3 Ways To Make Your Pentatonic Sound Like Your Guitar Heroes'

Have you ever wondered how professional players can make a simple pentatonic scale sound interesting and "fresh"?

Ultimate Guitar
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.

70 comments sorted by best / new / date

    As for phrasing, I do agree it is absolutely fundamental, but I already covered it in some of my previous articles (for instance see http://www.ultimate-guitar.com/columns/g... In this lesson I wanted to focus on something different than phrasing, that's why I'm not covering it here.
    404 Error occurs when I try to open the link.
    Why watch a video on phrasing medal boy? Don't you know everything about it?
    Because there's always room to improve something in your playing. You can never "know everything about it".
    Great Idea. Thanks, I'll try this when I get home tonight. You should have mentioned phrasing in this article so nobody will complain. But good thing, UG community is vigilant about this.
    deadds the only thing that makes you sound like even more of a clueless ass is when you try to say that the author doesnt know what HE'S talking about. when you are going to be so bold as try to rip someone else apart it usually helps if you are right. 1st of all there is no G# in the key of A minor.(abcdefga) 2nd- minor scales do NOT have a half step approach to the tonic! (whwwhwW) and 3rd- the article was about using pentatonics in ways that are not typical to the standard approach that you have outlined. in other words these "tricks" are suggested as something to use IN ADDITION to the way you would regularly use them. i suggest that you (and a number of other hoity-toity ****s on here)chill out for a minute, take a step back and learn your shit before you try to correct or belittle someone else on here who happens to be "right" in what hes talking about.
    A very good lesson to make your pentatonic solo runs more groovy. Thumbs up from me.
    Great info. As an aside, it's amazing how many know-it-all asses there are on this forum. A little humility goes a long way, but hey, life will teach you that soon enough.
    Great lesson thankyou. Has anyone got any simaler tips for this kind of thinking with the more major sounding scales please?
    Well, Lydian is a major-sounding scale. Also, I think I mention it in the video, but the trick of using the pentatonic scale a perfect fifth higher works for the major pentatonic too. This means: where you would normally use the C major pentatonic, use the G major pentatonic instead.
    didnt read this but i need to say. phrasing! its a huge part in making things sound musical
    I'm sorry, wherever I said that you should not use good phrasing? Do I need to mention it in every lesson? (I already covered it in other lessons...). On the same line, do you guys want me also to remind you to tune your guitar and play in time? Because you can do any variations, modes, ducks and f*ucks, but without tuning your guitar, it will sound dildos
    I agree completely. You can do any variations, modes, ducks and f*cks, but without any good phrasing, it will sound dildos.
    Agree completely that commenting on an article you haven't read is prudent? *scoff*
    Simon Candy
    Great article and Video Tommaso! Makes perfect sense to me and I am looking forward to trying out these ideas
    Great lesson. For guys like me it doesn't get any better than being able to get new sounds without having to venture too far outside the shapes we are so familiar and comfortable with.
    And how is venturing outside the shapes you're so familiar and comfortable with a bad thing? Seriously, stop limiting yourself.
    Paul Tauterouff
    Great article as always. I sort of followed the same path - started out playing mainly pentatonic, then learned modes and played mostly modes, then went back to pents. Guys like Shawn Lane do sick things with the pentatonic scale using 3-notes per string!
    I could be wrong on this, my theory is a little rusty. But the idea of pentatonic shifting, you basically take the 5th of whatever key youre in and use that. Couldnt you also use the 4th?
    Its good to point out that the pentatonic 3rd in A can become a major 3rd (C#) since so many bluesy rock songs like "Sweet Home Alabama" use this in their riffs through bends, hammer-ons or other techniques. Another good way to modify pentatonic playing is adding in the flat fifth in the pentatonic run like in the main riff to Metallica's "Jump in the Fire".
    Hi, thanks for the lesson! Just a question, are points 1) and 3) really different? You are still playing a secondary relative scale in both examples right?
    In point 1 I am substituting a pentatonic for another pentatonic. In point 3 I am playing a pentatonic rather than a modal scale. The solutions are similar, but the original context is very different. Personally, if someone only mentioned point 1 to me, I could not come up by myself with the trick in point 3, so I thought it was worth to mention it explicitly.
    Actually you come up with these concepts naturally if you know the circle of fifths and enharmonics. Maybe you don't come with the exact tricks you wrote about, but at least you know in principle that you can shift your scales around.
    This is quite a naive understanding of music. While you can't exactly say that what the author claims is wrong, because these do share the same notes, none of these examples will sound that good. Music just doesn't work like this. You can't just slap a pre-learned scale on top of a progression and expect to come out with something good
    I don't understand why this has got so many negative votes because you are right. You can of course try different scales but you need to listen to the chords. Some notes don't work with some chords that great. For example in a progression C-F-G only play D, F, A and B over C major; D, E, G and B over F major; and C, E, F and A over G major. That sounds like crap. Sounds like you are in a different key even though all the notes are in C major and so is the progression. You can't just look at the chords and form a scale that fits all the chords. Not every note in a scale will work over every chord.
