Making the Most Out of the Scales You Already Know

This article offers you an alternative approach to soloing.

Ultimate Guitar
Dear artist,

In today's lesson I want to tell you about an alternative approach to help you improvise better. What motivated me to write this lesson is something that I've seen way too often on online forums for guitar players. I'm talking about the following statement:

"I've learned all five shapes of the minor and major pentatonic scales yet I still don't know how to solo."

This article is directed and dedicated to anyone who is currently struggling with the same issue. Hopefully my thoughts on this matter will help you solve an issue that as I previously said, I encounter way too often. Even if it doesn't, at least you'll be acquainted with a different approach to scales, the fretboard and soloing in general. A different perspective can't hurt, so read on.

Theoretical Background

I believe that being creative is not always about knowing as many scales and chords as possible, but about how you approach what you already know. You need not learn a lot of scales before being able to improvise better or write more music. Case in point: several famous solos and riffs are based on relatively simple scales such as the blues scale and the minor pentatonic. The guitar players who wrote or improvised legendary solos based upon these scales simply happened to be creative enough to make the most out of them.

Here's the video to today's lesson:

YouTube preview picture

If you think about it, every player out there approaches the fretboard in his own individual way. Some like to rely upon shapes, others swear by the CAGED system, others view the fretboard in terms of arpeggio shapes that differ from those of the CAGED system, etc. Consider the following: what works for the author of a guitar method may or may not work for you. If you have learned the five shapes of a certain scale, and you still aren't able to improvise in a way that satisfies you, perhaps the method you are trying to implement is not the one for you. A different perspective may provide you with a new, better approach to the scale and ultimately, to the fretboard.

This lesson revolves upon an idea recommended by Mick Goodrick in his fantastic book "The Advancing Guitarist." The early chapters of the book recommend starting off with soloing on one single string. You progressively add other strings to the equation depending on how comfortable you feel with the structure of the scale in question.

Break Free From Shapes and Boxes

I believe there is a direct correlation between the way you play a scale and the way you learnt it. The problem with the way the minor or major pentatonic scales are taught is that they're taught as shapes, and when beginners or even intermediate players use any of these scales, they limit themselves to simply playing the shapes, sometimes coupled with some licks.

Ideally you should be able to visualize the entire scale all over the fretboard and eventually break free from shapes. In my opinion, shapes are good as exercises to develop dexterity (at best). For actual improvisation purposes, their benefits are just as limited as the imagination of the player.

It seems appropriate at this point to distinguish between different approaches at teaching scales.

In general, guitar methods will teach you scales in one of three ways:

Book A says: the notes in D minor pentatonic are D F G A C.

Book B says: D minor pentatonic is laid out the following way: 1 b3 4 5 b7

Book C says: D minor pentatonic is: r (root) minor third, perfect fourth, perfect fifth, minor seventh.

Some books will even go as far as to unnecessarily include scale diagrams for each of the 12 pitch classes we use in the West.

Books B and C say the same, but in different ways. Book B is the approach I endorse. Book A won't do much for you. There are some books out there with tons of pages because they include scale diagrams for every scale, using each of the 12 notes as a root for the scale. This results in 12 pages of (many) scale diagrams for one single scale considering that pentatonic scales may be taught in five positions, and diatonic ones in well, 7 positions, imagine how much you have to memorize!

Whenever I teach a scale to my students, I aim at helping them visualize the entire scale all over the fretboard while avoiding shapes, boxes and position. I think it's cool when you can come up with shapes and patterns of your own. This will help you build phrases and licks that, were you to use the shapes most people recommend to you, would have probably not occurred to you. Obviously this requires a good grasp of the way the fretboard works. But let's make things simply by focusing on a simple minor pentatonic structure, played on one single string. Take a look at this diagram. This is how I'd view the C minor pentatonic on the G string.

Think about this: the usual shapes of a pentatonic scale have you playing two notes per string. That results in 12 notes. On a single string you can play 11! Once you get started, you'll notice some limitations in terms of fingerings and runs. This, however, will prove beneficial when improvising, as a scarcity of choices will force you to make the most out of the 11 notes you have at your disposal.

Refer to the video for a short, improvised solo that uses strictly the notes outlined above. Get started today with one-string soloing! It can be any string of your liking. The goal is breaking free from traditional shapes and patterns. I am sure it will help you explore the fretboard in ways you didn't know of before.

