatonic Mode. Same roots as the major, but built a little differently.

The Minor Pentatonic Mode is: 1, flat-3, 4, 5, flat-7, 1.

Inherent Dissonance

When we play the minor pentatonic mode over a major chord, we find a built-in, or inherent dissonance (clashing). Consider the following:

Blues Tonality transparent

When two tones are played together but are 1/2 step apart, the frequencies fight each other. They clash and create lots of tension. That happens when we play either flat-3 or 4 over the major chord, which contains 3.

But the cool thing is, we actually like it. We’ve decided we like a little dissonance, and in this case, the dissonance results in a sound we refer to as “Blues”.

Make It Happen

Take the major pentatonic mode patterns you’ve been playing (on the moon) and alter them to create the minor pentatonic. Move 1/2 step up from 2 to find flat-3, 1/2 step up from 3 to find 4, and 1/2 step up from 6 to find flat-7.

Now improvise on a single major chord to get a feel for the mode. Record yourself playing the chord for a couple of minutes, then listen to it as your backdrop while you improvise.

When we did this last time, you played a C run on the C major chord, an F run on the F major chord, and a G run on the G major chord. And we did that so all the possible tones you would play would sound good, and we would avoid dissonance.

But in Blues, we expect dissonance. So let’s make your life easier and your improv sound smoother by simplifying. Instead of playing 3 runs on those 3 chords, we can now just play a single run on all three chords. After all, if dissonance is present anyway, it makes more sense. Fewer moving parts.

Try playing the chord progression faster or slower, try out different keys, add some flat-7ths to the chords (for example C7, F7, G7). Listen to some blues artists for a sense of how they use phrasing in their music.

Background Tracks

A great resource to help you learn blues improv: go to and search for Stand Alone Tracks (Blues). You’ll find great background tracks for you to improvise over in 4 different keys, fast and slow, rock and jazz. Great album! You can buy your own copy of the book and cd as well from Amazon.

How is your exploration of Blues going? What would you add to make your sound more bluesy?

Please leave your comment below, or email any questions about music, improvisation, or next-step musicianship to [email protected].

© 2015 Steve Case