Expand your Pentatonics - Guitar and other Instruments

Hi friends. In this post I'm going to show you how to expand your pentatonic scale. Before we get into exploring our pentatonic subject I'll outline this lesson is specifically for guitarists, but, other musicians can definitely benefit. Bass players, everything on the bottom four strings is fine for you. Plus, other instrumentalists you might get some cool inspiration, especially from our last example.

To quote a guitarist who placed a post about this topic on a social media site - "I only play parts of the basic minor pentatonic scale and moving it around the fretboard but it sounds really simple and not very impressive

So, how can you make your pentatonic playing not-simple and very impressive? Let's get to solving those pentatonic woes.

Most likely the pentatonic scale being discussed is the one shown below. It's actually a minor pentatonic scale. It's important to note that it is a minor pentatonic scale because that defines its relationship to your whole song and ways to enhance and expand it. For the purposes of these exercises consider this an a minor pentatonic scale. The root note (the diamond) is on the 5th fret. All of these scales are moveable (except the open e minor discussed later)

box shape pentatonic scale

Do not under-estimate this scale. It's full of gold. But, like a inspiration hungry guitarist mentioned you need to progress beyond it. The pattern above is called a 'box shape pentatonic scale'. Let's get out of the box! Take a look at the next diagram. It's the same scale expanded lengthways across the fret board.

expanded pentatonic scale

The box shaped pentatonic scale can be made out in the middle of this diagram, the shaded notes are a guide. Consider the 2nd note of this entire scale, we no longer play it on the 6th string it's now on the 5th. There's a flow on effect pushing all the notes forward.

The fingering is somewhat flexible. One reason is the role of the scale in the song/solo. You might be doing other things around this scale which mean you'll need a different fingering (it's extremely unlikely you're going to play the WHOLE scale as part of a song. Just portions of it). I highly recommend mastering the fingering given here though. For the most part your first finger remains the dominant force throughout and controls the scale movement. Your fingers won't get tied in a mess and relocating for any reason, like switching to chords or playing in a new location won't be a hassle.

Next up - expanding along each string. Take a look, then I'll discuss two ways to play this scale.

expanded box shape pentatonic scale

The first way to practice this scale is to play every single note with your first finger. The reasons are basically the same as a previous comment - by constantly relocating your finger you're always moving to a new place, where inspiration for something new might just kick in.

The other way is play each string with multiple fingers- your sixth string would use finger 1, 3, 4, your fifth string 1, 2, 4, Fourth string 1, 2, 4, and so on. Fingering for your G string can be somewhat flexible, based on your own style. Get your stretches going! But a little hand movement is ok. Again, for this your 1st finger will dominate. So, in your practice sessions reverse is 4,3, 1 and 4, 2, 1 and so on - start each string with your pinky.

A variation on the same scale.

alternate pentatonic approach

Let's go back to our original pentatonic box shape scale. You can see it in the blue notes whether they are completely blue or partially blue. Play through that scale either from 1st string to 6th or 6th to first. Then, slide your hand up and play in the reverse direction using the green notes. Swap between the patterns and the direction you travel. For instance you could start on your thin e-string with the green notes, play down to the sixth and return using your original scale.

Using this pattern is the open E position is great. There's probably not a blue or rock player who has never done this. Check the next pattern. You can see that this is based on the box shapes we've learned, however it is not movable because of all the open notes. This position is the open e minor pentatonic scale - use it behind e minor progressions, or G Major progressions.

open e minor pentatonic scale

Now, to our first hybrid scale. This version of the pentatonic scale originates in the blues. It's often used in the blues but also many rock guitarists use this scale also. Hendrix used this scale extensively throughout his rendition of All Along the Watchtower (on a side point Hendrix's version is not in a minor as the original by Bob Dylan is. Hendrix plays in C# minor, although if tuned down a semi-tone it becomes c minor). This bluesy version of the pentatonic scale includes a flatted 5th as a passing tone, but you can use it in many creative ways to add colour to your guitar playing.

 blues pentatonic scale

Lastly, we're going poly-scale. Combining two scales into one is a cool way to build extra tone into any scale. Here we're using a minor pentatonic scale plus the natural minor scale. For you modal players it's the Aeolian mode. Again, take a look then I'll discuss a few options.

a minor natural minor scale

The pentatonic scale is a derivative of a minor scale. The minor scale has 7 seven while the pentatonic scale only has 5. So... what if we retained our pentatonic scale, but, got a little cheeky and put those extra notes back at times? Firstly, how to practice this. Do the same thing as previous examples - play through your pentatonic from high to low or low to high. When you return us the complete minor scale. Or play through the natural minor scale in one direction and return using only the pentatonic.

But... how do you actually use it in a solo? Simply put, don't use those extra notes too much. Just a splash here and there. Too many notes from the natural minor and you've blow the whole pentatonic thing. These extra notes can bring a wonderful enhancement to your pentatonic wailing. Trill them, slide in or out of them, create short runs using them - but, keep it pentatonic.

In fact, you can merge this technique with the options given throughout this post, even adding the b5. It might take a little while for you to integrate these ideas into your playing and develop your own approach.

Ok, all you six-slinging bandits. Hit the bedroom, learn yourself a few new tricks then get out there and show 'em you're not just a carbon-copy pentatonic player.

As always, Happy Jamming!

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