One lovely review, and some thoughts on the blues

It has gotten to the point where I can’t read all the reviews, let alone keep them remotely separate in my mind. I’ve mostly given up looking — it’s just too much information! — but one at Fantasy Literature did catch my eye today. Thank you for that, Bill.

In other news: I’ve been thinking about the blues. Not because I have the blues, particularly, but because my son has just started learning to play “Wish You Were Here” on guitar, and it has a very bluesy start. I say that as one who doesn’t know much about the blues, so if anyone wants to leap in and educate me at any time, I’d be more than happy.

What interests me, particularly, is the use of the pentatonic scale in blues. Growing up with classical music, the pentatonic scale was a little bit ignored (although there are certainly classical pieces that employ it; it was never particularly pointed out to me). Pentatonic scales, insofar as I knew anything about them, supposedly sounded East Asian — and, to be fair, are found in a number of different musics (but not all of them, and in several variants) from that part of the world.

I knew about the modes of hepatonic scales, of course. For those who are unfamiliar with modes: if you only play the white keys of the piano, you can play a major scale or a minor scale, depending which note you start on. Those are just two of the seven possible modes, though; there’s one for each possible starting note. Similarly — but I’d never really thought about it — there are five possible pentatonic modes, a couple of which sound minor, and can be used for the blues.

I love sitting in on my son’s guitar lesson because I often learn something new. It turns out the guitar, in its standard tuning, is optimized for pentatonic scales: you can play a very easy one involving all the open strings. In fact, that seems to be why there’s that weird B string, tuned to a third when everything else is tuned in fourths. I believe that tuning pre-dates the blues (note to self: look up history of guitar tuning), but I’m not sure about that. Certainly it makes the pentatonic scale so easy as to seem almost inevitable in hindsight.

I hasten to add that not all blues is pentatonic. In fact, a lot of it (I have read) involves a special hexatonic scale – a modified pentatonic with an extra note.

Still, B has been playing a variety of riffs on the pentatonic scale, and it’s super exciting (yes I have an odd idea of excitement) to hear it in Pink Floyd as well. I’m thinking the blues are something I ought to dig a bit deeper into; my listening base is mostly classical, prog rock, and Celtic (which employs some interesting modes itself!). Anyone have some good recommendations for an old dog who loves new tricks?

3 thoughts on “One lovely review, and some thoughts on the blues

  1. If you’re new to the blues, I’d recommend starting with the legends: Leadbelly, Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, Big Joe Turner, B.B. King, Big Mama Thornton, Bessie Smith, Jimmy Rushing, maybe Etta James (though she ranges all over the place in musical style).

    Pandora has a number of blues channels. Blues Essentials is a good starting place.

  2. Pingback: More thoughts on the blues « Rachel Hartman

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