Are there two parallel worlds for improv? Blues with licks & major scale without licks?

I have a question for Mr.Justin @JustinGuitar regarding BLIM :slight_smile: English is not my first language, so I’ll try to explain my confusion as clear as possible.

When we want to improvise in Blues, we learn other people licks and the minor pentatonic scale is the framework. So that’s good, in the blues world, I’m starting to understand how to improvise and sound musical.

Though, outside of the blues world, I feel confused on how to sound musical without vocabulary (licks). Specially, after working on the grade 4 major scale maestro course.

I guess that the major scale is used in many genres of music outside blues. But, why don’t we learn any licks in the grade 4 major scale maestro course ? My jamming does sound like scales when I use the major scale as I don’t have vocabulary . :rofl: I only know the alphabet.

So I feel like there are 2 worlds in guitar improvisation. One with blues and licks which I’m starting to understand. And the rest outside blues (major scale without licks) where I’m lost. Is that really 2 different opposing worlds ?

[ mod note - moved to General Questions for wider circulation]


I’m certainly not an expert here, so happy to be corrected, but my opinion is that there are indeed different approaches for blues and other styles.
As you say, blues improv is based on licks, whereas in other styles it’s a more melodic approach…finding a melodic idea and exploring that. There are similarities in that both approaches can make use of chord tones, triads and arpeggios for example.
As a side note, one of the reasons ear training and transcribing is so useful is to ultimately be able to play the melodic ideas that come to you while you are improvising. I am a million miles from being able to do that ‘on the fly’, but it’s a goal.


I dont think so. Each style has its own phrasing characteristics. There are licks or “licks” in others too. Jazz has its own (bends are not a thing, maybe more arpeggio based as faster chord changes), rock, hard rock, metal have their own licks or scale runs etc. Listening and/or analysing licks in any genre gives you the “words” too etc. For major scale itself some ideas come from practicing sequences numeric and intervalic… And there are definitely many licks using pentatonic scales etc. drawing from blues too among other things.

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Partly because the ballpark is bigger; and it is much harder to do with full Major scale due to navigating the 2 semitone intervals as a default.
I think too that the Blues, while varied, is very much based on that sweet/sour clash between major and minor. This lends itself to lots of licks that give infinite permutations of ‘that sound’
And as @mathsjunky rightly points out, there a a multitude of approaches; pentatonic based, licks, chord-based, arpeggios, all often combined in endless ways.

Cheers, Shane

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Hmm, this is one of the reasons why I don’t rigidly stick to “the rules” when improvising you need good ears and know what sounds good and what doesn’t. My usual approach is to set up a chord progression on a looper and just listen to it and think about ideas, then start jamming over it and ALWAYS RECORD IT, you need to listen to what you’ve done and decide what’s good and what isn’t. It’s always good to prime yourself by listening to musicians playing what you’re trying to do, there’s no point trying to re-invent the wheel but you can change the order of how you put it together.


None, if any, mention here of the MAJOR pentatonic. There are plenty of licks in the major penta that obviously uses the major scale. A lot of BB King licks for example.

When playing the changes between blues chords, players often add in notes from the wider major scale and/or minor penta.

Moving away from the standard I IV V progression and/or onto jazzier blues, as I am doing now, the whole key can change with the chords. This can involve lead lines based on triads and arpeggios.

It’s all one world it just gets more complex…


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@jjw asked a similar question here

Hi Shane,

I absolutely don’t want to contradict you, you know tons more about this than I do. So, the following is in the spirit of trying to understand.

I wouldn’t think this would be such a big deal. Adding the blue note to the pentatonic already adds a semitone. I also understand that many players add some major notes to the minor pentatonic (I’m sure you do this, too) and play licks-based lead with this blues scale plus extra notes.

Yes, but why can’t you make licks with a different sound using the major scale?

Btw, I asked this same question a while back and @Richard_close2u replied, but I wasn’t completely convinced by him, either :slight_smile: (I see that Richard just referenced my earlier question).

…or add minor notes to the major pentatonic from the minor pentatonic. As I said, many players who followed BB King use the major penta. (I think the BB Box is major?)
Peter Green is one player and “Need Your Love So Bad” is an example primarily in the major key. I guess major licks sound more melodic and are thus not recognised as licks but there are certain patterns that Peter Green would repeat in many songs. I am currently revisiting Duane Allman’s solo in “Stormy Monday” and that is all major apart from one minor note. Starts in the BB Box.

There are plenty of blues songs that are major and based on major riffs (licks?); Hideaway by Freddie King for one.

