The Pentatonic Scale

The pentatonic scale, or bread and butter of all things rock, may very well be the most reliable set of intervals ever devised. Yes, they are essentially only diatonic scales with the second and sixth note removed, but pentatonic scales are really so much more.

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How does one go about making the most of those five notes (or intervals for those nitpickers)? What about creating original sounding licks? Sounding downright weird and wild? It's hardly as simple as one answer, but don't fear. After all, we're only dealing with your favourite five note scales.

The Blues Scale

For the most part, the exclusive scale of blues is the aptly titled blues scale (Fig 1). This is pretty much a minor pentatonic scale, but with a flattened fifth. Generally, this added note is just treated as a chromatic passing tone. Some players do use it quite prominently and others avoid it aside from during turnarounds. The blues scale is not by any means restricted to blues, nor must the root always be minor. It's not uncommon for guitarists to land on a relative major root of the blues scale (Fig 2). In this instance, the scale pattern remains exactly the same, but the root is changed to the relative major (or second note of the minor pentatonic scale). The flattened fifth becomes a minor third (flattened third) in this case. Many country players favour this scale in their soloing endeavours. Neither of these scales in themselves will aid in creating terribly imaginative licks, as both are relatively popular and well used, but an extra note may prove to be awfully useful in many instances. Fig 1 Root note is bolded
G Blues Scale (in third position) Fig 2 Root note is bolded
G (Major) Blues scale (in open position)

Major/Minor Pentatonic Blending

If you're playing a pentatonic solo over a progression that stays for any length of time on a chord or interval that lacks major or minor affiliation, such as a fifth or seventh (minus third) chord, you have an excellent opportunity to unleash several new notes ,as well as a wide array of fresh melodies. By blending the major and minor pentatonic scales over the appropriate chord, one has plenty of space to create familiar sounds, not to mention more complex ones, all while using the same familiar scale patterns of the major and minor pentatonic scales. Often used by the likes of Eric Clapton and Johnny Winter, major/minor pentatonic blending generally lends itself to a somewhat harmonically ambiguous but still bluesy sound. Fig 3
Mixture of A Minor and A Major Pentatonic Fig 4
  E7(with no third)
E Minor and E Major

Wide Intervals

Another popular technique to inject some life into the 5 notes is the use of large intervals. Since the notes are usually played one after another, or with relatively close intervals, larger intervals can help a fair bit in the creation of fresh sounds. String skipping (Fig 5), and tapping (Fig 6) are the most common methods of implementing this, but merely keeping the premise in mind when improvising is enough to help add some wide interval licks to your playing. Fig 5
Fig 6
       T     T      T

Playing Out of the Box

I'd hazard a guess that at least seventy percent of all pentatonic playing takes place in a single box pattern, and you know the one! However, the scale has other patterns all over the neck of the guitar. Try playing several simple licks in various positions on the neck (Fig 7), or use the foreign patterns to aid in creating new licks. If you consciously make an effort to venture out of the ordinary box pattern and take steps to on a regular basis the other pentatonic patterns will soon be almost as familiar as the standard box. You'll likely come up with some staple licks that are unlike those that you tend to fall back on when playing in the home position. Fig 7
B Minor Pentatonic
   7th Position      3rd position

The Chromatic Approach

A favourite technique of Dimebag Darrell, adding chromatic notes to pentatonic patterns is a sure-fire method of creating many new, even exotic melodies. However, when going chromatic, there are some things to keep in mind; always remember where the root is, and try to avoid more complex chord progressions unless you're prepared to a)run into potentially shady harmonic territory, or b)keep your music theory brain pumping. Playing with chromatic notes in this manner is also an excellent way to train your melodic ear as, unlike pentatonic scales where it's easy to allow your mind to ease into autopilot, many of the notes will sound dissonant, or wrong over a given chord. Still, it may be beneficial to a song or solo to utilize challenging sounds, and chromatic improvisation will undoubtedly aid in teaching one where those beneficial times might be. Chromatic tones are commonly used in jazz guitar, though most often as passing tones, in that a run never concludes on a note outside of the base scale. Another chromatic approach is to follow the chord progression. For example, in Figure 8, the lick starts in C Ionian, over a C major chord, then as the progression moves to D minor, the key center of the lick changes to D Phrygian, and finally the progression ends on an E5, and the lick resolves on a bend from D to E. In Figure 9, a lick follows the C5-E5 chord progression by using first C Ionian over the C5, and E Blues over the E5. Fig 8
    C                 Dm            E5
|-C Ionian------||-D Phrygian--||E Minor Pentatonic| Fig 9
    C5                 E5
|-C Major-------||E Blues Scale----|


All of these afore mentioned techniques will surely aid in creating imaginative sounds, but one should keep in mind that a strong ear, and knowing what sound you're trying to achieve are just as important in avoiding clichd licks and constructing the right solo or lick for the given circumstance.

18 comments sorted by best / new / date

    whaa put your maxi oads on crybabies. Dude put hard work into helping others out and all ya can do is whine about the root note not being boldened (GROW UP) and be thankfull of peeps like this who are generus with their time. thanks for the lesson dude
    I agree with renegade shut the **** up if you don't agree with this! if you're so smart what are you doing here and why don't you make lesson. BTW can anyone explain to me what a root is and what you mean with bold.
    pretty great lesson, though i did already understand pentatonic scales i have one hell of a hard time trying to remeber what gos where so this helps out quite a bit. lol.
    The_Renegade wrote: whaa put your maxi oads on crybabies. Dude put hard work into helping others out and all ya can do is whine about the root note not being boldened (GROW UP) and be thankfull of peeps like this who are generus with their time. thanks for the lesson dude
    Agreed. Who gives a damned hoot if the root is bolded? What matters is that you learn the goddamn lesson, for ****s sake!! Nice lesson btw, much appreciation for taking the time to make it.
    Just for the record, I am pretty sure I included bbcode in my original submission so that the root note would be bold. Even if you only read tab and want to stay that way, you should be able to identify the different notes in a scale quickly. This doesn't have to be a "sputter out the 50 states" kind of memory feat but it will greatly help your ability to improvise. For anyone confused without the bolded note, a root note is the base note of the scale (the I). In G minor, the root note is G. In F major, the root note is F. In B dorian, the root note is usually considered to be B, depending on the circumstances. 99% of the time, the root note is simply the first note in the scale (and of course, every octave iteration of that note).
    Very Nice, if you really can't find the root note for yourself... then don't rely on this. Very Nice!
    EXACTLY, Renegade...quit bitching! People put this shit out to help others, quit nitpicking and take up knitting, bitches.
    I agree with renegade shut the **** up if you don't agree with this! if you're so smart what are you doing here and why don't you make lesson. BTW can anyone explain to me what a root is and what you mean with bold.
    ...OMFGWTFBBQ. That was the first lesson i actually understood. GREAT JOB!
    I agree with the_renegade, you guys are being childish. This is a very helpful lesson. Much appreciated!
    great exercise =) i am not sure but i think an open Estring is missing in ur sec scale(Fig2)
    yeah for realls its a great lession who cares if the root its't bolded u should be able to find it your self anyway