I am not a car person. I like to have a
trunk big enough to fit a 2x12 combo
amp and a backseat big enough to fit some
guitars and a pedalboard. A good stereo
is nice too, so I can sing along with my
Johnny Cash CDs on the way to rehearsal.
But the engine and other parts under the
hood remain mysterious to me.
The first few cars that I owned were the
cheapest possible vehicles I could find, and I
still have nightmares about being responsible
for them and the safety of others in their vicinity.
These were dangerous old gas-guzzlers with
brakes that worked 95 percent of the time.
These early years of driving left a strong
philosophical idea burned into my consciousness.
The idea was: “Everyone else’s car is better
than mine.” I was not troubled by this idea at
all. As long as I could get my amp, my guitar,
and myself to the gig, all was well in my world.
But as much as I tried to avoid the technical
details of automobile maintenance,
there was one task I could not avoid:
pumping the gasoline.
And I thought I was pretty good at it.
I knew how to insert the credit card, push
the right buttons on the pump, remove the
gas cap, insert the nozzle, and squeeze the
handle to get the gas flowing.
At the gas station, while standing there
and filling my tank, I would look around
in mild amazement at all the people with
cars better than mine. Their cars had one
feature that I found particularly incredible.
Somehow everyone else’s cars were equipped
with a device that allowed them to let go
the gas pump’s handle, walk away, and still
have the gasoline flowing into their cars. I
would stand there with my hand tethered
to the handle, breathing the fumes and letting
the minutes slip away when I could
have been enjoying a stroll around the parking
lot or been buying a Gatorade in the
snack shop. The owners of all the superiorquality
cars suffered no such fate.
This went on for over a decade. I was
an adult in my 30s. I owned a home. I
had even succumbed to the pressure from
those around me and purchased a brand
new, luxurious automobile. But I still didn’t
have that liberating, no-hands-needed, gaspumping
device. Several more years passed.
Then I learned about the latch.
There is a latch on the PUMP
HANDLE ITSELF. I had never looked. I
just assumed that everyone else’s car was
better than mine. This idea was so strongly
embedded in my brain that I was willing
to hallucinate an automatic gas-pumping
device, rather than look down for two seconds
to inspect the handle. I never dreamed
that I might rise to the level of those people
who could walk away from their cars. But
now, armed with this small bit of new
knowledge, I could suddenly join this privileged
upper class. What a day of discovery
It’s easy for me to find humor in this
sort of thing, because my mental focus was
elsewhere. I was not trying to be a skilled
gas pumper. I was trying to be a guitar
player. I continue to try, and it’s been over
three decades now. This is why it’s a little
embarrassing, but mostly extremely exciting
to make some discoveries about blues guitar
solos that I should have made long ago.
I want to teach you my first discovery
by beginning with something you already
know, the A minor pentatonic scale. This
scale is so important to me that I had to
stop writing this column, go have lunch,
and take a walk around the park just to
come up with a description poetic enough
to do this scale some justice. Let me just
say this: Back in 1966, when John Lennon
was quoted as saying the Beatles were
more popular than the A minor pentatonic
scale, I became so fighting-mad that I
proceeded to stomp on, then burn all my
Beatles albums. Go home, Beatles! Praise
pentatonic! Seriously, it’s a good scale.
Damned near sacred when it comes to playing
blues guitar. You can bask in the beauty
and simplicity shown in the first example in
. The other scale diagram shows how
it looks when we lower all the roots to G#.
All right, enough with the familiar. You
can see how we can put this new scale to
work in Fig. 2
. I played a low E at the
beginning and at the end to give your ear
a tonal reference. I’ll explain more about
that later. I just want you to play it first and
listen to the sound.
Download or listen to Fig. 2 audio:
Now that you’ve played it, did you
notice what happened to the shape? This
is just an A minor pentatonic scale with
all the roots dropped down a half step.
You can see a strong visual resemblance
to our original A minor pentatonic shape,
as it looks nearly identical. But it’s easy to
spot where our roots have shifted down a
fret on the 1st string, 4th string, and 6th
string. By making that change, our A minor
pentatonic scale has transformed into an
E7#9b13 arpeggio. Now please block that
scary looking label from your mind. We’ll
find a better name later. Right now, back to
Why would we do this? How can we
use this thing? It’s easy! Just check out Fig.
and play the “Jimi Hendrix Chord” in
E, and then follow it with the scale. Now
let’s go a little further and add one note to
our chord. As you can see in Fig. 4
, it’s the
same Hendrix Chord, but with the pinky
barred to add the high C note. Let’s call this
the “Super-Hendrix Chord.”
