The pentatonic scales have a broad and practical use in lead work and soloing. But what about in rhythm work?
Clearly, they do, as heard in the work of players ranging from Jimi Hendrix to Billy Gibbons. In fact, regardless of your style, there’s a wealth of single-note riffs, double-stop moves and chordal embellishments lurking within the scale. Squeeze these sounds between the cracks of basic chord shapes and your rhythm work will instantly sound a lot more interesting.
Before we get to the riffs, let’s examine the nuts and bolts. Like many other scales, the pentatonic comes in two basic flavors: major and minor. To compare, E major pentatonic—E G A B D—is built from the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th notes of the E major scale (E F# G# A B C# D#); E minor pentatonic—E F# G A B C D—is built from the 1st b3rd, 4th, 5th and b7th tones of the E minor scale (E F# G A B C D).
Minor pentatonic scales are most commonly used in blues and rock; major pentatonic scales appear mostly in R&B and country. Regardless of style, these scales sound most effective when played in short note groupings, on small pockets of the fretboard, generally spanning no more than three strings. Keep this in mind as you sample the following figures.
Many blues riffs are derived from pentatonic bass lines that imitate a pianist’s left-hand playing. FIGURE 1, a nod to the fingerstyle country blues of legends like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Blake, is sculpted from an E major pentatonic bass line.
Check FIGURE 2 for a more contemporary blues application—an E minor pentatonic riff inspired by the Buddy Guy and Stevie Ray Vaughan versions of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
Countless rock riffs are based upon fragments of pentatonic scales. The next few passages, however, are examples featuring the entire five-note scale.
Jimi Hendrix’s signature line in “Purple Haze” (FIGURE 3) and Joe Walsh’s spiraling moves in the Eagles’ “Life in the Fast Lane” (FIGURE 4) are both constructed from the E minor pentatonic scale.
FIGURE 5 is similar to the wicked riff that kicks off Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle,” in which Slash rips through the entire B minor pentatonic scale (B D E F# A) using pedal point, repeating the 4th-fret B as notes change below.
Meanwhile, for an example of a fragmented pentatonic riff, look to FIGURE 6, which is modeled after Rage Against the Machine’s “Guerrilla Radio,” which is in F# minor pentatonic (F# A B C# E).
Many great funk figures contain pentatonic notes played between the cracks of chord stabs and string mutes. Approximated in FIGURE 7, for example, is James Brown’s E minor pentatonic-based “Mother Popcorn.”
And FIGURE 8 illustrates a G minor pentatonic (G Bb C D F) funk riff reminiscent of Leo Nocentelli’s work in the Meters’ “Look-Ka Py Py.”
Lots of late-Seventies and early Eighties rock classics revolve around double-stop pentatonic riffs. Inspired by ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man,” FIGURE 9 contains some 4ths within the A minor pentatonic scale (A C D E G).
FIGURE 10, inspired by the riffs of groups like Kansas and Styx, shows a linear example, with note pairs moved along strings 3–4 against an open-A drone.
But perhaps the ultimate example of double-stops pentatonic in rock is Mark Knopfler’s fingerpicking on Dire Straits’ mega-hit “Money for Nothing,” composed primarily of 4ths and 5ths within G minor pentatonic (FIGURE 11).
In the R&B-based styles of Curtis Mayfield, Steve Cropper and Jimi Hendrix, you’ll find pentatonics used in double- and triple-stop fills. See FIGURE 12, for example, in which C major pentatonic (C D E G A), G major pentatonic (G A B D E) and A minor pentatonic chord partials are played around C, G and Am chords, respectively.
Interestingly, in country music, a similar approach is used to dress up open-position “cowboy” chords. As depicted in FIGURE 13, single notes within G major pentatonic and C major pentatonic are hammered on and pulled off between the upper strings of G and C chords.
Contrary to popular belief, jazz comping isn’t all about altered 7th chords. In one-chord modal vamps, modern-jazz giants like Mike Stern, Scott Henderson and Joe Diorio might combine handfuls of notes within pentatonic scales to create chord sounds like those seen in FIGURE 14. All of these shapes derive from A minor pentatonic. This comping concept is highly practical because it works in any minor mode (Dorian, Phrygian and Aeolian), since minor pentatonic omits the 2nd and 6th scale degrees (the tones that vary between minor modes).
FIGURE 15 is built on 3rds, 4ths and 5ths in A minor pentatonic (beats 1–2 throughout), alternating with Eb major pentatonic (Eb F G Bb C) note pairs—the result of tritone substitution (pitches borrowed from a chord sitting a b5th away from the tonic). Use this passage as a cadenza to end any standard in A minor, like “What Are you Doing the Rest of Your Life” or “Black Orpheus.”