Get More Out of the Major Pentatonic Scale

Jazz-metal professor Alex Skolnick offers some well-thought-out tips on how to get more out of this all-too-common scale.
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Alex Skolnick of Testament performs at the Northwell Health at Jones Beach Theater on July 29, 2018 in Wantagh, New York.

Alex Skolnick of Testament performs at the Northwell Health at Jones Beach Theater on July 29, 2018 in Wantagh, New York.

As far as jazz cats go, Alex Skolnick is quite the rare breed. Very well respected in both the metal and jazz communities, he first earned his stripes as a teenage titan with Bay Area thrash stalwarts Testament in the late ’80s. Shortly thereafter, flirtation with books such as Nicolas Slonimsky’s Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns and Mick Goodrick’s The Advancing Guitarist inspired him to leave the band and pursue a degree at the New School University. While an undergrad, he formed the Alex Skolnick Trio, and released Goodbye to Romance: Standards for a New Generation in 2002, a groundbreaking project that integrated jazz and metal vocabulary in an improvisational trio setting. 

Since then, Skolnick has gracefully navigated between seemingly disparate music realms, releasing several more jazz recordings, touring with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, reuniting and traveling the globe with Testament, putting together an ArtistShare-funded world-music project called Planetary Coalition ( An avid writer and deep thinker, Skolnick also published an autobiography, Geek to Guitar Hero, a thought-provoking chronicle of his life through music. The professor of jazz-metal recently took time for an articulate, cerebral chat with GP.

“One of the enduring challenges for guitarists is to become fluent in all five pentatonic scale shapes,” he says. “It’s one thing to memorize the scales, but to really develop a vocabulary of licks outside the standard root-on-the-sixth-string form, I find that it helps to view them from a relative-major perspective.” To that end, Skolnick regards the A pentatonic minor shape that starts on the 3 (C) in Fig. A as a root-position C pentatonic major scale.

Fig. A Fig. B Fig. C Fig. D

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Contained within the notes on the top four stings is Ex. 1a’s C major triad.

Ex. 1a Ex. 1b

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By focusing on these notes and embellishing them with a variety of bends, slides, hammer-ons and pull-offs, we can develop lines like Ex. 1b that have a strong C major melodicism.

When working out lines, you’ll always want to bend up to scale tones, so the A on the 10th fret of the second string in Ex. 1c travels a full step-and-a-half to C.

Ex. 1c

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Now let’s journey through the remaining scale forms and unearth the triads within. On the bottom three strings of the C pentatonic major form shown in Fig. B, lurks the C/E triad delineated in Ex. 2a. “I find this grip ergonomically suited for licks with hammer-ons, pull-offs, and a Hendrix- style chordal stab,” (as demonstrated by Ex. 2b.)

Ex. 2a Ex. 2b

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You can then switch your focus to the top three strings of the scale and grab the open-D shaped C/G of Ex. 2c. Try pulling off to the lower note in the scale on each string to get a tasty, country-flavored run like Ex. 2d.

Ex. 2c Ex. 2d

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Play through the next scalar shape shown in Fig. C, and notice how the previous triad can be repurposed as Ex. 3a’s twelfth position C/E chord arpeggio. Explore the scalar notes above this time, and dig Ex. 3b - a very David Gilmour-esque melodic phrase.

Ex. 3a Ex. 3b

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For the final scale form shown in Fig. D, we’ll drop down an octave to second position. Heads up - this scale has Ex. 4a’s full fifth-string-root C major barre chord contained within. Take advantage of this fact to cultivate sweeping, arpeggios-based runs like Ex. 4b.

Ex. 4a Ex. 4b

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“There’s a whole world of music inside each of the pentatonic scale shapes,” says Skolnick. “You just have to take the time to explore it.”