Learning to play pentatonic scales is arguably the most important building block for developing our soloing skills. But many guitarists only really view pentatonics in one way – along one path of notes, up and back.
To really master the fretboard and to be able to play whatever you want whenever you want, you’ve got to have more than one way to move through your scale patterns.
Think of it as having multiple paths to drive home from the store. If you only know one way to get home, you’re limited. But with multiple paths, you have options depending on your current circumstances. Traffic backed up to the left? Go right.
In this lesson, I’ll show you how to visualize two pathways for connecting the root notes of a pentatonic scale. The end result will be improved fretboard vision, longer lead guitar lines and a whole lot more awesome.
Minor Pentatonic Theory Review
This “two paths” concept works best for the minor pentatonic scale, so let’s do a quick recap of this guitar staple:
The minor pentatonic is a 5-note scale comprised of the following scale degrees:
Root – b3 – 4 – 5 – b7
For Em pentatonic, that gives us:
E (root), G (b3), A (4), B (5) and D (b7)
Important Theory Nerd Point: The E minor scale’s G and D are called “flat 3rd” and “flat 7th” (or “minor 3rd” and “minor 7th”) respectively because they are a half-step lower than the E major scale’s G# (3) and D# (7). A parallel minor scale’s 3, 6 and 7 are always a half-step lower than the major scale’s counterparts. If this information is completely over your head, please check out my theory lesson on major and minor scales first.
Most advanced players know that there are 5 overlapping pentatonic patterns on the guitar’s fretboard.
While it is certainly good to be able to navigate those scales in their entirety – and eventually you will be able to – it’s a bit overwhelming to think of all that while you’re trying to improvise a rockin’ solo.
Instead, I encourage my students to take one pattern at a time and simply think in octaves, from root note to root note.
Each root-to-root section is a short pathway. Simply learn the short pathways and then connect them to form longer pathways.
This is an easy method for enhancing your vision of the fretboard. Our ultimate goal is to play through these paths with enough focus and frequency that eventually the notes “light up” along the path of our choice.
Path 1 – “In Position”
Path 1 is most easily demonstrated in the basic pentatonic scale that almost every guitarist learns first.
This Path places the root note under finger 1 on string 6. It then travels one octave across strings 5 and 4, eventually finishing on the root note under finger 3 on string 4.
Path 1 requires no shifting, so it can be referred to as “in position”.
THREE IMPORTANT POINTS:
1 – Every single E on the fretboard – except those on string 1 – can be the root of a similar, if not identical, octave pathway.
2 – Each Path 1 pattern starts with the root note under finger 1 and has the b3 on the same string as the root.
3 – When string 2 is part of the pattern, there is a one-fret shift involved due to the string’s tuning. A one-fret shift does not alter the pattern’s “in position” nature.
Here is Path 1 starting with root notes on strings 5, 4, 3 and 2:
NOTE: Starting the scale on string 2 will only allow you to travel up to the 5th (B), and not to complete the octave.
Path 2 – Shifting
Path 2 is achieved by displacing the b3 to the next string in each pattern.
Remember when I said to take note that Path 1 always starts with the root (E) under finger 1 and the b3 (G) on the same string? Now we will place that same root note under finger 3 and move the b3 to the next string, under finger 1. This creates a long diagonal shape:
We’re getting the same root-to-b3 sound; we’re just doing it across two strings as opposed to one string.
This new positioning also means that we must now play the 4th of the scale (A) under finger 3 and shift on finger 3 up to the 5th of the scale (B). Finally we complete the octave in the same fashion as Path 1:
Notice that every E on the fretboard can now be thought of as the starting root of Path 2:
Note 1: Again, because of the tuning of string 2, we have to make an adjustment. The E root note on string 3 now makes a short diagonal shape to the b3 (G), which means that it’s best to play E with finger 2.
Note 2: The root-4 E notes are displayed in 2nd position with an open G and again, in the last fretboard, at 14th position.
A “Hidden” Benefit and Final Thoughts
There is a kind of “hidden” benefit to learning how to apply Path 2.
By placing the b3 under finger 1 – and not under fingers 3 or 4, like you would do in Path 1 – you can confidently apply some vibrato or a slight, bluesy bend to the note. The b3 note is often enhanced in this way, but it’s a bit more awkward to make those moves with fingers 3 or 4.
In the next lesson, I’ll give you some exercises designed to enhance your fretboard vision and apply the pathways in a professional way. Until then, get to know each of the octave paths as well as possible, with the roots on different strings, as well as in different keys (C, A, G, E and D would be a good start).
Let’s Go to the Video!
Want to see this lesson demonstrated on video? Check out Two Paths to Pentatonic Mastery.
QUESTION: Are you able to visualize the two paths starting on any string? Can you see the benefit of having the two paths available to you as you improvise? Leave me a comment below!