Tell a Story

As important as phrasing is, it often tends to be overlooked. I guess that one of the mistakes we guitarists are often guilty of is engaging autopilot modus and limiting ourselves to just playing the notes, adding some licks here and there, but never really think why we are playing the notes we choose play. Including embellishments such as slides, bends, legato, vibrato, harmonics, double stops, trills, tremolo bar tricks... you name it, is essential. You don't really want to sound like Guitar Pro in that you just play the notes of your solo. I bet you aren't making use of the tricks you've learned so far. I bet you are better than you think you are.

That's why I urge you to be conscious of the skills you've gained along the road and put them to good use. Don't limit yourself to playing shapes, licks and scales without adding a certain edge by means of techniques. Make sure you are in control of your note choice and the direction your solo is taking. In other words, strive to say something! Tell a story with the notes you choose to use. This mentality is more likely to yield satisfying results than just noodling around with no aim.

I hope this lesson was useful to you. As always, have fun.

About the Author:
By Miguel Marquez. I'm a guitar teacher interested in combining my knowledge of psychology and music theory so as to develop more effective teaching methods for my students. Don't forget to follow me on Facebook and watch my interpretations of demanding classical pieces by Paganini and others. Make sure you check out my stuff on Soundcloud, too!

13 comments sorted by best / new / date

    I think what I've found now in my path as a musician is trying to play what you feel. If you don't have something to say and still play it will sound like yabbering, but if you dive into the solo with passion it's worth a lot more I think.
    I think the main point is, improvisation is not scales. Improvisation is about playing melodies. You have to use your ears. You can't just randomly move your fingers inside a box shape. The problem is not really in the box shapes. The problem is in the fact that the guitarist thinks that improvisation is about scales, and he can't use his ears. If you don't know what you are doing, how are you supposed to play good sounding melodies? They don't come out of your instrument by accident. Improvisation is a lot about listening . If you treat scales as just a way to navigate on the fretboard, the box shapes are not a problem at all. Scales don't really tell you how to play. They just give you the notes to play. Yeah, I would suggest learning about scale degrees, and not just playing the box shapes up and down without thinking. And yes, the scale may be easier to visualize when you play it only on one string. This is when you can focus a lot more on the sound. And this way you also see the intervals of the scale a lot easier. It looks the way it sounds, so it's easier to connect the sound and the fingerings.
    First, thank you for the lesson. Honestly, I don't want to be rude but how is this different from playing with the boxes? To me, it doesn't sound any better to playing while thinking of the box shapes.. Is this just a starting point that will ultimately help us break out from the shapes eventually as the other lessons are taught? Because i have the same problem and i agree with you that there is a direct correlation with how it was learned and how it is applied. I also think that the solution is not to think of it in shapes but to be able to visualize it in the whole fretboard but I'm not sure how to get there..
    Honestly, I don't want to be rude but how is this different from playing with the boxes?" You don't come across as rude, no worries. In my opinion the most obvious difference is that there are really no boxes when you improvise something on one single string. You are free to group notes in any way you want, and the choice of fingering is also free for each player to decide. You don't have that freedom when using boxes. Yes, it's a starting point. Once you feel like you have exhausted the possibilities of one string, you will feel tempted to involve all the remaining strings. My perspective on this matter is quite different anyways, as I never learned scales using boxes from a book.
    The article should have been called:"How to play a pentatonic scale in a linear fashion".
    I think it's more than that. "A different approach to soloing: playing scales on a single string." It's a different box to get stuck in, but one that yearns to break free from itself. Typical box shapes are very happy and don't need to move far from themselves. Using only one string us unnatural for your hands. My mind has been opened. Good lesson.
    Thank you for the lesson. I am guilty of playing the minor pentatonic "box" to death, I like the idea of "one string" because it forces you to view the same notes in a different way. Mind triggers like that spark creativity. You had mentioned above about doing a lesson on Modes - I look forward to that because, even though they can be a great soloing tool, I've never been able to understand where or how to use them. Thanks again bro!
    Or, you know, use your ears. Have a conversation with the rhythm section. To make the conversation interesting and functional you need to listen and answer appropriately. Otherwise it'll sound either really confusing or really boring.
    Here's how I teach my students this, summarized as a text flow-chart: "Comfortable going up or down the scale? Yes? In at least two octaves? Yes? Comfortable juggling notes around? No? Try this alternating 3rds or 4ths exercise. Got it yet? Yes? Noodle around over this chord using that scale position, and try ending on the note the chord is named after. Can you do that? Yes? Okay - Do you want to be a blues guy who just focuses on hitting the note the chord is named after, or do you want to be a jazz guy who hits all the chord ingredients while you're noodling, too?" Etc.