How to Embellish Pentatonic and Blues-Scale Licks

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Ever wonder why some blues-rock guitarists sound like they’re playing much more than just minor pentatonic licks? Perhaps it doesn’t quite sound like diatonic scales and modes but more like something in between?

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Chances are the player is using minor pentatonics as a foundation and sprinkling in extra notes here and there at strategic points. This is a method used by many of the genre’s master improvisers. Knowing which notes should be tossed into the mix, and when, are the key factors that separate chaos from musicality.

This lesson is designed to unveil some of the mystery of this playing style, offering enough practical know-how to get you adlibbing those blues licks. Using the minor pentatonic scale as a platform, we’ll take a look at a few neck diagrams, explore an assortment of licks and finish off by applying all the information in a full-blown blues-rock solo.

ADDING THE MAJOR THIRD TO MINOR PENTATONIC

For the sake of continuity and familiarity, the A minor pentatonic scale (A-C-D-E-G; root-b3-4-5-b7) will be used as the foundation for this lesson. All examples are to be played with a shuffle, or swing-eighths, feel.

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Ex. 1a shows a neck diagram of the classic, two-notes-per-string pattern we all know and love. Ex. 1b depicts the same scale pattern but with the addition of a major third (C#). These major-third insertions are enclosed in little boxes for clear illustration. Ex. 2a offers a stock example of a minor-pentatonic lick cast over an A7 (A-C#-EG) chord. This provides the familiar “#9” tonality against the major-sounding chord. Now check out the counterpart lick in Ex. 2b. Cast from the scale pattern in Ex. 1b, it’s very similar in contour but tosses the major third (C#) into the mix. This provides an active, “major/minor” push that is often at the very heart of blues music. Take note of how the interaction of the major-and minor-third pairings are formulated. The first mating is produced with a hammer-on, while the second is the product of a half-step bend.

Ex. 3a is a “call-and-response”-style minor-pentatonic lick played out along the lower portion of the pattern from Ex. 1a. Again, this accentuates the minor, or #9, edginess of many blues-rock phrases. Using this lick as a template, Ex. 3b expands upon it, exploiting the pairing possibilities of the minor-pentatonic-plus-major-third scale from Ex. 1b. Thick-sounding, tritone double-stops open the phrase, which moves to a crafty, pinkie-slide (C to C#) on the low E string, followed by a wide intervallic leap to the fifth fret of the D string. The lick culminates on another half-step bend from C to C#, this time on the low E string.

EXPANDING YOUR BLUES-SCALE LICKS

Add a b5 to the minor pentatonic scale and you have what is commonly referred to as the blues scale or, in some circles, the minor blues scale. Ex. 4a illustrates the A blues scale (A-C-D-Eb-E-G) transcribed in scale degrees: root-b3-4-b5-5-b7. The inclusion of the b5 (Eb) provides a unique, chromatic sequence of notes (half steps apart) that can be used for smooth “linking” passages or edgy, angular-sounding phrases.

The lick in Ex. 5a features both of these qualities: The chromatic moves along the A string provide smooth passage between the fourth and fifth scale degrees (D and E), while the rapid slide to and from the b5 (Eb) on the G string provides the edginess.

Ex. 4b depicts some “added note” concepts that can really spice up your blues-scale licks. First, let’s look at the lower portion of the scale pattern, where the insertion of the major seventh (G#) creates a visually symmetrical lineup of matching chromatic passages along the A and D strings. The dotted line helps to illustrate this “mini-box” cluster of notes. While not generally used as a featured note, the G# can serve very effectively as a passing tone, connecting the b7 (G) to the tonic (A). This concept is demonstrated in Ex. 5b. Essentially a counterpart to the blues lick in Ex. 5a, it fuels the original phrase with more note choices.

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Let’s return to the neck diagram in Ex. 4b, this time focusing on the top three strings. Inserting the second and sixth scale degrees (B and F#, respectively) on the B and high E strings creates a symmetrical box shape, that follows the contour of the pattern of blues-scale notes established along the G string (frets 5, 7 and 8). Again, a dotted line is used to illustrate this symmetrical lineup. Ex. 6a takes full advantage of this box with a series of double-stop maneuvers, dispatched with 1st-and 3rd-finger partial-barre techniques. Ex. 6b begins with some half-step bends on the top two strings and ends with a double-stop bend. Careful here: Keep the strings parallel to each other as you bend and release to pitch.

The next four examples combine all elements discussed so far and are designed to complement the changes of a 12-bar blues in the key of A. Ex. 7 enhances blues-scale licks with major-third embellishments, while Ex. 8 goes a step further with the inclusion of the major seventh (G#) passing tone. Both of these examples are designed for the I7 chord (A7). The next lick (Ex. 9) is constructed for the IV7 chord (D7: D-F#-A-C). Based on the notes of the upper symmetrical box of Ex. 4b, it opens with a chromatic passage that targets the chord’s third (F#). This leads to a chord-tone dance involving the 5 (A), b7 (C) and 3 (F#) of the chord, followed by a set of triple-stops that takes full advantage of the symmetry of the pattern itself. Ex. 10 has its origins in the “blues scale/add major 7” pattern found on the lower strings of Ex. 4b and is custom tailored for the V7 chord (E7: E-G#-B-D). Whereas the major 7 (G#) is most often used as a passing note (see Ex. 4b), here it is exploited to “nail” the 3 of the E7 chord change.

