Unlock the fretboard with a few key shapes, some practice, and a healthy dose of experimentation.
• Learn how to connect pentatonic shapes all over the fretboard.
• Develop a smoother picking style.
• Combine altered-dominant arpeggios with pentatonics to create tension.
There’s nothing more dependable than the pentatonic scale. Melodically, it provides a safe haven for guitarists in nearly every genre. The simple box shapes are easy to remember and offer countless guitarists a go-to device for composing and performing.
Although the scale is easy to comprehend, you may notice that the guitar’s design can present a challenge when it comes to playing through the scale’s various positions. For example, having the same pitch in multiple locations on the fretboard can create hurdles to fluid fingering.
In fact, the scale can feel awkward at times, depending on where it’s located on the fretboard. In this lesson, we’ll explore a few basic adjustments with the goal of flowing through the two-note-per-string pentatonic scale fingering.
In Ex. 1, you can see the basic shape for an A minor pentatonic scale (A–C–D–E–G). For all these exercises, I’m using straight alternate picking, which is why there’s an extra B on the 1st string. That extra note allows us to play through the scale without getting our picking hand turned around. Also, there’s an extra G# thrown in on the 6th string to help keep things rhythmically on point. To get the most out of this exercise, I suggest looping it at a medium tempo while focusing on tone and fluidity.
The interesting thing about this concept is how effective it is with even smaller ideas. For the next three examples, I’ve created shorter versions that we will use later for longer examples. In Ex. 2, we added the B on the 1st string again and an F# to turn the idea around and to give it a more Dorian-sounding flavor.
Now that we’ve explored something inside of our comfort zone, let’s look at a position that used much less frequently than the standard pentatonic box. With the key of A minor in mind, we’ll add G# into the mix to insert not only a chromatic flavor, but also a slightly diminished sound (Ex. 3). Once again, the F# acts as a bit of a turnaround to keep things flowing.
In Ex. 4, we want to create an even larger spread of options around the original idea. We’ll include the most accessible note—D—and use the 9 (B) to turn things around. This is the most neutral-sounding example of the three.
We can also use a slide to smoothly pivot between the various positions. Ex. 5 sounds and feels great with some overdrive and lets you practice moving fluidly in and out of an idea.
Now it’s time to add some altered-sounding flavors. In Ex. 6, we’ll alternate between our standard A minor pentatonic scale and an E7b9 arpeggio. Although this example is not strictly pentatonic, it shows how you can apply the concept to other scales and arpeggios with a few slight fingering variations.
Since we’ve broken the concept down into smaller fragments, let’s keep that idea going with Ex. 7. Here, we’re using even smaller fragments (only two strings), yet still applying the same concept. This example adds the 9 on the way up and the b5 to turn things around.
In Ex. 8 we’re adding the same passing tone, which hints at a diminished sound. To turn this idea around, notice how we’re playing C# (the major 3). This works because it lands on the upbeat before resolving.
Now let’s add a D on the way up and a very Dorian-sounding F# to turn the whole idea around (Ex. 9).
By combining all three examples, we get a horizontal run (Ex. 10) that’s great for getting up the neck. Notice how we’re getting in and out of this idea.
Our final passage (Ex. 11) includes the majority of the examples from this lesson. The purpose of something this long-winded is to help you get used to changing gears mid-flight. In this case, the flight is a little longer than usual.
It seems like the hidden challenge on the guitar is not creating ideas, but managing them. While working and learning a concept, remember: Although our eyes are on the road in front of us, there is a bigger world to worry about. It’s important to constantly take a single idea and discover ways to make it work over other chords, starting with the basic families of major, minor, and dominant. As in life, the transitions between events are just as important, if not more so, than the events themselves. After all, what good is an idea without a smooth delivery?