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Beginner Saxophone blues instruction material in the wrong keys?

AndyB

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I have used several excellent online saxophone instruction programs that I felt I got a lot of benefit from. And I have a bunch of blues method and lesson books. However, I also felt that I was not getting much material in the keys that I needed for the blues songs that I know and love. Being a scientist by training, I collected lists of the keys for well over 100 traditional blues songs and over 100 sax transcripts and lessons that I have in my collection and I did the math.

There really does seem to be a real tendency to stick to jazz keys like Bb/F instead of the keys used by real traditional blues songs. That seems understandable as a place to start. But ignoring the predominant blues keys of E and A concert is hard to comprehend.

TOP 10 TRADITIONAL BLUES KEYS
=============================
E 27%
A 18%
C 15%
G 13%
D 6%
F 6%
Am 3%
B 2%
Bb 2%
Bm 2%

TOP 10 SAX BLUES INSTRUCTION KEYS (concert)
=================================
Bb 33%
F 30%
C 8%
G 8%
Dm 5%
Am 5%
Ab 3%
Cm 3%
Eb 3%
Em 3%
 

Tenor Viol

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The reason is that if you are an Eb player, A major transposes to a key signature of 6 sharps, and E major to one of 7 sharps (5 and 6 for a Bb player). Most less experienced players would run screaming out of the room seeing key signatures of F# and C# major.

E is common because it's the basic open string key of guitars. People on just about any other instrument would not regard E as a 'nice' easy key (especially string players). Most orchestral instrument players would stick to keys with up to 2 sharps or 2 flats.
 

Pete Thomas

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And strangely enough a few of the blues/boogie pianist I'v worked with seem to love very flat keys, Db Ab and Eb. Easy to hit those black notes and they all sound OK!
 

AndyB

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Thanks and I understand that but to play real blues you have to play in C# and F# on alto, for example. That just seems a necessary hurdle to play real blues. Otherwise, what you get is like a piano method book written all in the key of C major - less useful than it could be.
 

AndyB

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And strangely enough a few of the blues/boogie pianist I'v worked with seem to love very flat keys, Db Ab and Eb. Easy to hit those black notes and they all sound OK!
There is a particular blues piano technique where they slide off a black note to the next white note too. I wonder if that figures in. I think they call them "smears" or some funny word like that.
 
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Veggie Dave

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It's simply about practicality. Bb (concert) is a great key to learn the concept of the blues on a Bb instrument such as the tenor (which is what most instructional videos/courses seem to concentrate on), as it's an easy key to play in. Even on Eb horns it's pretty friendly.

Once you get a feel for it, then you can move onto more challenging keys and guitar-friendly keys.

A lot of jazz blues standards are traditionally in Bb, as the horns were often the lead instrument and Bb is a very friendly horn key. I've found early guitar blues was often in 'open chord' keys like G and C, possibly because they were the loudest chords to play on an acoustic so easier to hear in a crowd.

If you drill further into the keys, I think you'll find certain genres of blues have certain keys they favour and that the primary instrument also has a strong influence on the key. Modern guitarists love E and A as these are really easy keys for them to play in. Horn players gravitate to Bb, C , F and G as they're easy keys to play.

As Pete's said, keyboard players seem to prefer very flat keys. As far as I know this is again due to ease of playing, especially in the case of Stevie Wonder, as it's all the black keys.

As a learner/blues novice, starting on an easy key for your particular instrument makes logical sense. Depending on who you play with will to a large extent dictate which keys you subsequently concentrate on.
 

Veggie Dave

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If you're on alto then Improvising The Blues, by Nick Beston may be of interest.
 

thomsax

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Playing in concert A, E, D ...... is not that hard if you use the B blues scale (1 #), F# blues scale (2#), C# blues scale (3#), E blues scale (3#). You can do a lot with the blues scales.
 

Colin the Bear

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Lots of young blues guitarists I know are tuning down a semitone. E becomes Eb. Hurray. I love them. ;)
Eb I find is more of a singers key. Flat keys in general seem easier on the voice/ear.
Lots of those old blues singers used open tunings on guitar and not even A 440.
Technically, whatever works in one key will work in another. Maybe not emotionally
Saxophone is a transposing instrument. Transpose it. Or learn to think in Roman numerals. Or learn to play concert fingerings from concert dots.
However...the blues isn't in the dots and imo isn't in any books.
 

