Now that you’ve read Part I of ‘How to Solo with Pentatonic Scales’ and you understand how a single pentatonic fingering pattern can be used for soloing in two keys, the first step is deciding upon the best sound for a given song. Is it a ‘happy’ tune’? Is it a bluesy, hard rock or metal tune? Obviously, a blazing, frenzied Zakk Wylde type of pentatonic solo won’t sound good in a Taylor Swift or Jack Johnson song. Likewise, a happy, melodic solo won’t be appropriate for a Megadeth song.
Assuming that you know the song’s key, locate root notes on the fretboard and shift patterns up or down the neck, accordingly. Use a major pentatonic scale for a bright, happy sound; use a minor pentatonic scale for almost everything else. Let your ear be the guide.
Knowing how to solo with pentatonic scales requires memorizing fingering patterns. The scale diagrams (below) show the five primary patterns for the minor pentatonic in the key of A minor, and for the major pentatonic in the key of C major. Notice that the patterns are exactly the same, but, they will sound totally different if you correctly target the root notes to reinforce the tonality of the key. It’s a good idea, by the way, to practice any type of scale by playing from root to root – forget about the extended, extra notes, and establish the tonal center in your mind. Each formation utilizes all six strings, with one of the five scale tones on the bottom string. The A minor roots are noted in light purple; the C major roots are blue; and, the yellow notes are ideal for bending.
Since you may already be familiar with the standard ‘box’ pattern, start with that formation first. Keep this in mind – if you play only the notes in the pattern, you CANNOT make a mistake! Granted, a certain note may be a better choice over a particular chord in the progression, but you won’t hit a WRONG note. That should be somewhat comforting! If you screw it up a little bit, who cares? And, still using the box pattern, remember the following phrase:
First finger, minor – little finger, major! This is a great, and easy, way to know which key you’re playing in. Start the pattern with the first finger for a minor pentatonic, and start the same pattern with the fourth finger for a major pentatonic. Pay attention to the roots and go back to them often!
The next set of diagrams for playing pentatonic scales on the guitar provides alternate fingering suggestions. You have four fingers, so don’t shy away from using all of them (you will anyway, probably – so stop it!). But, changing the fingering will often provide easier access to notes in an adjoining pattern and lend more speed and fluidity to your playing. In fact, the following patterns are preferable!
Instead of starting the A minor pentatonic with your first finger, switch to your third. Without moving your hand position, you can now play G and A on the bottom string, C and D on the fifth string, and then slide up two frets to an E. You’re back on home ground in the box pattern!
Rather than starting the C major pentatonic on the bottom string with your little finger, slip into the scale pattern just below the box pattern, and start with your first finger on the fifth string. Let’s call this one the ‘one, three, slide’ pattern. Every time your first finger is on the root, think, ‘one, three, slide . . . one, three . . . one, three, slide . . . one, three’ and so on. If you start on the fifth string, just one slide gets you back to the box position.
After experimenting with the patterns for a while, does your soloing still sound dull and boring? Well, learning how to solo with pentatonic scales isn’t just about hitting the correct notes – it’s more about how you play them. Vibrato, string bending, and phrasing are crucial elements for playing great leads on the guitar.
If you sustain a note for a beat or two, always add vibrato. Fast or slow, it doesn’t matter – make that note sing! Instead of playing two consecutive notes on adjacent strings, try bending a note up to the desired pitch. Remember to bend notes up a whole step in pitch. When bending a string, though, be careful. Don’t bend it too far and hit the note sharp – that’s ‘no man’s land’, and it’s tough to recover. It’ll sound like stepping on the cat’s tail! If, unfortunately, you’re under the pitch, you can still ‘fish’ for it until you find the sweet spot. The best notes to bend in a minor pentatonic scale are the third, fourth, and seventh. The best notes to bend in a major pentatonic scale are the second and fifth.
Phrasing is the most important element of playing lead guitar with pentatonic scales (or any scale, for that matter). Just like connecting sentences cohesively to construct a meaningful paragraph, a guitar solo should be a combination of sculpted phrases. Your collection of musical thoughts will, ideally, lead to a logical conclusion.
Howard Roberts, the renowned jazz guitarist, once said, “You spend the first half of your playing life learning what to play . . . you spend the last half learning what not to play.” Words of wisdom! So, slow down and make every note count. A ten note, carefully crafted phrase can be far more effective than a flurry of fifty, unintelligible notes.
Just for fun, select a group of only four or five notes in the pentatonic scale box pattern, and play them in a different style – country, slow blues, fast blues, boogie, funk, hard rock, metal, chill, etc. You’ll be amazed by what a few notes can do! Now, play the same licks starting on the same root in a different position on the neck. You’ll soon become adept at transitioning between the patterns for major and minor pentatonic scales. You’ll be able to play on the full fretboard with ease and confidence.
The bottom line – regardless of genre, knowing how to solo with pentatonic scales will make you sound great! Congratulations . . . you’re officially a lead guitar player! Cool, huh?