    A better idea would be to play notes that would accent and/or harmonize with those particular chords. You can get some really interesting lead parts that way.
    It's really sad when it seems like the writer himself doesn't understand what he's talking about even with "a lot of music theory". Here's something better: Chords of a Key (in this case, Cmajor) I - C Major pent for C major chord ii - D minor pent for D minor chord iii - E minor pent for E minor chord IV - F Major pent for F Major chord V - G Major pent for G Major chord vi - A minor pent for A minor chord vii - B minor pent(b5) for B diminished chord As you can see, E minor Pent works over the scale(not key) of A minor because it's essentially the same notes of the A minor scale but played in a different order. The A minor key has a sharp G(G#). All minor keys have a half step approach to the tonic, otherwise it's just a minor scale.
    Deadds... Last time I checked, there is no G# in the key of A minor. I don't know where you're getting you're information from, but it appears that you're the one who doesn't understand what he's talking about...
    The natural minor of A has a G natural. You play a G# if you are using a harmonic minor scale, but even then it is written in as an accidental, hence the actual key of A minor has no G#. Also, the author didn't say anywhere that you couldn't use the other scales you have listed, he merely stated that you could use the E minor pentatonic scale. You've supplied the reasoning behind his argument not an alternative one. And arguably E minor pentatonic works best which is I assume why he chose it as the example.
    'All minor keys have a half step approach to the tonic, otherwise it's just a minor scale.' Could you clarify what you're trying to say here? Maybe a typo?
    what he means is that when you play a harmonic or melodic minor scale, in musical theory terms you raise the seventh(and 6'th dependent on the type of scale), even though it isn't in the key. so no, the key of A minor does not have a G#, but the harmonic and melodic scales do. however the natural minor scale does not raise any notes, just plays all the motes in the respective minor key. http://totalguitarist.com/lessons/theory... this explains better than I do.
    I think He is correct except for A min having a G#. His presentation seems the same with this video:
    As great as this is, I'd like to point out (yet again) that modes and scales are stupid.
    You realize that without modes or scales, western music would literally never have existed? Get your shit together.
    And do you know how those scales were formed? The music wasn't written to fit the scales, the scales are there because of the music. You don't write with using scales, you need to think in sounds. Same as soloing. Best solos are inside your head! So try to achieve what you hear in your head. That's what you feel at the moment and it will feel the most right to you to play. At least I'm most happy with my solo if that's what I heard in my head and wanted to play. It may fit a scale and that's why learning the scales is a good tool. But you can't just run them up and down without knowing what you are doing. You need to be familiar with the sounds you can achieve. And the sounds are in your head. I actually don't think in scales any more. I try to play what I hear. Sometimes it doesn't go exactly like I wanted but I always get better at it when I do it. I find the sounds on my fretboard. They may happen to fit a scale but I just don't think in scales, unless what I hear in my head is a scale sequence. Then I might think that it's a sequence in pentatonic scale. But again, this is the sound I hear. I don't play it without hearing it (sometimes I do but I don't like my playing if I don't know what I'm doing). At least I try to play what I want to play and I'm improving all the time in it.
    You realize that, if you compose with keys instead, you open a whole lot of doors, right? So, get your shit together. Also, modes are considered an outdated method of composition these days. Step into the Musician's Talk forum sometime. You'll find out that there's a reason most of those guys (including me on rare occasions) consider modes and scales to be stupid/useless for good composition. Writing songs by using a particular mode or scale is just a bad way to compose. We really need to stop teaching modes and scales as some almighty way to compose, because they're not. The author of this article is following the same bad trend that 100 other music writers are following, namely the trend of uplifting modes and scales are something that will improve your composition. Fact is, the reason most of those "guitar heroes" sound good is because their solos were composed well. Listen to Roger Waters sometime, and pay attention to the stuff backing his solo. His solos wouldn't sound half as good without fitting his solos into the composition of the song itself. And the song wasn't composed using a scale; it was composed using a key. We have way too many guitar players today who think the best way to write a song/riff/whatever is to pick a scale/mode and then go to it. That's actually an incredibly limiting way to go about writing songs/riffs/whatever. Whereas, with a key, you literally can do whatever you want, as long as it all points back to the tonic and fits the song. (Listen to some Mozart or Bach, if you don't believe me. Then, listen to some of the classic, iconic rock bands and realize they were writing songs in a key, not a mode/scale.) I'll leave you with this final thought, which you'll realize after doing some of what I suggested (particularly, listening to Mozart or Bach and then your favorite "guitar hero")... keys > scales/modes!