AndyB

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Lots of young blues guitarists I know are tuning down a semitone. E becomes Eb.
This is because of the rising popularity of the Fender Stratocaster. It has especially high string tension and so many people since Hendrix have tuned it down 1/2 step to lower the string tension.
 

thomsax

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I know some guys who are playing lots of Stevie Ray Vaughan songs and they use to play SRV songs in E instead of Eb. And so did we when we played. We played "Look At Little Sister", "Crossfire" and "Pride and Joy" in E instead Eb. Most horn players hate to play in E (F# or C#). I thought it was better becuase the the song came out better in concert E. The guitar sounds very good in concert E. And even the vocal, if the singer can sing.

I learned to play in the rock- electric guitar keys early because I wanted to play the music I heard on the radio and on records. So it was ofen B, F# and C#. I didn't read in those keys. But sheet music, lead sheet, rhytm page is a great help when you learn a song. And some guys can't play if the don't have sheet music. They can play but they want a note paper in front of them. Makes them feel fine. And I want everyone to feel good and be happy so I have charts to most songs. A happy sax player plays better!?!?!?!

Three things you don't bring up on a blues stage: Chairs, note stands and tuners. Just the drummer and pianoplayer that use chairs. Notestand, you can a paper on the floor in front of you. Tuners some guitar players have tuners on thier guitars.

I use to write down my own stuff so I remeber easier what to do. It can be a riff or a lick that we play in all all chord progressions so I don't write out dots, more the rhythm. And I also played both bari and tenor so it's the same. The turnarounds, and "quick for", stops ...... I had to listen to or had eyecontact with the leader/singer. Note just for me!
rhytm.JPG
 

AndyB

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It's simply about practicality. Bb (concert) is a great key to learn the concept of the blues on a Bb instrument such as the tenor (which is what most instructional videos/courses seem to concentrate on), as it's an easy key to play in. Even on Eb horns it's pretty friendly.

Your advice is much-appreciated Dave. I'm actually an old hand with the blues and have hundreds of blues recordings. I think I got hooked in the 60s as a kid on the farm when I found that I could pick up late night radio shows from Chicago on my AM radio from atmospheric bounce and heard artists like Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, etc. I classify myself as a beginner (again) but I've actually played sax 15 years (over the course of 50 years with several lapses of 5-10 years) and guitar for over 30 with many lapses being an IT programming serf. Perhaps that was misleading.

PS. I actually own the Beston book from when I used to play exclusively tenor and did not remember that it covered alto too, Thanks for reacquainting me with an old friend. That is a great book. And it found itself back on my music stand as soon as you posted your recommendation :)

PPS. Those late night shows from WLS Chicago are also where I first heard King Curtis, Jr Walker, Lester Young and heard a lot more of Aretha, Fats Domino and Ray Charles than the local Top 40s AM radio. For a small town farm boy it was like contacting another planet.
 
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AndyB

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I know some guys who are playing lots of Stevie Ray Vaughan songs and they use to play SRV songs in E instead of Eb. And so did we when we played. We played "Look At Little Sister", "Crossfire" and "Pride and Joy" in E instead Eb.
Wow. They must be real men if they are playing Strats and they are like the old ones. I used to play a 1964 L series Stratocaster from the same production run as Hendrix's black Strat. I refused to detune to Eb and it used to tear my fingers up - I mean sawing through the calluses! The string tension was so much higher than any other guitar I've ever owned and I currently own 15. Sadly it was stolen. No new guitars sound the same. There was something weird about the hand wound pickups from those that read as an open circuit but belted out harmonic richness.
 
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Dr G

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Wow. They must be real men if they are playing Strats and they are like the old ones. I used to play a 1964 L series Stratocaster from the same production run as Hendrix's black Strat. I refused to detune to Eb and it used to tear my fingers up - I mean sawing through the calluses! The string tension was so much higher than any other guitar I've ever owned and I currently own 15. Sadly it was stolen. No new guitars sound the same. There was something weird about the hand wound pickups from those that read as an open circuit but belted out harmonic richness.

What are you talking about, Andy? Sure, if you use the same string gauge, then the tension is higher on a longer-scale guitar - so use a lighter gauge on your Strat. “Open circuit”? No, the ‘60s pickups did not read that - unless you have your ohmmeter on the wrong range. Definitely below 10k ohms - more like 7k or 8k. An open circuit reads greater than 1 Mohm (millions vs thousands).
 

