How to Use the Dominant Pentatonic Scale in Your Blues Guitar Soloing

In the next tips you will find the ways to get your blues guitar solos to the next level.

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When you first started learning about improvisation on guitar you probably were very exstatic about the little progress you made. It does feel great to improvise over a jam track and play your own guitar solos "on the spot." Expressing what you feel on guitar certainly can be a rewarding experience. As your level on the guitar steadily grew over time, you may also have noticed that at some point this progress started diminishing again. And so did your motivation. In the next tips I will give you ways to break free from this "trap" that a lot of guitarists sooner or later have to deal with and talk about getting your blues guitar solos to the next level.

Become a Great Blues Guitarist Faster by Learning About the Relationship Between Chords and Scales

In the first phases of learning to improvise it's easy to get stuck. You want to get your playing to the level of the guitarists you admire, but you can't seem to sound just like them. You are running around in the same position of the neck of the guitar. This can continue for a very long time. In order to break free form these limits it's a great idea to learn about how chords and scales really tie together, instead of trying to guess how everything works.

How to Get Into Blues Guitar University

A huge percentage of guitar students improvise using one scale only to play over a 12 bar blues. To make matters worse, they use this scale all of the time, over all the chords they are playing over. This makes their soloing lack inspiration and this is also the main reason why their solos doesn't sound anything like real blues guitar solos. This is the most basic way of soloing and once learned should be used as a stepping stone to the next level in your playing. One could label this approach as "blues guitar elementary school level."

There are many ways in which you can solo over blues chords (dominant seventh chords) and using the pentatonic minor scale is only one of them. If you want to sound like the blues guitarists you admire, chances are you need to study scales and chords on a deeper level in order to understand alternative methods of soloing. So let's discuss how you can free yourself out of blues guitar elementary school and get into university.

Getting to the Next Level in Your Blues Guitar Playing

To show you the relationship between chords and scales we'll use a twelve bar (played in the key of A), which goes like this.

A7  A7  A7  A7
D7  D7  A7  A7
E7  D7  A7  A7

In the most basic way of soloing we would use the Am pentatonic scale to solo over these chords. To illustrate the relationship of this scale with the underlying chords let's look at the notes in the chords. If we play an A7 chord for example, the following notes can be found in this chord:
  • Root (in this case the A note)
  • Major third (in this case the C# note)
  • Fifth (in this case the E note)
  • Flat seventh (in this case the G note)
When improvising, each of these notes would be a great fit to land your licks on. This approach would be great to create unique melodies with, instead of playing mindless blues licks. Each of these 4 notes produces a different feeling, so it's great to improvise with them and listen which emotion each of these tones convey.

In order to give this a try, let's expand on our minor pentatonic scale. We do this because in the Am pentatonic scale we don't play an C# note, but we do play it in the A7 chord. So let's look at this new scale.

Do You Think the Minor Pentatonic Scale Is the Best Scale to Play Over Blues Chords? Think Again!

In order to become a great blues guitarist, it's essential to know that the minor pentatonic is only one of the possible options we have to improvise with. Let's look at why there are better scales to use.

As we've discussed earlier, a dominant seventh chord features 4 notes. In the following table you find these notes to the left, with the notes of the A pentatonic minor scale at the right side.

Take a look at the C note in the A minor pentatonic scale as opposed to the C# note in the dominant seventh chord we are playing over. You could test this on the guitar; play the C# note together with the C note an octave higher on the guitar; doesn't sound good right?

In reality, a bit of tension or dissonance can be a great thing and there are times when we want to play with this added tension of playing a C note against the C# note of the dominant seventh chord. But if this is the only option that we have as blues players, we are limiting ourselves. In order to play great melodies, it's a good idea to learn other scales that can be applied over blues chords as well.

Playing the Best Notes at the Right Time

The best guitar players play the best possible notes at the the best possible time. This means that we don't rely on one scale to play over a chord progression, but we shift our approach to playing one scale over each chord. This is called "Chord Tone Soloing." In order to understand this principle, it's important that you learn to connect the chords you are playing over with certain scales. Let's look at how this works. 

To illustrate this, pretend we are soloing over a twelve bar blues in A, like you saw earlier in this article. We will first look at the mistakes that a lot of inexperienced guitarists make.

