Pentatonic Scales: How to Avoid Playing the Same Licks Over and Over

Do you like Classic Rock and Blues, but you think that the pentatonic scale is quite limiting for self-expression? After all there rare only 5 notes in it! How much "new" music can be composed with only 5 notes? You'll be surprised.

Ultimate Guitar
Do you like Classic Rock and Blues, but you think that the pentatonic scale is quite limiting for self-expression? After all there rare only 5 notes in it! How much "new" music can be composed with only 5 notes? You'll be surprised.

I used to think that the pentatonic scale was the "baby" scale to learn just to have something simple to play before tackling the modal scales. Boy, was I wrong. Even after years and years of playing I'm still finding new and original melodies on the pentatonic scale.

Now, of course, I do not want to sidetrack you from learning all your modal scales. I am not even saying that scales are the most important thing to learn (they are not). But sometimes it is important to know how to take a concept (like the pentatonic scale) that has been played and overplayed and STILL be able to take something original out of it.

So, how do you do it? Well, there are many ways, and today I am going to share one of them with you. We are going to create a little melodic unity (a "motif") and to "sequence" it through the scale. You can see exactly how to do that by watching the video below. Example TABs in the video.

YouTube preview picture

If you implement this exercise into your practice routine, you will see that in a little time you will start to create new and original licks. This is due to a number of factors, that may not be apparent at first:

1. By doing this exercise you are forced to play a NEW thing every day. This will train your fingers to follow your orders in real time - something that they are not used to.

2. You are also forced to play the notes of the pentatonic in a different order than you are used to. You may not feel this limitation now, but give it a try and tell me if in a couple of weeks you don't feel much more free to "move" in the scale.

3. Finally you are also training your ear. By playing the melodic pattern throughout the scale as shown in the video your ear will learn to recognize the intervals inside the pentatonic scale, with no need of you knowing the names or anything. You will just associate the sound with the fretboard position. Even if you are not thinking consciously that you are training your ear, you will see an improvement when you need to pick up a phrase and play it on your guitar.

About the Author:
Tommaso Zillio is a prog rock guitarist and teacher with a passion for Music Theory applied to Guitar.

31 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Very good timming as I started looking into the pentatonic scale and was wondering what sequences I could play with those 5 notes. Scale with a lack of notes I thought at the beginning. : not any more...thanks
    I think why many people feel like five notes aren't enough is because they only use 8th or 16th or 4th notes all the time. There's no variety in rhythm. Also many people just noodle around with the scale. When you start singing a melody, it usually uses pentatonic scale because it is the "natural" scale. If you add some variety to your rhythm, it starts to sound a lot more interesting. Also, if you don't just think about licks but more like a melody, it may sound a lot more "melodic" and not just like the basic bluesy rock solo.
    nice ever since i started my band, Skyward steel if anyone is interested, i stoped focusing on soloing because i was only doing rythm so it's nice to have these lessons where i can start from the "beggining" again while still improving what i already knew
    Ryan Withers
    Skyward steel... like the Zelda game Skyward Sword? don't wan't to sound overly rude, but that lacks originality
    Or perhaps a Skyscraper? Seems a fitting name inspired from people living in a big city...
    Thanks for the lesson. I've been playing for years but I've neglected things like this so this has really given me a wake-up call and a place to start tightening my skills. Cheers!
    I'm sorry but if I wanted to watch a video I would have gone on YouTube. I came to ultimate guitar to learn about guitar not for someone to promote their own YouTube lesson channel over a pretty basic idea
    Jaywalk, sorry to break the news to you... of the last 10 lessons posted by UG, 6 are video lessons. I am hardly the first to do this Also: I made a video lesson (and I plan to make a series of them) because I received literally TONS of PMs from UG members asking me if I could give video examples in my lessons here. If you don't like it, then I'm sorry, but I will keep doing them. Lots of UG members want them and appreciate them, and I will follow what they want
    I'm still waiting for the lesson on the "one" pattern you mentioned in your last lesson. This is good lesson though and the video is definitely a good inclusion.
    Look, I didn't mean it like that I am just saying that if you are going to make a lesson I think that using a video that you already made, days ago and then adding words to it doesn't make it a lesson but rather free advertising for a youtube channel, don't get me wrong it's not a bad lesson but the reason I go on to UG is to usually lookup things and ideas on the guitar to read more about later when I have the time to actually listen to a video. But I do appreciate the way you handled this, but to everyone else who commented saying mean things you suck. I like video lessons as well, i had never heard of tommaso .zillio until now and I think video lessons on youtube should stay on youtube. Thats all I'm saying so I apologize
    1) You do realize that people have been mean to you because you posted a mean comment to begin with? 2) "video made [...] days ago". I sent the lesson to UG the same moment I uploaded the video on YouTube (in fact, while it was still uploading). UG takes a few days to post a lesson because they do quality control on the lessons. 3) You say that you like video lessons, but YouTube lessons should stay on YouTube. In UG guidelines for authors, they recommend to post video lessons on YouTube so they can embed it here. If you don't like an UG guideline it's your right to disagree, but take it with the managers who make the rules, not with the author who writes lessons and has to follow the rules In any case, no skin off my nose, apology accepted, let's not keep the drama going on. I'd rather play my guitar, and all people here probably agree with that
    You can just click "Play" and watch the video right on this page
    Go away, Jaywalk777. I, for one, like video lessons.
    I agree, video lessons can greatly enhance ones learning experience. They are also a great visualization tool when reaching out to audiences who may not necessarily be able to read English all that well. Great lesson!
    I prefer non-video lessons, but I appreciate their place and know others like them.
    This is very reassuring, and goddamn your voice is sexy. Just saying 'Motif' was enough for me, but then you were all like 'analyse this motif' and suddenly all my preconceptions of my own sexuality went right out the window. So, uh, thanks for the lesson! The thing about note spacing should de-slopify my playing. I might just sub that YouTube channel, the accent is too damn sexy to resist.
    Hey! Thank you for the lesson! I seem to get confused by the pattern.. Could you maybe post the tabs here in a extended version? I think it will help me alot.
    Great lesson. I'm just learning about improvising and was looking for ideas. This is perfect! Thanks!