If you’re anything like me – and probably 99% of all other aspiring lead guitarists – you started off jamming with pentatonic scales, specifically the minor pentatonic scale.
It was exciting to learn that only five notes – played in some relatively easy fingerings – were standing between you and rock guitar stardom.
Add in some spicy bends, some slippery slides, and a few lightning-quick hammer-ons and pull-offs, and you’re in the land of Hendrix, Page and Clapton, not to mention Gibbons, Young, Beck, Knopfler and many more!
But after a while, even the most pentatonic-lovin’ lead guitarist starts to yearn for some new sounds and some new ways to navigate chord changes that are a bit more sophisticated than the same…old…five…notes. I get it.
And that’s why I’ve gathered you all here today. Let’s expand your musical horizons and deepen your skills by moving past the minor pentatonic, one note at a time!
[DISCLAIMER: This lesson is for the intermediate guitarist who already has a pretty good handle on playing the minor pentatonic scale. He/she should be able to play it in at least one or two positions with some authority. He/she should also be able to improvise with it well enough to sound fairly “musical”. If you’re not there yet, read on but be forewarned that this is something you build up to.]
Minor Pentatonic Review
Before we move past the Minor Pentatonic scale, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page with a quick review of the details of this fundamental pattern. Here’s the scoop:
1) Everything starts with the Major Scale. Following the major scale formula of whole steps and half-steps, we get a sequence with the following scale degrees: root-2-3-4-5-6-7-8.
Example: A Major = A-B-C#-D-E-F#-G#-A
2) If we flatten the 3, 6 and 7 of the major scale, we get the Minor Scale with the following scale degrees: root-2-b3-4-5-b6-b7-8.
Example: A Minor = A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A
The Minor Scale is also called the natural minor scale (to differentiate it from some other minor-type scales). When we compare a Major and Minor scale that share the same root note, we call them parallel scales. The above examples show parallel A Major and A Minor scales.
3) If we eliminate the 2 and b6 scale degrees, we are left with the five-note Minor Pentatonic scale: root-b3-4-5-b7.
Example: A Minor Pentatonic = A-C-D-E-G
Almost everyone starts off their Minor Pentatonic studies with “Box Pattern 1”, which places the root note under finger 1 on string 6 and looks like this:
So let’s use this pattern as the basis for our lesson. Any of the concepts we cover in Box 1 can easily be integrated into any of the other four box patterns.
Because the minor pentatonic contains no half-steps – rather all notes are at least a whole step apart – it has a universal quality over chord progressions that have a strong minor character. The half-steps in any scale creates a sonic “pull”, so when in doubt, stick to minor pentatonic. Though it’s limited to only five notes (or maybe because of it), it will work over virtually anything minor.
Make it Blue
The most common variation on Minor Pentatonic is the basic blues scale.
Although blues scales can get a little more involved, the simplest version adds the b5 note – often referred to as the “blue note” – to the pentatonic formula: root-b3-4-b5-5-b7.
Example: A Blues = A-C-D-Eb-E-G
In terms of applying the blues scale, the b5 can certainly be inserted into either an ascending or descending phrase, but it tends to have a strong pull down toward the 4 note. So my personal go-to move is to play it as part of a descending phrase.
In the above example, note that I’m bending up a half-step from the 4 to get the b5 on string 3 (and then releasing it down to the 4), but hitting it directly on string 5. Both approaches should be practiced.
Another item of note is the move from the root directly to the b5 in measure 2. This interval is called a tritone, since it covers a distance of three whole steps. It has an especially dark and nasty character which can (and should be) exploited strategically.
Add the 2
The next step in moving beyond minor pentatonic is adding the 2 note back in to make a six-note scale: root-2-b3-4-5-b7.
Example: A Minor Pentatonic add2 = A-B-C-D-E-G
The 2 – or 9, as it is also referred to – is a universal sound as well. The vast majority of minor-style chord progressions will accept this sound. If used strategically, the 2 can sound very moody, jazzy and modern. Here it’s added to the minor pentatonic box:
This next point may seem obvious, but remember that the 2 is in between the root and the b3 notes. Therefore it can be thought of in two ways: as a whole step above the root or as a half-step below the b3. It’s important to understand both perspectives, as it may aid in the way you think about and articulate the note.
For example, you could:
You could even start on the 2 note and bend it up a half-step to get the b3. Then release the bend back down to the 2 (or not). Get creative!
Classic Rock Examples: “Black Magic Woman” (Santana), “Another Brick in the Wall” (Pink Floyd), “Who’s Crying Now?” (Journey)
When you learn a new improv idea, you need to cram it into as many lines as possible. It may not be pretty at first, and it may not be tasteful for quite a while, but little by little you’ll gain familiarity with the pathways and confidence in applying the notes to the chord changes.
Only after you’ve put in way too many repetitions will those licks and ideas start to emerge in your solos spontaneously. But that’s the goal. 🙂
QUESTION: What is your favorite soloing approach for minor chord progressions? Leave me a comment below!