AndyB

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What are you talking about, Andy? Sure, if you use the same string gauge, then the tension is higher on a longer-scale guitar - so use a lighter gauge on your Strat. “Open circuit”? No, the ‘60s pickups did not read that - unless you have your ohmmeter on the wrong range. Definitely below 10k ohms - more like 7k or 8k. An open circuit reads greater than 1 Mohm (millions vs thousands).

I used to build custom electronic data acquisition systems by hand and interface them to industrial monitoring equipment so I do know a bit about electronics.

By coincidence I read this about another old Fender guitar that had the same trait.

PS. I know longer own that guitar but my theory is that some of those old pickups had especially high inductance which prevented the ohm meter from operating properly.

PPS. Personally I don't like the pingy/poppy sound of light gauge strings at low volumes. Actually, SRV tuned his Strats down 1/2 step but then used heavier strings.
 
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John Setchell

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…However...the blues isn't in the dots and imo isn't in any books.
This is the dilemma I’m resolving.
My tutor insists I learn to read the dots, but my guitarist rehearsal buddies all play by ear - and so did I on other instruments until being Taught Saxophone.
I accept that music is a language, and if you want to cognitively “talk” to other musicians, refer to written pieces, or play written pieces you’ve got to be able to read at some level.
“Difficult” keys are a mindset IMO. I haven’t been playing long, but jamming with guitarists who dive for A or E puts my tenor in B or F#, and learning by mistakes the notes to hit or miss in these keys is now instinctive. I don’t think in terms of keys or scales, just finger patterns and embouchure to make the note ‘talk’.
I agree with Colin - I ain’t seen this in any book.
 

thomsax

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A or E puts my tenor in B or F#, and learning by mistakes the notes to hit or miss in these keys is now instinctive. I don’t think in terms of keys or scales, just finger patterns and embouchure to make the note ‘talk’.
B blues scale: B, D, E, F, F#,A, B
F# blues scale: F#, A, B, C, C#, E, F#
C# blues scale: C#, E, F#, G, G#, B, C#

A 12 bar blues in concert E (F# on tenor) ( I, IV, V chord progression)
/ F#7 / F#7 / F#7 / F#7 /
/ B7 / B7 / F#7 / F#7 /
/ C#7/ B7 / F#7 / F#7-B7 /

F#7 chord tones: F# root, A# 3rd, C# 5th, E# 7th (natural F)
B7 chord tones: B root, D# 3rd, F# 5th, A# 7th
C#7 chord tones: C# (root), E# 3rd (natural F), G# 5th, B# 7th (natural C)

There are lots of backing tracks on youtube so you can practice and learn the chord changes. Just play the root tone of the chord on every beat in the bar. Then you can add more tones. Play simple riffs and licks And after that you will perhaps add more tones/ or borrow from other scales.

This is not so difficult?

This is too simple says lots of saxplayers. Maybe, but if it's so simple why don't they play the blues better?

To learn the blues you must practice and listen. As a former chef I can do S:ce Bearnaise, and all the sauces that are based on S:ce Bernaise, without a recipe. The 10 first times I did a S:ce Bearnaise I used a recipe. So why shouldn't a bluesplayer use a "recipe"? When I started to play the saxophone I just played the tones on my sax and nothing wrong with that. But I expanded my toolbox when I learned more theory.
 

AndyB

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This is not so difficult?

I agree thomsax, not so difficult. But not necessarily simple either. I see the blues form as a simple canvas to overlay lots of colors upon. For example mixing and matching all these elements in 1/2-bar, 1-bar, 2-bar or 4-bar motifs,

Chord: C7

C major pent scale
C major blues scale
C major hexatonic/Allman Bros (1 2 3 5 6 b7 )
C Coltrane pent scale (1 2 3 5 b7)
C mixolydian scale
C mixolydian bebop scale
C mixo-dorian/8 tone scale
C mixo-dorian blues/9 tone scale (Night train)
C minor pent scale
C minor blues scale
G minor pent scale (5th above tonic)
D minor pent scale (1 step above tonic)
A minor pent scale (relative minor)
C triad inversions
C7 dominant arpeggios
C9 dominant arpeggios
C13 dominant arpeggios
And last but not least, a century's worth of blues "cliche" riffs

Then add embellishments like neighbor tones, enclosures, bends, falls... I am hopelessly in love with the blues and plan to spend my retirement diving deeper and never getting bored.
 
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