Jimmy Herring

Rethinking the Pentatonic Scale
Publish date:
Updated on

When most guitarists learn a scale, their first objective is often to play it as fast as they can. Then, when it’s time play slowly again, the scale seems boring and the notes are no longer exciting. That’s due in large part to the fact that the faster you play, the more you may tend to rely on stepwise, scalar patterns that are easy to play at high speeds, but sound dull when you slow them down. For example, one common stepwise pattern involves climbing a C major scale using the sequence C-D-E-F, D-E-F-G, E-F-G-A, etc. This can sound amazing if you’re as fast as Yngwie Malmsteen or Al Di Meola, but, at more modest tempos, it’s so predictable that it may put people to sleep. Luckily, however, there are patterns that sound interesting at any tempo.

Let’s look at the workhorse fingering in Ex. 1, which is simultaneously an A minor pentatonic scale and a C major pentatonic scale, depending on whether you play it in the key of A or C. One way to make this scale more interesting is to play it using wide intervals. For instance, try applying the pattern of double-stops shown in Ex. 2. If you’re not sure how to use this largely fourths-based sound, check out Ex. 3, which descends from the high end of the scale. It employs the same shapes and instantly fills the room with a bright, C-major Allman Brothers sound (though on classic

Allman riffs, Duane Allman and Dickey Betts would typically split up a line like this, each playing one half of each double-stop).

What I often do with these same shapes is play them melodically—that is, one note at a time—as shown in Ex. 4. This pattern has a refreshing, lyrical sound that becomes even more vocal when you accent certain notes and ghost the others, as illustrated in Ex. 5. Phrased in this manner, the line no longer sounds at all robotic or forced. Accent the downbeats and displace it an eighth-note

forward in time (which results in the two-note pickup shown), and the lick gains a brand-new momentum. —As told to Jude Gold