There’s a lifetime of learning packed into only five notes. Everyone from Clapton to Satriani has squeezed out the secrets. Now it’s your turn.
• Create simple and meaningful blues phrases in the style of B.B. King.
• Understand how to emphasize chord tones over a blues progression.
• Learn how to use repetition to build tension in your solos.
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It’s no secret that the five notes of the pentatonic scale have been used to create some of the most inspiring moments in blues and rock, yet it’s one of the easiest scales for novice guitarists to get together. Let’s take an in-depth look at the pentatonic scale, including an effective way to memorize all its positions, and explore some applications from basic to advanced.
To kick things off, we need to know how the pentatonic scale is constructed. Although it’s possible to build a variety of pentatonic scales, the two essential forms are the minor and major pentatonic.
You create a minor pentatonic scale by applying a 1–b3–4–5–b7 formula to its parallel major scale. For example, apply the formula to an A major scale and you’ll get an A minor pentatonic scale, which is A–C–D–E–G. Notice how the minor pentatonic formula contains all the notes for a minor 7 chord (1–b3–5–b7). This means the notes for Am7 (A–C–E–G) are found within the A minor pentatonic.
The major pentatonic follows a 1–2–3–5–6 formula and is actually an inversion of the minor pentatonic. Here’s how that works: Shift the root of any minor pentatonic to the end of the scale and you’ll have a major pentatonic rooted off the next note in line. In this instance, A minor pentatonic yields C major pentatonic (C–D–E–G–A).
It’s important to learn both the minor and major pentatonic forms, and even though they use the same shapes, you should be fully aware of where the root is. For our examples, we’ll start with some preliminary exercises to get the basic shapes under your fingers before moving on to some real-world applications. Let’s get to it.
To learn this scale we will look at five shapes that are based around the CAGED system. If you need a CAGED refresher, check out “The Guitarist’s Guide to CAGED.” The fingering in Ex. 1 probably isn’t new to most guitarists. It’s the root-position A minor pentatonic shape in 5th position (also known as the “E” shape in the CAGED system). Remember to always keep the location of the root in mind. It will help you transpose this scale to other keys.
In Ex. 2, you can see a fingering based around the “D” CAGED shape. To help keep the sound of the root in your ear, I’ve started and ended with A.
Ex. 3, Ex. 4, and Ex. 5 demonstrate the remaining pentatonic shapes in the “C,” “A,” and “G” forms, respectively.
Now it’s time to create some real music with our pentatonic shapes. In Ex. 6, which is in the style of former Kiss axeman Ace Frehley, we’re using a triplet rhythm to move up the neck through the A minor pentatonic scale.
A large part of Eric Clapton’s bluesy style comes straight from the pentatonic scale. Ex. 7 includes some key aspects of Clapton’s phrasing: hammer-ons, grace notes, and plenty of bends. This lick is a great example of how well the minor pentatonic works over a dominant 7 chord (1–3–5–b7). The rub between the b3 and 3 creates tension that’s at the heart of the blues. To cop some of Clapton’s tone, dial up some mild overdrive, switch to the neck pickup, and roll off the tone knob.
Ex. 8 is straight out of Paul Gilbert’s bag of tricks. In this three-note-per-string example, we fuse two pentatonic shapes together. Start at a slower tempo and gradually speed up while paying attention to the wide stretches required by these fingerings.
In Ex. 9, we move on to the major pentatonic scale. Again, we’ll start with the 5th position fingering (the “E” shape).
The following examples will show you how to play through the remaining CAGED shapes. Ex. 10 is the “D” shape, Ex. 11 is the “C” shape, Ex. 12 is the “A” shape, and Ex. 13 is the “G” shape.
Joe Walsh is the inspiration for Ex. 14’s country-inspired opening bend. Make sure to hold the bent note while plucking the E and C# on the 1st string. It’s okay if the bend rings out a bit—it will blend in nicely because the lick is going by so fast.
Ex. 15 has a distinctly Brian May influence and elements of the lick can be heard on several of Queen’s classic recordings. Big, soaring bends and 16th-note flurries sit alongside some well-placed pauses.