I thought Justin covered Major Pentatonic in the courses but I can’t find it in any of the levels. But there is a module. I don’t recall viewing this so can’t vouch for how relevant it is to this discussion.

Here’s Jimi Hendrix playing “Like A Rolling Stone” at Monterey. He plays a major pentatonic lick right out of the “Country” toolkit twice in his intro the first at 0:56. An essential lick for every lead guitarist’s bag. It takes a certain amount of ear training to distinguish between major and minor licks:

On live versions of Little Wing, where the solo does not fade out, he also plays this major lick. BTW Little Wing is major. Although he starts in Em it’s actually in G major. Of course he tunes down a half step to add to the complication.

Apologies for being stuck in the early 70’s…

Hey John,

All good mate. I’m certainly no expert by any means, so question everything.

It is more difficult to improv with the full major scale. Try it. And its partly because there are more notes, but also where those semitones are, and the type of melodies you are playing. They can sound sour very quickly over the wrong part of a progression.
I think in a Blues, the b5 in a minor, and the b3 in a major are much more forgiving, and easier to use.
I get what your saying though; nearly the same number of notes. But I thinks its somewhat easier to see the pentatonic as the ‘default’ palette, and then add other notes as needed for extra colour, contrast movement etc.
In a Blues, I see the fuller ‘palette’ as

Cheers, Shane

@sclay Shane there are no more notes in the “major pentatonic” than in the minor ie 5. The patterns are exactly the same as the minor; take a look at Justin’s lesson. The major penta is a good starting point for major licks and just played in a different position.

Here’s Bonamassa playing a 90’s Clapton tune that oscillates between minor and major. A heap of major licks in this one:

Improvisation is its own world. Two approaches would be too limiting. You get to draw the lines and pick the colors. There is a lot of nuance and very few rules. Generally you are telling a story, so it would be wise to have a beginning, middle and end.

The story can be based on free ranging scale bits and/or connections across the fretboard, chord tones, arps, playing with the changes, double-stops, space, dynamics, etc, basically all of the cliches and tricks that you have in your toolkit. Mix and match with repeating lines. Tone, tone, tone --don’t always play clean, add some dirt, delay, reverb, etc. Entry and exit points will simply be a logical beginning and end to your story. Start and end on the root note? Usually a good approach but not a rule. --it’s ok to leave with some tension. Start on the one beat, same, but starting on another beat can be dramatic.

The BB Box is neither Major or minor. There is no 3rd. You bend a semi tone to the minor 3rd or a full tone to the Major 3rd. This is why it is so versatility. Most Youtube teachers teach it wrong and some even teach the Albert King box(which has a minor 3rd) and refer to it as the BB Box.

Shane is referring to the Major Scale not the Major pentatonic. The two notes removed from both the major and minor pentatonic scales are the notes 1 semitone apart. The 4th and 7th in the Major pentatonic and the 2nd and 6th in the minor pentatonic.

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Firstly the BB Box has a major 6th which hints to the major.

The second point is about licks in major scale; the subject heading. Although I obviously did not make my point clear enough but the major licks are generally in the major pentatonic not major scale.

Looks like youve misread what I wrote. I’m pretty conversant with the nature of pentatonic/ major scales. And there are more notes in the major scale - 7.
There’s 5 in the pentstonic, which I’m sure you knew.

Cheers, Shane

There are 12 notes in the chromatic scale. You can use 5 or these 7 of these or all of these or a selection of these ala The Mixo Dorian Blues Scale. Its up to you how and what you select from the menu. Don’t pigeon hole into Major or Minor. You are also neglecting modal.

Look out side the box and use everything you can but learn what works and what doesn’t depending on what you are playing over. Don’t isolate and segregate or stay in boxes and you’ll sound restricted. Look beyond the labels.



I was going to, but I’m not a good enough player to wade into these things. So I’m glad you mentioned it. I routinely use the major pentatonic scale to play little solo fills in many songs (classic rock , country, bluegrass) that are written in a major key, (not to mention using it over the 1 chord in blues) and they sound just fine.

Thanks @markr31 The OP raised the question why licks were not covered in the major scale module. I have unsuccessfully attempted to point out that there are licks in the major pentatonic but not necessarily in the major scale. I have provided a couple of non blues songs to illustrate.

As @JustinGuitar seems to gloss over the major pentatonic somewhat in the website lessons I wonder whether it will be included in BLIM?

Sweet Little Angel, Stormy Monday, Need Your Love are all in the blues solo book and feature the major pentatonic.

It will be glossed over in Unit 6

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