Can You Make Pentatonics Better?
- Learn how to create twisting “outside” licks.
- Develop a keen sense of weird phrasing.
- Understand how to target chord tones.
This term chromaticism comes from the Greek word chroma, which means “color.” Using chromaticism means having the freedom to use all 12 notes over a given chord. Imagine the possibilities and freedom to play any note over a chord in composition or improvising! The quickest way to start adding color notes to the minor pentatonic scale is to add the 2nd and the 6th, which then gives you a Dorian mode. I’ve outlined it below using the A minor pentatonic scale.
A Minor pentatonic: A–C–D–E–G
A Dorian: A–B–C–D–E–F#–G
In general, there are chromatic notes that are outside the chord/scale, and notes that are outside the key. The latter carries a lot of tension against a chord and needs movement or resolution. From my days of playing jazz gigs in Toledo, OH, I recall what legendary trumpeter Jimmy Cook once told me regarding playing outside: “You can go up to the attic, but you have to come back down.” In other words, you can play outside tonally, but you must resolve at some point in order for your music to sound coherent.
Let’s get started on this journey of chromaticism together.
Before we go hog wild and add random notes, let’s begin by taking an A minor pentatonic scale and fill in the chromatic notes between the already existing box pattern. It’s almost arbitrary, but it will enable you to hear different colors added within the scale (Ex. 1).
Chromatic Burst of Energy. In beat 1 of Ex. 2, we start with an A Dorian fragment followed by an extended chromatic line. The line in beat two starts on the b7 (G), highlighting the b5 (Eb) on beat 3, descending chromatically all the way down to B, and ending with A major pentatonic.
Bounce Around! We start on the b5 (Eb) followed by a typical chromatic rotation where we bounce around the b5. This idea lays quite well in the familiar pentatonic box. It’s easy and will add spice to your shredding (Ex. 3).
Side Stepping. A common approach to playing “outside” is side stepping. In other words, take the scale you’d normally use and displace it by a half-step above or below. By doing this, you’ll have instant access to notes that are harmonically outside the key—don’t think of them as wrong notes, just coloring notes. In Ex. 4 we take a pentatonic pattern from E minor pentatonic and sequence it in F minor pentatonic. As the notes can be analyzed over the E5 chord, it’s more important to view them as passing notes. Remember, the power of the sequence overrides the harmony!
Extend the Side Step. Ex. 5 uses the same concept of side stepping above but adds a note (D) to the displaced pattern. By doing so, this breaks the predictability of the phrase and places subsequent notes in new places.
Changing Tones.Ex. 6 is a fun lick to learn that starts with a strong, repeated three-note polyrhythmic figure (A#–B–D). The chromatic part occurs on beat 4 and utilizes changing tones, which is a type of non-harmonic tone.
Don’t Start On 1. The line starts on the 2nd (B), goes up a whole-step to C# followed by a double chromatic approach to Bb, down a whole-step to (G#), and finally resolving to the root (A). Once the A note is reached, there’s a cascading flurry of four-note groups settling in A minor pentatonic (Ex. 7).
Scrambles. This example (Ex. 8) was inspired by the legendary New York guitarist, Mark Hitt. Mark was a unique player, combining a rock sensibility with a jazz quotient. He developed an arsenal of twisting lines using chromaticism that he referred to as “scrambles.”
The pattern alternates between 1–3–4 and 1–2–4 fingerings, a typical fingering of the diminished scale. It can be analyzed where notes of the pentatonic are being targeted, but it’s all about the texture and excitement that is created. Make sure to play the line with slurs to get a fluid, legato sound.
Half-Step Approach. In this instance, we take the Im triad (Am) from the pentatonic scale and approach each chord tone from a half-step below (Ex. 9). This is more of a concept and exercise rather than a lick. This idea can be used with just about any improvising application.
One String Wonder. Ex. 10 highlights a series of chromatically descending half-steps. It’s an easy technique to get down and one I often use. It provides melodic interest, but also serves as an easy way to connect one position to the next. Here, we start on a high F that walks down a fourth to C in half-steps, followed by a C minor blues phrase.
These chromatic lines sound best when played fast and with conviction. As always, approach new material slowly and accurately. Ignore your inner voice that may tell you that the “outside” notes are wrong. Once you’re able to play the lines up to speed, you’ll be amazed by how impressive it sounds. These ideas that will add motion, color, and excitement to your playing and enhance your musical expression when soloing.
How to Shred the Blues
Sometimes slow and steady doesn’t win the race.
• Develop a better sense of shred.