We expand the pentatonic concept a bit with Ex. 16. Here, we are using what’s known as the hybrid pentatonic scale. Because there are more than five notes, technically it isn’t a pentatonic scale, but it does combine the best of the minor and major pentatonic scales. The formula is 1–2–b3–3–4–b5–5–6–b7. In the key of A, that’s A–B–C–C#–D–Eb–E–F#–G. As you can see, there are plenty of options for a bunch of different chord progressions.
Ex. 17 uses our newfound scale in a lick that’s a mix between Chuck Berry, Angus Young, and Richie Kotzen. The opening double-stops are pure Chuck, but if you crank up the gain, Angus isn’t too far away. In the third measure, Kotzen’s influence appears in the legato section.
The legendary Michael Schenker loves to combine different pentatonic sounds and in Ex. 18 you can hear how he might merge major and minor tonalities. In the first two measures we’re moving between the pentatonic scales over a triplet-based rhythm. There is a similarity of rhythm and structure between each lick, as the same shapes are used, but the intervals are different thus creating a unique sound.
We head back to one of Paul Gilbert’s solos for Ex. 19. We start in A major pentatonic before shifting into the minor pentatonic shape at the end of the first measure. In the second measure, we introduce the 9, 13, and b5 to create some ear-twisting tension.
You can also use different pentatonic scales to imply more modal sounds. I picked up Ex. 20 from a Frank Gambale solo. Over an A minor groove, we can use the B minor (B–D–E–F#–A) and E minor (E–G–A–B–D) pentatonic scales along with A minor pentatonic to create an A Dorian (A–B–C–D–E–F#–G) sound.
This lick is quite demanding, as not only does it use three different scales, but also uses sequencing, position shifts, and some rather wide stretches. Start slowly with this one and gradually speed it up. The end result is well worth it, as you’ll be turning heads at your next gig with this blistering run!
Ex. 21 combines the pentatonic scale with some Greg Howe-style tapping. The fretting hand sticks to the basic box shape of the A minor pentatonic scale at the 5th fret. The twist is that the tapping hand outlines an E minor pentatonic scale. Once you have the sequence down I would suggest trying to play it ascending, as well as practicing it using other pentatonic shapes in different positions.
We summon the pentatonic powers of Eric Johnson and Joe Bonamassa for Ex. 22. After a huge bend to kick things off, we move into an ascending sequence through the A minor pentatonic scale. The descending part of the lick is based in E minor pentatonic and uses quintuplets before resolving back to A minor.
Another handy variation of the major pentatonic scale is the dominant pentatonic scale. We simply replace the 6 with a b7—in this case, C. Ex. 23 is a great example of how to use this scale over a D7 chord. It starts by sequencing the scale in 2nd position before resolving it to the D on the 2nd string. The second half uses a series of broken sextuplets to create a frantic sequence that moves up the neck.
Legato is the name of the game in Ex. 24. Here, we are emulating the styles of Brett Garsed and Joe Satriani with some seriously flowing legato runs. (Check out my previous column, Modern Legato Techniques, for an in-depth look.) When you use G# minor pentatonic (G#–B–C#–D#–F#) over A, you get some interesting tensions. Basically you end up with the 7, 9, 3, #4, and 6—a perfect representation of the Lydian mode.
Playing over altered chords can be tricky. In Ex. 25, we invoke a simple rule: Over an altered chord use a minor pentatonic scale a minor third higher than the root. In our example, we have an E7#9, so therefore we would use G minor pentatonic (G–Bb–C–D–F). Translated, that gives us the #9, b5, b13, b7, and b9. Plenty of tension! This lick would be great to play over the last bit of a blues progression in A.
Our final lick, Ex. 26, is another altered affair that follows a different, but easy, rule. To imply a Super Locrian sound, simply lower the root of the minor pentatonic scale down a half-step. For example, instead of using an A minor pentatonic scale over E7#9 and hoping for the best, change the A to a G#. The result is G#–C–D–E–G. Over the E altered chord that translates to 3, b13, b7, 1, and #9.