Have you ever wondered how professional players can make a simple pentatonic scale sound interesting and "fresh"? This ability has always looked like magic to me, so follow me in this article where I explain to you some of this magic.
The majority of non-professional guitar players thinks that pentatonic scales are nice tools to use on a Blues or a Classic Rock track, but they have little use for them out of these contexts. I used to think the same way, and in fact I focused most of my practice on modal scales (Dorian, Phrygian, and all that). And yet, the more I studied the solos of my guitar heroes (Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Eric Johnson, and later Andy Timmons and Guthrie Gowan, just to name a few) the more I realized that they used the pentatonic scale more ofter than I would have. Not only that, but they were able to make the pentatonic sound different - as it was not a pentatonic anymore, but a modal scale or similar.
I used to be confused by all this, and it was only with the years (and a lot of music theory) that I was able to understand completely what they were doing an why. I cannot possibly be able to write here a complete theory of advanced uses for the pentatonic scales, but I want at least show you some simple tricks that can be applied in a simple way by anyone. These tricks are so simple that I am surprised they are not widespread, but I couldn't find any online resource explaining them in an understandable way. So, here we go:
1. Pentatonic "Shifting"
We start with an idea that is as simple as it is useful. I guess that everybody knows that over a chord progression in A minor you can play a solo on the A minor pentatonic scale. This may well be one of the first thing you learned on the guitar. What you probably don't know yet is that this is not the only scale you can use: for instance on an A minor backing track you can also use an E minor pentatonic scale. Before protesting that this is the wrong scale for the job, try it out: you will discover that actually it does sound great.
How is that possible? After all the scale seems to be in the wrong key. Well, let's have a look more in depth: the notes in the A minor pentatonic are A C D E G. The notes in the E minor pentatonic are E G A B D. As you can see immediately, the E minor pentatonic is simply the A minor pentatonic with a B rather than a C. But this B note is not a problem, because B is still a note in the A minor key (A B C D E F G), so it's not a wrong note at all.
With this simple trick, I just doubled the usefulness of any pentatonic lick you may know: when you are soloing over an A minor track, you can play all of your licks in the A minor pentatonic AND on the E minor pentatonic, and they will sound great (even if different) in both cases. In fact it is a good idea to try and mix the two scales when you are improvising. If you want to see how to do it, I have prepared a video lesson that shows you how to do that (linl is below).
As you can see, this trick is very simple. Just because it is so simple, you can use it anytime. It's a great way to spice up a solo!
2. Altered Pentatonics
A second concept that I want to show you is the concept of "altering" the scale. What I mean by that is that you can modify a scale (in our case here, a pentatonic scale) by changing one of its notes so that you get a different but similar scale. Easier said than done, you may reply. What notes you should change, and what not?
Well, there are many ways of doing that, so here I will just show you a simple example that you can use immediately. Take again your old faithful A minor pentatonic scale, and replace the note C with a C#. This new scale (A C# D E G) will fit perfectly over an A7 chord, and so it is a great scale to use for a Blues. You can see some practical example of this in the advanced pentatonic video (link is below).
This scale I just showed you is very popular, but strangely enough it never got a standard name. Different musicians refer to it with different names such as: Mixolydian Pentatonic, Dominant Pentatonic, Jeff Beck scale, Jan Hammer scale... In fact some people use these names to refer to other different scales. Quite confusing! To be on the safe side, if you find this names in other books or articles be sure to verify what notes are actually used!
3. Pentatonic "Modal" Scale
This is a more advanced concept than the two before, but it is also one of my favourites: you can use a pentatonic scale to suggest a modal scale. Again, there is not only one way to do that, and in fact one could fill a book with all the possible ways in which this can be applied. Let's see a simple example so that you will understand what I mean.
For this example imagine you want to solo over an A Lydian chord progression. Clearly, the most obvious scale to use in this situation is A Lydian itself, and yet it is not the only one. In fact, many advanced players would actually use a pentatonic scale instead! But which one? The A minor pentatonic sound terrible over A Lydian (try it!)
The idea here is to do something similar to what we did before by "shifting" the pentatonic, but a bit more creative. On an A Lydian chord progression you are going to play a G# minor pentatonic. Again, this seems the wrong scale for the job, but if you look at the notes involved you will see that it would work great. The notes in the A Lydian scale are A B C# D# E F# G#, and the notes in the G# minor pentatonic are G# B C# D# F#, so as you can see all the notes of the G# minor pentatonic are also present in the Lydian scale. In a sense, we can say that the G# minor pentatonic is "embedded" into the A Lydian scale.
You might at this point wonder why we go such lengths just to play the same notes as the original scale. The first reason is that by using a pentatonic scale you can use all the pentatonic licks you already know. The second and most important one is that the G# minor pentatonic does not contain all the notes of A Lydian, and these missing notes actually create a bit more "space" in the solo. It's not the notes you play, it's the notes you don't play! The best way to make sure of that is to just try it. Or you can watch the explanatory video on pentatonic scales - wee the link below.
Hearing It Is Better Than Reading It
As we have seen, the good old pentatonic scale is a great alternative to playing modal scales. This come with the added advantage that you can use your repertoire of "blues" licks in new ways, even over modal backing tracks! Now it its the time for you to pick up your guitar and try these concepts. As you are going to discover soon, it is not easy to implement all this by yourself, especially if you have no idea how this is supposed to sound. To help you better, I have created a video (watch it above) on advanced pentatonic concepts that presents for you the concepts above together with examples and some tips on how to apply them to real playing situations. Everything we have seen together will be much clearer, and you will be ready to creatively apply these scales to create your own solos. Enjoy!
If you want to see how to do it, I have prepared a video lesson that shows you how to do that.
About The Author:
Tommaso Zillio is a prog rock guitarist and teacher with a passion for Music Theory applied to Guitar.