Guitarists are often introduced to the pentatonic scale at the fifth position [Ex. 1] where its five notes—A, C, D, E, and G—fill just over two octaves. These pitches are perfectly diatonic to the guitar-friendly keys of both A minor and its relative major, Cmajor, which is why Aminor pentatonic and C major pentatonic are the exact same scale. And, as many guitarists are well aware, when the scale is played with a visceral attack and a few juicy bends, it can sound deliciously bluesy over an A major or A7 chord. Because we will soon be showing you how well the pattern works over less obvious background chords, here’s a tip: Before playing through any of this lesson’s examples, strum the background chord listed first (to acquaint your ears with the intended tonality). Then, play the lick, and you’ll hear the phrase in the right harmonic context. For instance, strum Am (or A5), and then blaze through the triplets in Ex. 2. You’ll hear one of rock guitar’s trustiest descending pentatonic sequences, touched on famously by Jimmy Page on “Good Times Bad Times.”
Guitarists who most fully reap the rewards of the pentatonic scale are those who, at least occasionally, look beyond their favorite musical genre and their favorite instrument. For instance, peep Ex. 3, which shifts the pentatonic pattern down to the second position. Over an A major I-IV-V progression, this zigzagging theme shows how Joe Zawinul, the hugely influential Weather Report keyboardist and sound sculptor, elicited his angular “Black Market” melodies using just five notes. Or, harmonize the pentatonic scale with its own notes, as in Ex. 4. In the key of E major, these double- stops evoke the way the Allman Brothers filled the air with bright major harmonies on “Jessica” and other tunes using two guitars and one pentatonic scale.
Scott Henderson, one of the greatest players ever to bring rock, jazz, and blues together on a snarling Stratocaster, often clues his students in on tasty “outside” ways to use pentatonic shapes. Chief among these is the simple practice of shifting the scale up or down the neck without changing keys. That’s right—just move it. Demonstration: Play the bluesy A minor pentatonic line in Ex. 5. Now, shift it up two frets, as in Ex.6 without changing the background chord. Suddenly, although the new group of notes still contains the root of our Ambacking chord, the scale has a brand new sound. (That F# imposes an A Dorian flavor.) Best of all, it doesn’t sacrifice the gratifying bluesy attack of the original line—the moves are the same. We’re getting “out” sounds courtesy of very “inside,” familiar fingerings— hip! Play a similar line further up the neck at the twelfth position, as in Ex. 7, to reveal yet another compelling pentatonic vantage point on A minor.
Similar drag-and-drop pentatonic treatments work in major keys as well. For starters, Ex. 6—because it contains no 3 whatsoever—is equally compelling in A major. And Ex. 8 offers a fun ninth-position way to attack A major with our pentatonic fingering while magically avoiding the root. If you want more complex flavors in your A major jams, take a tip from John Scofield and add a little #11 zest by playing pentatonic lines up at the sixteenth position (or an octave down, at the fourth position), as suggested by Ex. 9.
Great music almost always involves some amount of tension and release, so here’s a simple, yet dramatically effective way to do just that with the pentatonic scale: In the middle of your pentatonic line, simply shift the scale fingering up a half-step. (This introduces tension via dissonant, chromatic notes that are out of the key.) Then, before you finish the phrase, resolve things by shifting your fretting hand back to the home position. In Ex. 10, Jimmy Herring artfully does exactly that twice in one A minor line. Coupling this concept with the whole shift-the-scale-upthe- neck-without-changing-keys approach we learned earlier, Ex 11 grinds on A minor from the twelfth and thirteenth positions.
The brilliant Los Angeles guitarist and instructor Jean-Marc Belkadi has, as he’s done with so many guitar approaches, refined dozens of cool ways to use pentatonics. One thing he likes his students to explore is stringskipping lines such as Ex. 12. And, as shown in Ex. 13, Belkadi often handles string skips the smart, convenient, “hybrid” way—by plucking the higher string with the picking hand’s middle finger. Notice that this last example has a hemiolic three-against-four pick/hammer/pluck cycle. Keep it in 4/4 (i.e., don’t lose track of the downbeats), and it will retain its jagged, unpredictable sound.
Of course, while the popular “Box 1” fingering we’ve focused on so far in this lesson is, from an ergonomic standpoint, the strongest of the bunch, there are a world of other licks that can be created when other pentatonic fingerings are introduced—such as Box 5 [Ex. 14] Starting on the note G, this shape again tags A, C, D, E, and G, making it both an A minor and C major pentatonic scale. One très cool Belkadi maneuver is Ex. 15, which slides back and forth between the two boxes. (The slides are indicated by slide lines between notes and tablature numbers.)
“Any idea you have, you can take it up the fretboard through the different pentatonic fingerings,” says Belkadi, demonstrating with the Aminor/Cmajor rising clusters in Examples16 and 17. “Use these shapes to create lead lines,” adds Belkadi, alchemizing Ex. 17 into the slippin’ and slidin’ rising texture in Ex. 18.
As Belkadi reminds us with a rising pentatonic run that traverses much of the neck [Ex. 19], what we initially perceive as autonomous scale or “box” positions are really small four- or five-fret-wide windows that look in on a much larger scale spanning the entire fretboard. But even that scale doesn’t really exist. Like discarded training wheels after a kid has learned to ride his bike, scales melt into oblivion once you’ve truly learned them. Then, all that’s left is music.