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Blue Horizons: How to Mix Major and Minor Pentatonics

B.B. King, Buddy Guy, and Freddie King all had an innate ability to move between major and minor sounds within a 12-bar blues. Here’s how they did it.

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Intermediate
Lesson Overview:
• Learn when and how to use the minor and major pentatonic scales in a blues progression.
• Understand how to phrase like B.B. King, Buddy Guy, and Freddie King.
• • Develop a better sense of call and response.

Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

Contrast offers a potent way to create sparks in your solos, and one of the simplest techniques for generating contrast is to play minor and major pentatonic scales off each other. In this lesson, we’ll check out a few classic examples of using contrast in blues, and then learn how to incorporate such contrast into your own playing.

Like many guitarists, I began exploring lead by first learning the minor pentatonic scale. Initially, I simply pushed notes around on the fretboard with no real reference point for what blues was supposed to sound like. Next, I tried to figure out a couple of Eric Clapton’s Albert King-inspired licks from Disraeli Gears. But it wasn’t until my best friend hipped me to B.B. King’s Live at the Regal that I finally had a definitive reference point for playing blues guitar. And one thing that really caught my ear was the opening to King’s solo on “Sweet Little Angel.” Turns out, that’s a perfect example of how to contrast major and minor sounds for maximum effect. King opens with a major-sounding statement, a phrase that leads into a double-stop on the downbeat, then immediately pivots with a minor-sounding phrase into the IV chord. After that, he plays a variation on his opening lick to come back into the I. The minor blues sounds badass over the IV because it includes the b7 of the IV, while the kickoff and return to major sound equally good because they nail the major third of the I chord. It sounds something like Ex. 1.

Click here for Ex. 1

B.B. King’s Live at the Regal is a landmark album for many guitarists, including Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler. Recorded in Chicago in 1964, the album eloquently captures King’s informal stories between songs and his powerhouse band.

The next album I really got into was Buddy Guy’s A Man and the Blues. On the title cut, when the band goes to the IV chord on the opening solo, Buddy starts out in an upper position of the minor pentatonic, then switches to major pentatonic in a way that anticipates the return to the I chord by a measure. Check out Ex. 2 to hear this technique in action.

Click here for Ex. 2

The title track from 1968’s A Man and the Blues is a complete masterclass on playing over a slow blues with just a hint of gain and tons of feeling.

Finally, there’s the kind of ultra-cool maneuvers Freddie King executes on “Look on Yonder Wall.” Playing the fills between his vocals, he sticks to minor pentatonic for nearly an entire chorus until he sings the verse’s final phrase, at which point he grabs the 2, bends up to the 3, and throws in the 6 for good measure—all while hanging out in the basic minor pentatonic position. In terms of the last four measures of the 12-bar form, he plays minor pentatonic over the V to IV portion of the turnaround, then switches to major pentatonic for the return to the I. It sounds something like Ex. 3.

Click here for Ex. 3

Freddie King was a larger-than-life personality with a guitar tone to match. On this track from 1970’s My Feeling for the Blues, every one of his stinging phrases is steeped in mojo.

All three of these licks have one thing in common: the idea of emphasizing the minor pentatonic when you’re away from the I chord and emphasizing the major pentatonic when you return to it. In the B.B. King example, this happens over the so-called “quick IV” or measure 2 of the form. In the Buddy Guy example, it happens over the IV chord in measure 5, and then the major pentatonic lick in measure 6 (which occurs while still on the IV chord) anticipates the return to I in measure 7. Finally, in the Freddie King example, the minor pentatonic licks fall over the V to IV of the turnaround, followed by major pentatonic licks over the I chord in measures 11 and 12.

Beyond learning these three particular licks, we can also apply this idea in a more general way. After all, that’s the essence of improvisation—not simply building up a stash of licks, but also collecting a stash of concepts and approaches. Taking this idea that contrast is good, we can make it tangible and readily available by choosing to consciously alternate major and minor pentatonic sounds throughout the blues form.

In Ex. 4, the basic idea is to play a minor pentatonic lick and then answer it with a major pentatonic response, on all three lines of the blues. In this case, we begin each line with one of three related licks in 5th position, then use a different position of the major pentatonic sound in each line to answer. Notice that in measures 2 and 6, instead of bending to the C# of the A major pentatonic scale (A­–B–C#–E–F#), we do half-step bends to C, which is the b7 of the D7 chord we’re playing over at the moment.

Click here for Ex. 4

Next, let’s flip things around and open each line with a major pentatonic lick and then respond with minor pentatonic moves (Ex. 5).

Click here for Ex. 5

Finally, we could create a longer kind of tension by sticking with the major pentatonic for the first two lines of the form before switching to minor pentatonic for the third line. This essentially mirrors the AAB structure of many blues lyrics, in which the third line is the punch line or turn of phrase—a big payoff for the lead up of the first two lines (Ex. 6).

Click here for Ex. 6

Ultimately, of course, the idea is to create this kind of contrast intuitively, which is presumably how the greats all do it. But if you want these kinds of sounds to come out of your fingers on the fly, consciously working through schemes like these is a great way to start heading in that direction.