Pentatonic Power: Five Ways to Get the Most From Five Notes

Expand your collective pentatonic horizons and put your entire fretboard to the test with this fretboard workout.
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Greetings, and welcome to the School of Pentatonic. Such luminaries as Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eddie Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix, Kirk Hammett, Eric Clapton, and Angus Young all call this institution their alma mater. Heck, even John Petrucci and Eric Johnson have graced its halls with their presence. A wide array of talent spanning several musical genres, to be sure, yet all these six­string specialists tote the pentatonic scale as a primary weapon of their arsenal.

In this workout session, we’re going to focus on expanding your collective pentatonic horizons and putting your entire fretboard to the test. After all, why use only four frets when you’ve got over 20 (24 even, if you should be so lucky)?

Before we delve into the examples, let’s briefly review the theory behind the pentatonic scale. Whereas most Western music is based on seven-note scale forms, the pentatonic scale relies on a five-note sequence, hence the name penta- (five) tonic (tone). One of the coolest things about pentatonic patterns is that they allow you to play not only minor-based licks (the most common) but also major-based ones. That’s because the major and minor pentatonic scales contain the same set of notes, the only difference being their starting point, or root. For instance, the notes in the A minor pentatonic scale are A-C-D-E-G, and the notes in the C major pentatonic scale are C-D-E-G-A. This inherent versatility makes pentatonic scale patterns a valuable addition to your repertoire of soloing tools.

FIGURE 1 contains the building blocks for this month’s entire workout. It’s a collection of five pentatonic patterns, or boxes, that spans 12 frets. Each one of these boxes contains the same set of five notes but on different areas of the neck. Box 1 should be familiar to you-it’s the same box (A minor pentatonic) used in the examples in May’s workout. Box 2 is the first extension of that note grouping, this time starting on the root (C) of the major pentatonic scale. Boxes 3, 4, and 5 continue the theme, showing you three more positions in which you can play the same five-note sequence.


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You might be saying, “Hey! That’s only 12 frets! I thought I was going to learn twice that!” Well, you have; you can transfer any of these boxes up or down an octave to make use of your entire fretboard. For instance, Box 5 can be played starting not only on the 15th fret but also down one octave (12 frets), at the 3rd fret. And if you wish to move a box up an octave, simply do the opposite. Similarly, Box 1 could be played not only in 5th position but also in 17th position. While learning these box patterns, take special note of the demarcated notes: those enclosed by a square are root notes of the minor pentatonic scale patterns (in this case, A minor pentatonic); those enclosed by a triangle are root notes of the major pentatonic patterns (C major pentatonic). Learning the locations of these notes will allow you to instantly recognize the roots of both the minor and major pentatonic scales. Keep in mind that these box patterns can be transferred to different keys as well, simply by shifting the entire box sequence to your desired key.

Now that you’re familiar with these boxes in a vertical sense, let’s try some examples that take horizontal tack. FIGURE 2 is an A minor pentatonic lick that relies on all five boxes from FIGURE 1. But instead of playing the notes back and forth across the neck in a vertical fashion, the focus here is on a “one string at a time” horizontal approach. Originating on the high E string in Box 5, this line gradually careens down to Box 1using two-note figures based on each of the respective pentatonic boxes.


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FIGURE 3 uses two-string figures (on the D and G strings) to take this approach to a new level. This time, four­note figures extracted from each box pattern gradually ascend the neck, eventually resolving to the root of the major pentatonic scale, C. Try using this approach on all of the strings, acclimating yourself to all of the different boxes as you move about horizontally.


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The basic premise here is quite simple: Find “like” shapes in each of the pentatonic boxes, and then simply shift from box to box to piece together some stellar licks. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, it is! FIGURE 4 displays three like four-note patterns-the first from box 5 (an octave lower than written in FIGURE 1), the second from box 1, and the third from box 2. Take note of the fingering here: All three four­ note patterns use exactly the same finger sequence.


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FIGURE 5 is an A minor pentatonic gem that employs this shape-shifting technique to great effect. A slide between each four-note pattern facilitates the shifting from box to box; this is a great way to travel across positions without making your lines sound cumbersome.


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FIGURE 6 follows a similar school of thought, this time using boxes 3 and 4 to create the lick illustrated in FIGURE 7. Note the inclusion of the horizontal ideas from the previous segment towards the tail of the lick.


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If you’re striving to become a better blues player, a couple of the most important technical aspects required are bending and double-stop licks. Jimi Hendrix was a master of these, as he often used various bend and double-stop ideas to dress up his rhythm and lead playing. Check out “Little Wing” and “The Wind Cries Mary” for some great ear candy involving these two techniques.

FIGURE 8 is a Hendrix-inspired double-stop flurry rooted in C major. When executing the bend lick in measure 2, make sure to keep the 3rd-string bend held while you pick the notes on the 2nd and 1st strings. This will give the lick a country-type of twang.


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FIGURE 9 is a C major pentatonic lick that uses double-stop bends to great effect. Try creating your own bend and double-stop licks using all of the boxes. And when doing so, make sure the bent notes are bent to pitches that are in the scale.


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The final lesson our workout involves the concept of super-boxes, which result from combining two box patterns into one extended three-notes-per-string pattern. Allan Holdsworth was a pioneer of this technique, and many others—Eddie Van Halen, Marty Friedman, and Dave Mustaine, to name a few—followed in his footsteps.

FIGURE 10 is a superbox arrived at by overlapping boxes 1 and 2 into one neat yet giant pattern. Make sure that your fret-hand thumb is centered in the middle of the pattern (on the back of the neck) to facilitate the giant stretches.


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FIGURE 11 is a monster lick in A minor that contains three separate superbox patterns. Note the Roman numerals above the staff, as they cue you into the correct positioning for each note sequence.


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