Trading 4’s With the Blues

Original art by Ralph Verano

With it’s roots in the lamentations of slaves, the lyrics and tone of American blues genre is often deliberately grim, “Woke up this morning, blues was fallin’ all around…”  However the degree of “bluesiness” can be regulated by the number of “blue” notes the improvising musician chooses to employ.  

In previous posts, I discussed the pentatonic and bright blues scales as collections of “fallback” notes for improvisation.  Here are the formulas for review:

Pentatonic Scale Formula:

Scale degrees 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6.

Bright Blues Formula:

Scale degrees 1, 2, b3, 3, 5 and 6

Here’s how they work out in the key of G:

G Major Pentatonic Scale = G  A  B  D  E  G (G major scale minus C and F#)

G Bright Blues Scale = G  A  Bb  B  D  E  G (pentatonic plus flat 3rd)

A stock boogie bass line on the blues progression makes a perfect accompaniment for exploring the bright blues scale.  Ask the student to play either of the boogie bass lines suggested below or even simple block triads depending on their ability level.  At the same time, they will improvise with their right hand using the bright blues scale.

Note:  It is not necessary to changes scales when the chords change. The bright blue scale works throughout this chord progression.


Watch the video as I and an adult student use the bright blues scale to take turns improvising with right-hand parts in four-measure segments or “trading 4’s.”  Her left hand plays the bass line written above throughout as I play block chord “jabs” on a nearby piano.  (This can easily be reversed for lower level students.)

This kind of call-and-response teaching is fun and you don’t have to be an expert to do it.  The student in the video is also a traditional piano teacher learning to play and teach improvisation who has been studying with me less than a year.  If she can do it, you can do it!  Just drop the traditional teacher-knows-all model, swallow your pride and enjoy exchanging ideas with your students. You may be thinking, “But what if my student sounds better than me?”  That’s a good thing.  You’ve opened a creative door that your teachers may have kept closed to you.  Some would call that pedagogical evolution.  I call it courage.


Bradley Sowash


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3 thoughts on “Trading 4’s With the Blues

  1. Bradley, I am thrilled that I found your site. (Mary Guess) pretty sure I have improvised with you…did you used to live in Minot?). I teach improv to all of my students…..Right now, only a third grader and his fifth grade sister are improvising on the blues progressions…plus they also have learned all four octave scales…..and do definitely “get it”….also they transpose anything they want to transpose into other keys….I also have a fifty year old gal who is just learning to play Joy to The World in all the keys….it takes a while…but slow but sure….she can hear which note is correct. Bradley, your video was stunning… very excited to stumble across this site…I have been improvising since third grade….and also transposing anything. I find it fascinating to teach this long side note reading and sight reading. Thanks, Bradley! Karen Atwood….Minot, N.D.

    • Hi Karen,
      I can’t remember ever living in Minot 🙂 but it’s great that you are into teaching the blues and transposing. Blues is so important to so many American styles and transposing is powerful because you can go anyway you want and it enables thinking in numbers instead of specific notes. If you’d like to be on my Find a Creative Teacher list, take a look at this link and let me know how to fill in your information. Thanks!

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