Getting Creative With Pentatonics

An exposition of some ways in which one can expand out on ideas for lines using pentatonics.

Ultimate Guitar
Introduction Many guitar players learn pentatonic boxes first or early. It's also fairly common for some guitar players to feel like they are in a rut with their lead playing in which reliance on pentatonics seems restrictive. There are many alternatives to pentatonic scales that can help remove that issue, but our purpose here will rather be to focus on ways in which those familiar pentatonic boxes could perhaps be used more creatively and effectively. There is reason to suspect that a part of the problem that people are really running into when they feel stuck in pentatonic boxes, or at least something that applies to the cases of some people, is (1) that they are regurgitating linear, nearly or completely step-wise up/down patterns and/or (2) they have not actually fluently learned the pentatonic scale on the entire neck. The broader problem is that people are being restricted by habit in terms of how they use the notes of whatever scale or mode they are using, and could use some new concepts as tools to expand what can be done. For the sake of clarity and convenience, lets have A minor pentatonic (A, C, D, E, and G) be our starting point, in the 5th position on the neck. Here it is for reference: A Minor Pentatonic (5th Position)
[Note on string skipping: A good deal of the examples given in this lesson involve string skipping to some extent. With string skipping, a need for a sufficient technique arises. The two main options I would suggest are either hybrid picking or straight finger picking. Both are useful, although some may find that just using one's fingers is technically the most comfortable, easy way to do it when there is a lot of wide intervalic leaps going on. It may actually be fruitful to try playing some of these examples without a pick.] Odd Note Groupings With Pentatonics One useful idea is to play around with odd note groupings, such as groups of 5 and 7, using pentatonics. This can give one's lines an interesting syncopated feel when played against an even pulse, especially if one uses accents. Some sequences can be made this way: Sequence Example 1 (Descending Groups of 5)
Sequence Example 2 (Descending Groups of 7)
One can also break up groups of 5 into 2 and 3, or a group of 7 into 4 and 3: Sequence Example 3 (Ascending Groups of 5 broken up into 2 and 3)
Sequence Example 4 (Ascending Groups of 7 broken up into 4 and 3)
Intervalic Leaping With Pentatonics Lets move on by considering the usage of wider intervalic leaps using pentatonics, which to one extent or another inherently involves string skipping. It is useful to be aware of the possibility of sequencing the pentatonic scale using intervalic leaps. This is good practise in and of itself for developing less linear lines, even if one is sticking to a simple and familiar pentatonic fretboard pattern as the framework that the lines are built from. Keeping things within the range of no more than an octave leap, there are a number of possible leaps that can be sequenced: Sequence Example 1
Sequence Example 2
Sequence Example 3
Sequence Example 4
By mixing in some of the leaps and patterns that can be found in such sequences, one can apply it to build lines such as: Application Example 1
Application Example 2
Alternative Uses For Pentatonics One possibility for using pentatonics is to isolate the pentatonic notes that naturally exist within normal 7-note scales and modes. There are 3 pentatonic shapes that can be found within such a given scale. For example, if we took the notes of A natural minor (A, B, C, D, E, F, G), we find the notes of A minor pent (A, C, D, E, G; the most obvious one), D minor pent (D, F, G, A, C) and E minor pent (E, G, A, B, D). A cool concept is to superimpose these pentatonics over a root note or a chord. So if one was playing in A minor, and a bassist hits an A note, or perhaps another guitarist or a pianist plays an Am7 chord, one could play the notes from E minor pent over it. One is technically still playing in A minor, but picking out pentatonic notes from it to give it a certain flavor. This applies to all of the basic modes as well. To illustrate this in some musical context and integrate it with the rest of what's been covered, suppose that one was playing a lead part over what is essentially a modal drone or vamp in F lydian (perhaps there is a bass part mostly hanging on the root and 5th, or there is a sustained Fmaj7#11). To construct lines I could use an A minor pentatonic box (which would isolate the 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th, and 7th degrees of F lydian) and an E minor pentatonic box (which would isolate the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 6th, and 7th degrees of F lydian): Application Example 1 (over F in bass)
Or, to switch to a different musical context, one could use an E minor pentatonic box over an Am7 chord because it contains enough of the chord tones (E, G, A). The more extensions that are added to the chord, the more the pentatonic box's notes effectively become chord tones. If we make it an Am11 chord, excluding the 3rd, it contains all five notes of E minor pentatonic: E (5), G (7), A (root), B (9), and D (11). Perhaps something like this could be played: Application Example 2
Summary Hopefully this has been good food for thought (or food for ears). Integrating these kinds of ideas into one's pentatonic playing can produce some interesting results if you make it your own.

3 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Good ideas, but you could have spaced the tabs out a little more. They were a little hard to read at times.