MORE SYMMETRICAL BOXES

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The next set of examples is for those who like to play “diagonally” across the fretboard. Ex. 11a depicts the A minor pentatonic scale in an extended, or linear, pattern. This popular “stair-step” pattern invites speedy legato passages such as the one in Ex. 12b. Now, witness what happens when you insert the major 3, b5 and major 7 degrees into the pattern (Ex. 11b). What could easily be mis-interpreted as a complicated mess of notes can actually be organized into an intriguing trio of symmetrical boxes. Hanging out in any of theses “economic” boxes can offer plenty of melodic fuel to create interesting licks. Check out Ex. 13 for an extended passage that manipulates all three areas over an A7 tonality. Follow the fret-hand fingering faithfully for the intended outcome.

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

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Now let’s put these ideas to the test in an extended solo (Ex. 14). The setting is an uptempo (156 bpm) 12-bar blues shuffle in the key of A. All chords are dominant sevens — A7, D7 and E7 — and the form is two 12-bar choruses.

The solo opens in fifth position (first finger at the fifth fret) on a pair of bendy, double-stop phrases similar to those introduced earlier in Ex. 6b. Remember to keep the strings parallel as you bend them to pitch with a third-finger partial barre. The double-stop theme carries into measure 3 and is answered with a descending, blues-scale lick that spills down into the lower-extension box described in Ex. 11b.

At the end of bar 4, a chromatic line on the low E string (launched with an open-string attack) anticipates the IV7 chord change (D7), dances around the lower-extension box and shifts back up to fifth position in measure 6. A rhythmic motif (repeating rhythm pattern) and hybrid-picking techniques are the highlights of this measure. Regarding the latter, hold the pick with your thumb and index finger, and use your middle finger to pluck the G string with a quick, aggressive attack. Bar 7 marks the return to the I7 chord (A7), and the frantic pace lightens somewhat with a minor-pentatonic-plus-major-third lick that slides into the upper-extension box described in Ex. 11b. Follow the fret-hand fingering suggestions carefully, as it is much easier to handle the high E-string bend with the second finger rather than the first!

The V7 chord (E7) arrives in measure 9, and we hang out in the upper-extension box for a tricky double-stop bend on the B and high E strings. When you go to bend the high E string with your third finger, allow it to snag and take the adjacent B string along for the ride, then strike both strings and return them to pitch. A cycled, chromatic lick targets the fifth (A) of the IV7 chord in measure 10. The suggested picking direction is designed for a powerful attack on the downbeats, but if the tempo feels too fast, go ahead and use alternate picking (consistent down-up-down-up motion). The aim is to stay in the rhythm “pocket.” The first chorus goes out with a fiery turnaround phrase — a lick specifically designed for the last two measures of a 12-bar blues — that scoots from the upper-extension box back down to fifth position. This one is pure blues scale in construction, with heavy exploitation of the b5 (Eb). Follow the fret-hand fingering and legato moves strictly here, but feel free to experiment with the picking directions.

Whereas the first chorus was structured in four-bar, call-and-response fashion, the second chorus comes off more like two guitarists “headcutting” (playing one-upmanship) in two-bar tradeoffs. The first phrase (measures 13 and 14) is a two-note cycle (G and E) played with an aggressive hybrid-picking attack. Played in eighth-note triplet rhythms, it takes on an intriguing off set feel (be sure to mute the A-string pick attacks). The passage ends by moving the two-note pattern up two frets and climbing back down chromatically. The “answering” lick (measures 15 and 16) is a quarter-note, triplet-infused pentatonic passage fortified with aggressive string pulls (snap up on the string with your middle finger). The subsequent IV7-chord lick (measures 17 and 18) takes full advantage of both symmetrical boxes described in Ex. 4b. Basically, a sizzling run down every possible note in this “composite” scale pattern, it’s initiated with matching hammer-pull-pull legato moves on the top three strings.

A simple, yet effective melodic/rhythmic motif passage (measures 19 and 20) supplies a nice contrast to the preceding lick. A and G notes fuel the melodic theme, while two shuffled eighth notes provide the rhythmic foundation. The penultimate phrase (measures 21 and 22) zips way up the neck for a chord-tone-related move over the E7 chord. Juggling the b7 (D), 3 (G#) and 9 (F#) of the chord, the lick drops down two frets to follow suit for the corresponding chord tones of D7 and caps off with a three-note burst from the A minor pentatonic scale in 12th position.

The curtain-closing lick finds us back in fifth position with a blistering, major-third-infused A blues-scale phrase. Okay, who won the duel on that second chorus? Votes, please!

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For audio of this lesson, go to guitarplayer.com/technique

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