How Not to Transpose the Minor Pentatonic Scale in the Blues

If we are playing over the D7 chord in a 12 bar blues in A, a lot of guitarists wrongfully assume that they can just transpose the D minor pentatonic scale over the D7 chord. This wrong assumption would mean that we could play the D minor pentatonic scale over the D7 chord.

Take a look at how they think (remember this is NOT how to do this):

This way of thinking is born when students first learn about transposing chords and scales up and down the neck of the guitar. They think that if we can transpose the A7 chord higher on the neck of the guitar, we can do the same with the A minor pentatonic scale. This will result in an amateur sound, where the listener will hear there is something "not quite right."

If you would study the D pentatonic minor scale along with the D7 chord, you would come to the conclusion that the chord contains an F# note, but in the scale we play a natural F note. These are again two notes that would clash against each other. This won't sound good. 

This is an approach that is never used by professional guitarists, but intermediate guitarists use this all of the time! I hope you are beginning to see why guitar students of all levels run paint themselves into a corner in their guitar playing progress. The scales they use are simply not the best options one could choose from!

How Studying the Relationship Between Chords and Scales Will Get You to the Next Level in Your Playing

Knowing what you've learned in the aforementioned sections, we could augment the F note to an F# note in order to play the D pentatonic minor scale with an extra major third, but there is an even better route we could take.

The dominant pentatonic scale is the single most powerful way to solo over the dominant seventh chord. In this scale we play the F# note that is also included in the D7 chord and add the ninth which in this case is the E note.

This D dominant pentatonic scale is thoroughly attached to the D7 chord we are soloing over, since all of the notes in the scale are also included in the chord. Using this scale will give a much more pro sound to your playing. In the images below you get a clear view on this.

Here is the D pentatonic dominant scale:

Take note how the notes in the chord are included as well in the scale.

The best guitar players will make usage of this pentatonic dominant scale while they are playing over a dominant seventh chord. Here is a great SRV lick that uses this scale to play over the D7 chord:

Listen to this sound example.

About the Author:
Antony Reynaert is a blues guitar teacher from Belgium. If you liked this article on using the dominant pentatonic scale in your blues guitar playing, you might want to check out his website on how to play blues guitar which features more guitar articles, tips and resources on the topic of playing the blues.

11 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Good job on pointing out that wrong transposition example. I feel that for most people, including me, the main problem at making progress with scales is not the wrong transposition itself, but rather the realization that it wont work and youll have to learn the whole scale throughout the neck and different modes and stuff, its a bit too daunting.
    yeah when i would play a chord i would be like wwell this note sounds good too why is it not part of the damn scale..... wtf...and then this cleared my mind.... you gotta memorize and record what does sounds right and figure out whatthe hell it is...
    HAHA @SOFAKING yeah i see that people dont know where to actually learn guiat playing....they just want to be cover bands....they dont want to be the ones being covered when I learned the E Minor pentatonic, I memorized it in order familiarize myself with the guitar....that was my become as familiar as a first person shooter video game.... but when I finally memorized it I knew that there was gaps in sounds that i wanted to play .... and I knew I needed to learn more. Im glad I found this article... hopefully when I memomerize this I can be a little bit better...
    The dominant seventh chord in the key of A is E7 not D7. Which one are we soloing over here? The dominant seventh or the subdominant seventh (D7)?
    The subdominant refers to the IV chord in a diatonic progression, but the term dominant here refers to the chord itself having a dominant 7th tonality and not it's place in the scale. All the chords in a standard blues are going to be dominant 7ths. I hardly hear the phrase "subdominant seventh." I usually hear the term subdominant being used to describe a chord's function in a piece.
    Great lesson - but am I the only one to notice the difference between the fast and slow versions of the lick on the soundbite?
    I spent quite a bit of time learning what I call the dominant 9 pentatonic (for G this is G-A-B-D-F etc). Hard work learning it all the way up the fretboard. Once you have this you can use the dominant 9 pentatonic for any dominant chord and inversions (e.g.E 7, you would use the E dominant 9 pentatonic etc), and you can use it in any standard major chord. It vastly increase your ability to improvise and you gradually learn the overlap and interchange with the usual major and minor pentatonic. If you have to choose the significant extra work of learning and extra scale and or love blues this is the one to go for in my humble opinion. Once you have the pattern in different caged positions, then you can learn to riff off any dominant chord and inversion instantly which is invaluable in mixing up chords and soloing in blues playing.