Last week's foray into fretless (here) got me thinking a bit more about "blue notes," the notes which, as the name implies, can be used to impart a bit of bluesy flavor into a piece of music. This week I thought I'd start by identifying blue notes on the fingerboard. Then I'll give a few examples of a fun way to throw them into fiddle tunes.
What is a blue note?
Simply put, I treat flattened 3rds, 5ths, and 7ths as "blue notes" when stuck into an otherwise major/ionian tune. Wikipedia includes flattened 6ths in this mix as well and I likely would too but I don't have much occasion to use them and I'll therefore leave flattened 6ths out of today's discussion for simplicity. Once again, I probably wouldn't use the term "blue note" for notes that are consistent with the modality of a tune (more on modes here). For example, I don't think of the G naturals in "Red Haired Boy" as blue notes, even though they are flattened 7ths of the A major scale; after all, "Red Haired Boy" is a mixolydian tune and G naturals/flattened 7ths are, by definition, part of the A mixolydian scale. Similarly, I don't think most people would think minor (flattened) thirds in minor melodies as blue notes either.
The flattened 3rds in Minor Pentatonic tunes like "Cluck Old Hen" (post on Minor Pentatonic tunes here) could be called blue notes if major chords are played in the background (discussed in another post here) since theres definitely some harmonic tension between the major third in the root chord and the minor (flattened) third in the minor pentatonic scale. These tunes definitely sound quite bluesy with the right set of chords. However, I mainly use the term "blue note" for throwing these notes in when they don't "belong" (i.e. in standard major/ionian tunes). When you manage to sneak flattened 3rds or 7ths into "Cripple Creek" or "Fly around...," (which I'll be doing a bit further down the page) these are properly described as blue notes. Its possible that other people use this term differently (...its also possible that I'm boring you to death with all this hair-splitting...).
Where can you find the blue notes on the fingerboard?
Below is a fretboard map showing the location of blue notes alongside ionian/major scale notes in 3 of my most commonly used banjo tunings:
Figure 1 - Maps of the banjo fretboard in Open A (left), Double D (middle), and Old G (right) tunings. Only notes on strings 1-4 are shown. Notes of the tuning's relevant major scale (i.e. A major for Open A tuning, D major for Double D tuning, and G major for Old G tuning; post on Old G here) are shown outlined in green, while blue notes are outlined in pink with different shapes representing different types of blue notes. Notes located on the nut are notes of open strings.
With the information above you should be able to pick out a major scale relevant to each tuning and find blue notes for a bit of color! One thing to note: in all of these tunings, you can find a lot of blue notes on the 3rd and 6th frets.
So lets mess with a few tunes by adding in some blue notes:
How do you add blue notes into tunes?
I often go for subtlety in my playing...but today, I'm going to abandon this preference and embed blue notes in to some familiar tunes with a sledgehammer : ) I'm basing this approach on something I often hear fiddlers do: heavily accent the note on the beat just before the beginning of a musical phrase. In the tunes we'll look at today, we'll imitate this move with an extended hammer on that starts on a blue note for contrast. Let's jump in by putting a flattened 3rd into the A part of "Fly around my pretty little miss:"
Figure 2 - The A part of "Fly around..." with blue notes added in. Tab is meant to be played in double D tuning. Blue notes are highlighted in pink.
...I'm just now realizing that I should have highlighted blue notes in blue....sigh.
To play the tab above, and those below, we've got to break right hand stride (posts on stride here and here). The lead-in note to Figure 2, which consists of a flattened third and a couple open strings, is played with a heavy brush so that it rings long enough for the delayed hammer-on (actually I often do this one with an index finger slide instead) to retain some oomph. Note: I've put a rest between the two notes to indicate time passage - this does not indicate that the note should be muted in the middle. During the first beat of the first measure (post lead-in note) your right hand just takes a break and waits for the next beat to come along. If you miss the first blue note, you get another chance halfway through the A part : )
So lets hear this thing:
Example 1 - the A part from "Fly around..." with blue notes (Figure 2) played on the Buckeye.
Once again, not subtle, but pretty satisfying!
Blue notes can also be a fun way to spice up a tune you've played a million times. Here's everybody's first tune "Cripple Creek" with both a flattened 7th and a flattened 3rd thrown in.
Figure 3 - The A part of "Cripple Creek" with blue notes thrown in. Tab is meant to be played in Open A tuning. Blue notes, once again, highlighted in pink.
Note that though while we're using a "long hammer-on" riff similar to the one we used in Figure 2 to add a flattened 7th blue note into "Cripple Creek," there is one important difference: we're using our hammer on to travel the full step between the flattened 7th (G) and the next note up the scale (A) rather than sliding up the half step to the standard ionian 7th (G#).
Might as well take the time to hear this one too:
Example 2 - The A part of "Cripple Creek" with blue notes (Figure 3).
I picked the B part of "John Brown's Dream" as an example of a flattened 5th blue note; one more use of the heavy-handed "slow hammer-on lead-in" trope that I've been leaning on for this whole post.
Figure 4 - The B part of "John Brown's Dream" with some blue notes thrown in (again, in pink).
Notice that I randomly threw a flattened 3rd into the 4th measure for some variety : ) A final bit of audio:
Example 3 - The B part of "John Brown's Dream" with blue notes (Figure 4).
Hope you're inspired to throw some blue notes in to your own playing. Until next week!
About this blog
I have lots of ideas about banjo playing and music in general - this blog allows me to get them all out of my head and see what you think.