PENTATONIC VARIATIONS New notes for a familiar scale
Richard Barrett investigates new ways to play our favourite scale with 10 fully transcribed bespoke examples and fantastic backing tracks.
Who doesn’t love Pentatonics? They’re the backbone of so much that we play, but can also be boring and predictable. Let Richard Barrett show you the simple but musical solution!
We’ve all been there – your turn comes to show what you’re made of and you come away feeling there is a level of improvisation that still eludes you; that you’re trapped inside the ‘box’ Pentatonic shapes. Before we go any further, I should point out that this isn’t in itself a terrible thing. Many classic – even iconic – guitar solos have been created within this relatively limited framework. However, this is no reason to rest on one’s laurels – after all, is there a guitarist out there who doesn’t want to up their game in one way or another?
The concept of this feature is to point out some of the altered patterns that are available to the player who wants to expand their Pentatonic ‘comfort zone’, rather than enter a twilight world of unfamiliar scales and start again from scratch.
As any committed Pentatonic user will tell you, there are interchangeable Major and Minor patterns to fit over their corresponding Major and Relative minor chords, and vice versa. I’m sure most GT readers fall into this category and happily use these devices all the time. And you wouldn’t be in bad company just listen to any of the blues greats, as well as later blues-rockers like Clapton, Hendrix, SRV, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and so on; they all do it, and brilliantly so. But there is more!
It’s a great skill to be able to add selected ‘extra’ notes in to either reflect what’s happening in the chord changes, or even superimpose an interesting harmonic angle over a simple bass and drum or power chord backing, where so much of the way the music’s tonality is perceived is down to the soloist’s choice of notes.
Jimmy Page’s repeated use of F in what is otherwise a straight up ‘A Minor Pentatonic’ in the Stairway To Heaven solo is a glaringly obvious example. Alternatively, take any Pentatonic and add in the or ’blue’ note (to create the ‘Blues scale’) and you’ll see how much this changes the character and possibilities of what is essentially the same grouping of notes on the fretboard. Even hardened ‘jazz’ players like Kenny Burrell and Johnny Smith, or sophisticated bluesers such as Larry Carlton and Robben Ford, use modified Pentatonic scales as the basis for much of their soloing, so please don’t think of this exercise as some sort of ‘cheat’.
In the 10 following examples, I’ve tried to keep the amended scales as ‘pure’ as possible, meaning I have avoided falling into too many ‘standard’ Pentatonic licks. Ideally, I suggest you go for this approach at first to really break out of any possible ruts that may have developed over time. Eventually, the idea is that you visualise the possibilities as part of those familiar shapes we all love. Most of the examples are based around a 12-bar chord sequence, to keep things relatively predictable while you build your confidence.
Always remember that improvement is generally incremental, though the ‘magic’ does happen increasingly as your comfort level expands – I guess that’s what keeps us all hooked. Hope you enjoy these ‘new and improved’ licks, and I’ll see you soon!
THE CONCEPT OF THIS FEATURE IS TO POINT OUT SOME OF THE ‘ALTERED’ PATTERNS THAT ARE AVAILABLE TO YOU