• Understand how to phrase in odd-numbered groups.
• Create blistering pentatonic lines in the style of Joe Bonamassa and Eric Johnson
Once you’ve integrated these licks into your playing, you’ll start combining them in new and fresh ways when improvising. Feel free to alter these licks anyway you want with hammer-ons, pull-offs, alternate picking, hybrid picking, or however else you feel comfortable.
Let’s go all the way back to 1968. Johnny Winter’s TheProgressive Blues Experiment is one of my favorite blues records, and Johnny could really play a lot of notes for a blues player in the late ’60s. He’s a fingerstyle player, which I am not, so I’ll use a pick, but if you really want that Johnny Winter sound try playing these without a pick. His sound was also not too overdriven.
It's My Own Fault (2004 Digital Remaster)
Ex.1 works great over the I chord in a blues. It starts out with a flurry of fast bends—which sound a lot faster than they are—packed with the wildness of rock. It then goes into a repeating, syncopated pull-off figure where you keep jumping back to the G on the 12th fret of the 3rd string. Shifting the accent around was a staple in Johnny’s playing. In notation it looks more complicated than it is, so just follow your ears with this one. You can either try to play it rhythmically more on the grid or just somehow squeeze the figure into each beat.
Ex. 2 is in Bb and is played over a V–IV–I turnaround at the end of a 12-bar blues. It starts off with some tremolo picking going into the V chord and then another pull-off figure that keeps going over the IV chord before ending in a bend from Ab to Bb (the 5th of the IV chord) on the 2nd string. It ends with syncopated notes and double-stops over the I chord.
Another player that shredded the blues was the incredible Gary Moore. After his phase as one of the greatest hard rock players of the ’80s, he went back to his blues roots and infused it with his lightning-fast licks.
Gary Moore - Still Got The Blues (Live)
Ex. 3 is pretty much a blues/rock cliché lick but Moore would add some rhythm intricacies like the 16th-notes in the middle of a 32nd-note run. He would play this with a mix of alternate picking and legato, but you can try to hybrid pick the sections where he only plays one note per string. Otherwise, it’s a straightforward blues-rock lick. Don’t worry too much about playing it super clean, Gary wasn’t the cleanest with these kinds of licks either. It adds to the filthy attitude of these phrases. Ending it on the open 5th string and adding the open 3rd string (the b7 of A) makes it even filthier.
We stick with the key of A for Ex. 4, which is a lick that you can often find in Moore’s playing. It looks quite complicated rhythmically, which stems from the fact that a lot of Moore’s fast licks are basically sped-up versions from players he learned from. He would take these little figures and squeeze them into smaller sections. As with the first Johnny Winter lick, it’s more about getting a feel for the it and making sure to land the first note of a pattern on the beat. It sounds wild and frantic, especially ending it on the open 5th string when the progression moves back the I chord.
Our final Gary Moore lick is in 6/8 and works nicely over a V–IV progression in measures 9 and 10 of a 12-bar blues (Ex. 5). I used a similar pattern as Ex. 4, but moved it horizontally on one string instead of vertically through one pentatonic position.
Let’s check out some more contemporary players. The next two licks are from the incredible Josh Smith. They’re both pretty similar, and show how you can get in and out of an idea and vary the phrasing to get more bang for your buck. Both work over a D chord. They’re lengthier ideas that work great over a vamp.
Josh Smith - Multi Cam 4K - 2020-02-17 Boca Raton, Florida - The Funky Biscuit - Full Show
Ex. 6 starts slow with a little melodic fragment before going into an intervallic lick that mixes 32nd-notes, 16th-notes, a septuplet and 16th-note triplets. Practice each one individually before combining them to get a hang of it. It then goes into a fast 32nd-note run that ends with a syncopated screaming bend after scraping some random open strings. Pretty wild.
Ex. 7 starts lower on the neck and slides up to the same position as Ex. 6 where we go into a variation of the rhythmically irregular intervallic idea, this time a bit more straightforward. Instead of launching into another full-on shred attack, we end the idea by immediately jumping back up to the 1st string and playing a surprising short melodic phase.
Ex. 8 is one of Joe Bonamassa’s cascading pentatonic runs. It’s mostly straightforward 32nd-notes but uses sequences of five and seven to get that cascading sound of displaced accents. This works over the I chord of a D blues progression (major or minor) as well as any rock riff in D. It’s clearly inspired by Eric Johnson’s cascading pentatonic runs and a rather tough one, technically. Bonamassa pretty much picks every note in this phrase, which is quite hard due to the string skipping and the odd accents. But there’s no shame in using pull-offs, which sounds cool as well. Smooth pull-offs or aggressive picking: your choice. Ideally learn both and play it how the situation requires.