    You are right but I don't know if anybody thinks "let's pick a scale and write a song using it". When I write songs, I don't think in scales, modes or keys. I think in sounds. I think what I want to hear. And I'm pretty sure every professional songwriter does this. They think in sounds. You can't just put random notes or chords in a row and hope that it sounds good. You need to know what you are after. Though I know what you are saying. But I think nobody writes like "let's pick a scale and write a song using it". Even if you were thinking in keys when you write, it wouldn't change anything, unless you were thinking in sounds. The scale thinking just doesn't work if you write a song. Because there are chords and many songs use non diatonic chords: one scale just wouldn't work. Though melodies can have some scale runs (and usually they fit a scale) but that also has to do with thinking in sound. The scale run just has the sound the composer wants to hear.
    ... all good and interesting, except I'm writing an article on soloing, not composition. I'm aiming at people who know some pentatonic scales and giving them some new ways to use what they are already familiar with. You are talking about something completely different. If you want to discuss composition, you are free to do so - in your own articles I'm not following any "bad thread" as you say, and I suggest you actually get to know the author a bit better before writing such grand sweeping criticism. I definitely never said that scales are the ultimate way to master composition - look at my articles, read my websites, and you'll see that. If you want to criticize me, be my guest, but you'll have to do better than offering some unsubstantiated statement based on 100 OTHER authors with which I have nothing to do. In any case, I think that in your relentless fight against the perceived evil of "scales and modes" you are throwing away the baby with the dirty water. Scales are useful for some specific goals. Scales are NOT the ultimate solution to life, the universe, and everything, and I know very few people who actually believe that - in particular I do not see any author on UG believing that. Anyway, I appreciate your comments. Any chance of you finally writing an article about all that and publish it on UG? Last time I asked you that, you disappeared from the comment thread :
    yes but your scales are essentially your keys. like you say, if you were writing in the key of C major, your notes would almost all be made up of the C major scale, true? I'm not denying that its awful when you see high school indie bands making riffs out of a couple of basic A5 and E5 chords, and then solos made up of them consistently going up and down the E minor pentatonic in crotchets or quavers, in 4/4 time. what I say is "play shit that sounds good", although when I am composing riffs, it is helpful to have a good knowledge of that sale in the relevant position I am in, not just a key signature.
    No, no, no...if you're writing in C major, you are not writing in the "C major scale". You're writing in the key of C major. Keys are not limited to 7 notes, unlike keys. Also, if you're still thinking in terms of fretboard position, then you need to stop doing that. Instead, think in terms of which notes you want to play. Then, figure out where those notes are and play them. For example, if you wanted to play an "A" note, you have so many places you could play an A note (assuming you weren't worried about the octave of that A note).
    Yeah, I think the problem with guitar is that it's very "visual" instrument. And what I mean by this is that people learn the fret numbers and positions rather than note names and sounds. There are few other instruments that are like this. For example in piano or trumpet there are no scale positions. There's only one way to play one note (OK, there might be two fingerings in trumpet that give you the same note but only one of them is really used). In these instruments people will automatically think in note names rather than scale positions. There are no tabs for piano (or maybe somebody has invented it but I see no point, it would just make things harder), there's only sheet music and chords. The scale positions kind of give you licks that you can play and you don't need to listen to it that much to be able to play some cool licks and a "decent" solo by connecting those licks. In other instruments where you more likely learn the note names, you'll not think in fret numbers and scale positions because there's only one way to play a note. I think this also helps in playing by ear. There's only one position for each note so it's easier to remember how to achieve the sound you are after. In guitar you need to remember many different positions for one sound.
    I think it's better to think in intervals than scales. Scale degrees are really intervals between the note in the scale and the tonic. If you know the intervals well enough, you don't need to think in scales because whatever you play, there's always an interval between the notes. Thinking in intervals helps with playing what you hear in your head. If you think in scale degrees, it's pretty much the same as thinking in intervals. I sometimes think in intervals between the note and the tonic (ie scale degrees) and sometimes just the interval between the note I'm playing and the next note. And key and scale are different things. Key includes all the chords and actually the only thing that matters when you define the key is the resolution. You can use whatever chords but if the resolution is C major, then you are in C major. No matter what scale you play over it and no matter what other chords there are (other than everything needs to resolve to C major). When I write, I'm conscious about what I'm doing. When I come up with something I want to write, I come up with the sound first, then I analyze the sound I hear and I know how to find the notes. I don't write if I'm not inspired by something. I don't start noodling around with a scale. I might play one chord to get inspired. Sometimes the sound just inspires me to write something. It might need one note and I instantly know how I should continue the song I started. Sometimes I get inspired when I'm walking outside. But none of my songs have been written by noodling and guessing. All of them have been sound first, then finding the sounds on my fretboard.
    He writes good articles. I don't always agree with all the methods he advocates but we all learn or were taught differently. So what?
    I have taught music theory and have a 50-year history in the "language" of music, but the foreign-to-America accent in the video makes me strain to hear what the fellow is saying. Sorry.
    This didn't help me sound like Django Reinhardt, OR Les Paul...
    Try running some chromatic passing tones for that Django Reinhardt feel Just what I've been working on. As for Les Paul I have no suggestions