Don’t be a prisoner of the pentatonic box. Time to break out!
• Create blazing pentatonic licks that span the entire neck.
• Understand how to move a motif through the scale.
• Learn how to develop variations on simple licks.
Let’s start with a simple idea in Ex. 1. It consists of four sixteenth-notes from the A minor pentatonic scale (A–C–D–E–G) in the 5th position. Once you get this phrase under your fingers, the rest of the lesson will come together nicely. The picking I use for this lick is a downstroke followed by a pull-off, another downstroke, and then one upstroke. I’ve seen many people start with an upstroke and change it up. It’s your call.
Now that you have the idea let’s break out and head up the neck. In Ex. 2, we move to the 8th position. If you want to think in terms of the pentatonic scale, we are moving each note in the motif up to the next available scale tone, with the same picking pattern. Put the two ideas together and start playing them two times each. We are going to keep going up.
Ex. 3 is based out of the 10th position and begins with a C on the 2nd string. Experiment with fingerings on each one of these. It helps to have a few different ways to come in and out of each escape route.
For Ex. 4, Ex. 5, and Ex. 6 we continue up the pentatonic scale. Learn how to visualize the scale that surrounds each fragment—it will help considerably when putting these into practice. Also, notice that Ex. 6 feels very familiar. It’s our original motif transposed up an octave.
Now it’s time to put everything we’ve learned so far together. In Ex. 7, I’ve written out a longer lick that connects each of our previous examples. As you can hear in the audio, I’ve taken liberties with the phrasing by ghosting some notes and palm-muting others. These come out naturally in my playing, but find the ideas and concepts that pop out in your playing and lean into them. That’s a major step in finding your own sound.
You’ve now made it through five different escape routes moving through five positions of the A minor pentatonic scale. In the heat of a gig you can pull any one of these out as a “repeater” that works up the crowd (think of all those fast licks in “Freebird”) or as a way to seamlessly transition to a different pentatonic box.
I altered our original motivic pattern for Ex. 8. I took our exact phrase from Ex. 1 and expanded it on the second repeat by reaching up and grabbing the A with my pinky. Yes, it’s a stretch, but it allows you to squeeze yet another variation out of this lick. Don’t worry, when you try this out with the previous licks it’s a bit easier since the frets are closer together.
Now, imagine you’re stepping out front to rip a dozen or so choruses on an over-caffeinated version of “Train Kept A-Rollin’” when you bust out Ex. 9, which is simply a “repeater” version of Ex. 8. And the crowd goes wild.
These have been heard in everything from Southern rock to metal and nearly everything in between. Make sure to practice these evenly with a metronome and experiment with them on other string sets and in other keys. Escaping from the box is something we all need to do at various points in our journey. Use this newfound freedom for good. You’ll be glad you did!
Uncovering the soloing secrets used by one of modern blues’ masters.
• Combine major and minor pentatonic scales.
• Learn how to connect arpeggios using chromatic passing tones.
• Understand how to better craft a 12-bar blues solo.
Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.
In the three or so years I’ve been writing this column, I’ve been able to cover some big names and some unsung heroes, but none have been more requested than the fabulous Matt Schofield.
Bursting onto the scene in 2004 with his first trio record, The Trio, Live, Schofield showed little of the Brit-pop that his hometown of Manchester, England is known for and instead demonstrated a phenomenal connection with the classic blues sounds of the ’60s. Since then, he’s released four studio albums and a pair of live records that have catapulted him to prominence.
Schofield’s sound is unmistakable as he blends influences from players like Robben Ford, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton, and Albert King. We’ve touched on his exquisite sense of melody before, but here we will dig into a pair of 12-bar solos that will illustrate how Schofield mixes pentatonic, Mixolydian, blues, and even Lydian dominant scales.
At first glance it might sound complicated, but the thing to remember is that you’re touching on specific flavors of each scale rather than seeing them as one big scale. Let’s start with Ex. 1, a straight-ahead blues progression in Bb. We open things up with the Bb minor pentatonic scale (Bb–Db–Eb–F–Ab), but add in the 6 (G). Some might say the 6 comes from the major pentatonic scale, but Robben Ford has been known to refer to the minor 6 pentatonic—where you swap out the b7 for the sweeter-sounding 6.
The key is to try and establish a “relationship” with these notes. Don’t think too much about what scale they’re from or what the correct scale might be. Think about how the note sounds, how it makes you feel, and if you like it. There’s nothing to stop you from playing the b9 over a dominant chord. Schofield does it all the time, Stevie Ray did it all the time, and Scott Henderson does it all the time. If that’s the melody you hear, and you play the note with the care and attention it needs, play on!
After the minor pentatonic-inspired phrase over the Bb7 in Ex. 1, we leave a bit of space to let the solo breathe. When the Bb7 returns we move to classic Bb blues scale (Bb–Db–Eb–E–F–Ab) territory. It’s a nice blend of what you’d expect while building some tension leading into the Eb7. Don’t underestimate even the simplest phrases. It’s not accidental that these notes fit so well. Schofield knows exactly what chord he’s playing over at any given time.
In the sixth measure we shift up to a pattern that looks a lot like the Eb major pentatonic scale (Eb–F–G–Bb–C), but with the b7 (Db) added for a little interest. This resolves perfectly to the Bb7 chord with some Bb major pentatonic (Bb–C–D–F–G) phrasing. It’s very cool how Schofield will start in minor and blues territory, but give the audience some major-sounding variations.