Kicking the speed up a notch can add excitement to your solos. But remember to use it with taste, not as a crutch. Break down these licks into more manageable pieces and work them up to face-melting speeds to prevent sloppiness. In the end, the better the context you place these licks in the better they will sound.
Take off the training wheels and burn through these pentatonic licks.
• Develop a deeper sense of subdivisions.
• Understand how to use alternate pentatonic scales.
• Learn how to balance different picking styles.
Pentatonics are certainly well used (maybe overused?) by guitarists. There’s so much you can do with them and there’s a lot of great music to be found within our beloved five-note scale. My aim is to go for the whole “sheets of sound” thing that was popularized by John Coltrane and later adapted to guitar by players like Allan Holdsworth. However, the technique arms race has slowed down over the last few years, with modern players opting for interesting lines that focus more on cool rhythms and unexpected intervals. Let’s get to it.
My reference for this style is players like Plini, Rick Graham, and Jack Gardiner, and these kinds of lines can be heard on their albums and in their improvisations. My hope is to introduce different technical, rhythmic, and textural ways of approaching the well-worn minor pentatonic scale.
Plini – "FLÂNEUR" (Live 2019)
Ex. 1 isn’t really a lick, but it’s a way of combining positions of the A minor pentatonic scale (A–C–D–E–G). We start out with two notes on the 6th string, then three on the 5th, one on the 4th, three on the 3rd, one on the 2nd, and two on the 1st string. This is very similar to some of the picking patterns found in Frank Gambale’s playing. Visualizing the scale this way will open up all kinds of phrasing and technique options. I’ll be using patterns like this throughout this column as my foundation for building the lines.
You knew we were going to hit legato at some point. Three-note-per-string patterns work great for legato playing. In Ex. 2, I’m playing patterns of seven on each string, starting on the lowest note of each three, rolling up and down to create a pattern of seven notes. I’m aiming to get this as close to a septuplet as possible. It can also be helpful to practice these patterns as straight 16th-notes, as I demonstrate in the second part of this example.
Ex. 3 uses a similar approach to Ex. 2, however this time we’re employing string skipping. Now we’re getting those sheets of sound I was talking about. I start out with groups of seven, then I go for a more linear approach with straight up-and-down string skipping. I follow this as straight 16th-notes to practice balancing the evenness between the hammer-ons and pull-offs. You’re welcome to execute this line however you wish, with picking, hammers from nowhere, or various tapping approaches.
Let’s move to the E minor pentatonic scale (E–G–A–B–D) for Ex. 4. Playing a minor pentatonic scale based a fifth above the root offers some interesting melodies. In the key of A minor the E minor pentatonic scale gives us the 5, b7, root, 9, and 11. Super imposing pentatonics gives our classic phrases a totally different feel. Another thing unique about this phrase is that we’re using a 2-1-2 pattern, where we play two notes on one string, one note on an adjacent string, and then two notes on next adjacent string. It’s a superb way of getting modern-sounding interval phrases happening across the fretboard in lots of different situations. (For more on this check out my 2-1-2 lesson here.)
Quintuplets (groups of 5) are a great way to break up the pentatonic scale. (Joe Bonamassa and Eric Johnson use this technique all the time.) For Ex. 5, we’re sticking with the E minor pentatonic 2-1-2 thing and moving across the strings before descending with a similar pattern in 12th position. The second half of the lick uses quintuplet quarter-notes (five notes over two beats) to create a deeper level of rhythmic interest.
In Ex. 6 I add a note to our E minor pentatonic patterns to create a 3-1-2 pattern. This is great for modern sextuplet licks.
Quite a lot of what I’ve covered in this column has been combination picking and legato. So, we might as well cover sweep picking as well. Ex. 7 is a sweep- or economy-picking lick, which means when you change strings your pick is going in the direction of the next string. If you’re new to it, try the second half of the lick first. Practice each fragment slowly first of all with even subdivisions, and ensure your pick is planted on the next string you’re moving to. Timing is everything!
And there we have it, some mega pentatonic ideas to hopefully inspire new phrases in your playing. Pentatonic scales are super valuable and it’s worth finding as many ways of playing them as you can. Plus, the guitar has great geometric patterns we can make a lot of music from. The patterns in the 3-1-3 and 2-1-2 systems can be a bit tricky, so find the ones that resonate with you and don’t forget to mess with the super impositions and subdivisions for extra fun!