Intervallic Pentatonics: Thinking Outside the Box Without Leaving It

Changing interval relationships can make all the difference when you’re trying to make a typical scale sound less cliché.
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Changing interval relationships can make all the difference when you’re trying to make a typical scale sound less cliché. The minor pentatonic is arguably the most common scale used by guitar players, and many players improvise with this scale by using a fairly stock vocabulary.

One day I was listening to the introduction to “Cliffs of Dover” by Eric Johnson, and I was struck by his beautiful use of wide intervals in three-note groups or “cells.” Take a look at Ex. 1 and notice the use of fifth and sixth intervals within the three-note cells. Although this is not strictly pentatonic, I wondered if a similar result could be achieved by using only the notes in the minor pentatonic scale.

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Check out Ex. 2 and observe that this is indeed the minor pentatonic scale in A (A, C, D, E, and G). Upon closer examination, it becomes clear that this example is nothing more than position one for A minor pentatonic, but like Ex. 1, it has been broken into three-note cells consisting of fifth and sixth intervals. It evokes the same type of sound heard in the “Cliffs of Dover” intro but it is strictly pentatonic.

You can also look at this pattern another way. We’re building three-note cells off the notes in an A minor pentatonic scale in position one. Our first note is A, the root. The following note is three notes up the scale, in this case, an E. Next, move up three more notes to G. We now have a three-note cell consisting of A, E, and G. The next step is to start a three-note cell off the second note of the scale (C, G, and D). We continue up the scale with this pattern, and that’s how we get the results in Ex. 2.

Although this may be overwhelming at first, it won’t take long to begin to see all six of the three-note cells in position one for the minor pentatonic scale. Once you are comfortable with Ex. 2, try putting on a jam track and experimenting with this new idea. Incorporate this concept into your current vocabulary and make connections that sound good to you. This will get the sound in your ear before you expand the idea to the other positions of the minor pentatonic scale.

Examples 3 through 6 take what we have in Ex. 2 and apply it to the other four pentatonic box positions. Strive for working the idea into all positions and ultimately all 12 keys. It’s also fairly easy to vary the idea in Ex. 2 to come up with even more phrases.

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Ex. 7 takes the three-note cell from Ex. 2 and reverses the order. Instead of A, E, and C, we now have C, E, and A. So you’re going down the three-note cell while each starting note moves up the scale. Ex. 8 is also a permutation of Ex. 2, only here, you go up the three-note cell while the starting note goes down the scale. Ex. 9 is yet another variation on this theme, going down the three-note cell as the starting note also goes down the scale.

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Remember—the goal here is to build off of the ideas found in the permutations of Ex. 1 and gain facility in using them in all areas of the neck. Examples 10 and 11 on page 72 show how the pattern can connect multiple scale positions.

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I have found this concept very useful and I get asked about it a lot at gigs. It’s my pleasure to share it with all of you. Enjoy!