Dangerous Riffs: Make Killer Licks and Solos from Just Five Notes

You’ve probably already mastered more greasy pentatonic licks than you know what to do with, but in this lesson you’ll learn how to use those same notes to say something new—and dangerous.
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In the eternal quest for more and better, shred guitarists tend to move toward exotic sounds: harmonic minor, melodic minor, Phrygian and Locrian, to name a few. But what can you do when even advanced scales and modes begin to sound dull and tired?

Here’s a good idea: head back to the familiar territory of the minor pentatonic scale (1 b3 4 5 b7), one of the most commonly used melodic sources in rock, blues and other styles. You’ve probably already mastered more greasy pentatonic licks than you know what to do with, but in this lesson you’ll learn how to use those same five notes to say something new—and dangerous. After all, nothing says “rock and roll” like a killer pentatonic lick.

FIGURE 1 shows the five boxes of the A minor pentatonic shape. Play each one ascending and descending until it’s under your fingers. To play in keys other than A minor, simply slide the entire figure to other frets.

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Now let’s try some “mechanics”—the four-note groups in FIGURES 2A–E. First repeat them as indicated. Then move each one smoothly through the different string sets of each box. I’ve shown a snippet using the first mechanic to give you an idea of how this works. Apply this idea across all the boxes, both ascending and descending. This process should help embed each of these mechanics into your muscle memory, so that you’ll be able to whip them out on the fly in a variety of contexts.


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The next step is to incorporate the patterns into licks. String a few together and mix them up, adding bends and pauses to make two-measure phrases. To help with this, I’ve shown two more ways to add variety. Depicted in FIGURE 3A (the first measure in the figure) is a variant of a hemiola (three-against-two pattern) played by Jimi Hendrix. I say “a variant” because in this case it is actually a five-against-four pattern, but it accomplishes the same principle. With each repetition the notes fall in a different place relative to the underlying pulse, tumbling over the beat and adding rhythmic interest. Try to create some variations of your own.

After playing sequence-type repetition-based licks, it can be a welcome change to make a run straight up or down the scale, covering more sonic ground—a full octave or even two, as shown in FIGURE 3B (the second measure in the figure). On the way down, to spice things up I’ve added the b5, which is found in the blues scale (1 b3 4 b5 5 b7). I first began using this lick when I heard it on a live fusion recording by Al Di Meola, and it’s remained my arsenal to this day.


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FIGURE 4 demonstrates a Zakk Wylde-inspired approach—ascending through the boxes on two strings. The primary difficulty here lies in the alternate picking. As an easier alternative, you could stay in one box and play it with pull-offs in the style of Kiss’s Ace Frehley.


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FIGURE 5 includes passing tones that form six-note groupings. Midway up the scale is a reversed triplet sequence. Here, a three-note descending pattern is sequenced in ascending fashion.


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Now that you have these new techniques in your repertoire, use them frequently until they become second nature and you can call them up on command as the music requires.