Download or listen to Fig. 3 audio:
Can you hear how this chord matches
the sound of our new scale? It should sound
the same, because it is
the same. The scale
version puts the notes in a tight, sequential
order, while the chord spreads the notes out
more. But in the end, we have all the same
notes. It might actually be more accurate
to call this “scale” an arpeggio because it’s
so similar in fingering and technique to
the pentatonic scale. I’m going to break the
rules and continue to think of it as a scale.
For easy reference, let’s call it the “Super-
Hendrix Scale.” I like the sound of that.
Let’s carry on.
The reason that this scale is so groundbreaking
to me is that it gives me something
unique to do over the V chord in a blues
progression. I never had anything like that
before! I was just holding the gas pump of
straight pentatonic over the whole darn blues
progression without realizing there were
other possibilities over the individual chords.
This is a recent discovery for me. I have
just begun to digest the shapes, possibilities,
and challenges of this new idea. This is really
the fun part. I’d like to share the beginning
of my digestion process with you. I
hope it gets your fingers moving easier and
easier with this great sound.
To digest a new scale, I first remember
that I’m a guitar player. So I get out some
neck paper and write down all the possible
shapes all over the neck. It turns out I don’t
like all of them. Some are too hard to play.
Some are too hard to visualize. And some
lead my fingers to notes that I don’t want
to end on. So I discard those for now, and
focus on the remaining three shapes that I
love. You’ve already got the one we started
with, so I’ll give you my other two favorite
positions in Fig. 5
and Fig. 6
these are all the same notes, just in different
positions on the neck.
In all of these examples, I’ve been keeping
things simple in order to teach you new
fingerings and sounds. I don’t want to shred
your face off. That would be a lousy starting
place. I’ll wait for you to spend some
time and get these first examples under
your fingers. I recommend 10 minutes and
maybe some watermelon.
You’re back? All right. Let’s speed things
up a little and see what we get.
I have musically framed the next two examples,
and Fig. 8
by starting with a standard
blues turnaround. That way you can hear
how these might fit into a song in “real life.”
Download or listen to Fig. 7 audio:
Download or listen to Fig. 8 audio:
I think this is a great way to invent your
own phrases as well. It’s just three steps:
- Play a blues turnaround
- Follow it with a Super-Hendrix Scale
phrase (one-bar in length)
- End with the I chord (or a note that
fits over the I chord.)
Let me give you one more example that
follows this pattern. This time I’ll give you
a variation of the chord that we’ve been
using. It has a slightly different flavor from
the Super-Hendrix Chord because it doesn’t
contain a major 3rd (G#) in it. There are a
variety of ways that a music theorist might
name this chord, but in practice, it sounds
like an inversion of our Super-Hendrix
Chord to me, but not quite as “pointy.”
For easy reference, let’s call the chord in the
next example the Smooth-Hendrix Chord.
In Fig. 9
, I’ll play a blues turnaround,
play the Smooth-Hendrix Chord, and then
give you a nice V-chord phrase to chew on.
Download or listen to Fig. 9 audio:
I hope this gets you started in playing over
the V chord with more melodic intention and
sophistication. I still love the straightforward
pentatonic scale and will never stop using it,
but discovering a new place to go with my V
chords is like finding a hidden room in my
house that I never knew was there. I think I’ll
soundproof it and put in a drum set!
Finally, please remember that to play a
proper blues solo it is important to have
suffered through some hard times. It is also
important to know where you should put
your fingers when the IV chord happens.
Next month, we’ll tackle that IV.
Paul Gilbert purposefully began playing guitar
at age 9, formed the guitar-driven bands
Racer X and Mr. Big, and then accidentally
had a No. 1 hit with an acoustic song called
“To Be with You.” Paul began teaching at
GIT at the age of 18, has released countless
albums and guitar instructional DVDs, and
will remembered as “the guy who got the drill
stuck in his hair.” For more information, visit