Over the F7 we’re using the F blues scale (F–Ab–Bb–B–C–Eb) to resolve nicely to an Eb Mixolydian (Eb–F–G–Ab–Bb–C–Db) sound. We also include a b3 (Gb) to build some tension before resolving to the 3 of Bb (D) on beat 1 of the next measure. Finally, we close out this solo with a triplet-based lick that touches on a pair of major triads (Bb and Eb) while ending with an essential blues cliché.
Ex. 2 has some slightly trickier vocabulary, but still starts in classic territory with minor pentatonic and blues-scale phrasing. Measure 4 ups the difficulty with a slippery Bb triad arpeggio, which then moves down to resolve to the Eb major pentatonic scale for that chord, but you’re not stopping as you continue down for the resolution to the Bb blues scale.
In measure 7, we build on the ending lick in Ex. 1, but this time we slide up to lead into the V chord (F7) before shifting down into the Eb7. There’s a hint of the Eb Lydian dominant scale (Eb–F–G–A–Bb–C–Db) with the A on the 1st string, but we quickly move back to the Bb blues scale by the end of the measure.
From crying pedal-steel sounds to aggressive, bluesy squeals, bending a string is all about feeling.
• Learn to emulate the sound of the pedal steel guitar.
• Understand how to create chords using bends.
• Develop licks in the style of Roy Nichols and James Burton.
Generally speaking, bending a string is about the bluesiest thing you can do on guitar. It’s all over the place now, but guys like T-Bone Walker were among the pioneers who really developed it into an expressive device. Even great old-school country guys like Grady Martin and Owen Bradley would likely credit their usage of bending to the older blues cats.
There are many styles of bending—every player does it differently. It’s the closest way to emulate the human voice with a guitar. Having said that, each bend truly has a unique nature of its own. But there are some conventional bends and patterns that you will find used across the board. One of those is demonstrated in Ex. 1. Licks like this are staples of country guitar. They’re absolutely essential.
Roy Nichols and James Burton were among the first generation of country pickers to regularly include bending in their style. People did little half-step bends here and there, but not too many players went for that real in-your-face aggression. Bending the 3rd string was not really done all that much in country music before the Louisiana-born James Burton. A Burton-style bend would sound something like Ex. 2. The lick basically outlines a C7 chord.
In Ex. 3 you can see an example of a Roy Nichols-style bend. Nichols was all about playing with notes “outside” the norm and wasn’t afraid to twist up the rhythm a bit, either. He was an essential part of the West Coast “Bakersfield” sound and one of my favorite players. The influence Burton and Nichols had on country guitar is immeasurable, but their use of bending is a good place to start listening.
The crying sound of the pedal steel is synonymous with country music. Guitarists have been attempting to emulate the sound of a pedal steel for decades. In Ex. 4, you can see a very basic approach to copping the sound. Basically think of creating a triad and approaching a chord tone with a bend. After that, the possibilities are endless. Here, you’re creating a D major triad but pre-bending the E up to an F# (the major 3). Use your 4th finger to hold down the root (D) and 5 (A) on the 1st and 2nd strings, respectively.
You can also emulate a steel guitar by bending single notes the way steelers do. In Ex. 5, we finger a series of second-inversion triads and then bend up to the top note from a whole-step below. This works great for ballads. But if you stray from the road less travelled, you can start to maybe sound like a steel. Or Jeff Beck!
Ex. 6 is a lick that can be used on either a I or V chord. Here, you’re bending the 3rd string up a whole-step, bending the 2nd string up a half-step, and pre-bending the same interval to bring things back down. If you use your bridge pickup and pick between the neck pickup and the neck, you can get a very steel-like tone that’s similar to Don Helms or Kayton Roberts.
The next lick (Ex. 7) works great for kicking off a tune in D. You’re pre-bending the major 7 up to the root in a relatively speedy manner. The bend needs to imitate a pedal moving a string up to a pre-determined note. It really shouldn’t be buttery smooth and full of vibrato like most bends played by guitarists we all know and love.
I love bends—use them all the time. Players like Roy Buchanan, Jerry Garcia, Mike Bloomfield, and Clarence White all had unique ideas when it came to stretching strings. That’s what I try to take from them most. Emmylou Harris once said, “Style is only a product of your limitations.” An elegant and articulate style is the most important aspect of playing for me.
Clarence White’s influence comes out in Ex. 8. White’s use of the B-bender built into his Tele was an essential part of his electric playing. You would always hear him bend the 4 up to the 5 on the 2nd string while letting the top string ring out. To this day, it’s bad to the bone.
The final lick (Ex. 9) is more of an aggressive Mike Bloomfield-type of deal. Very angry, but it still works with some smooth vibrato. The first half-step bend up to the 5 (E) is something I first heard from Roy Nichols, but I then discovered that Grady Martin and Hank Garland had used it as well. The half-step bend to the root on the 2nd string comes straight from Garcia. That’s simply his thing. The rest of the lick includes concepts I’ve concocted over the years. I’m a huge fan of finding bends that are head turning, but most importantly, musical.
I hope you’ve learned a thing or two and have found some inspiration from this! Bending is what gives us a huge part of our musical voice as guitar players. I can’t over-emphasize how important it is to go back and listen to how great players approached bending. But most importantly, keep listening to how you’re doing it. The key here is to cultivate and nurture your own style.