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Why Your Pentatonic Scale Does Not Sound Like Your Guitar Heroes’

Tommaso ZillioDo you struggle in making your solos sound like your guitar heroes? Are their solos more “open” and “airy” than yours? You fear you are playing too many notes? Then you need the right pentatonic scale for the job!

The majority of non-professional guitar players thinks that pentatonic scales are nice tools to use on a Blues or a Classic Rock track, but they have little use for them out of these contexts. I used to think the same way, and in fact I focused most of my practice on modal scales (Dorian, Phrygian, and all that). And yet, the more I studied the solos of my guitar heroes (Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Eric Johnson, and later Andy Timmons and Guthrie Gowan, just to name a few) the more I realized that they used the pentatonic scale more ofter than I would have. Not only that, but they were able to make the pentatonic sound different — as it was not a pentatonic anymore, but a modal scale or similar.

I used to be confused by all this, and it was only with the years (and a lot of music theory) that I was able to understand completely what they were doing an why. I cannot possibly be able to write here a complete theory of advanced uses for the pentatonic scales, but I want at least show you some simple tricks that can be applied in a simple way by anyone. These tricks are so simple that I am surprised they are not widespread, but i couldn’t find any online resource explaining them in an understandable way. So, here we go:

1 Pentatonic”Shifting”

We start with an idea that is as simple as it is useful. I guess that everybody knows that over a chord progression in A minor you can play a solo on the A minor pentatonic scale. This may well be one of the first thing you learned on the guitar. What you probably don’t know yet is that this is not the only scale you can use: for instance on an A minor backing track you can also use an E minor pentatonic scale. Before protesting that this is the wrong scale for the job, try it out: you will discover that actually it does sound great.

How is that possible? After all the scale seems to be in the wrong key. Well, let’s have a look more in depth: the notes in the A minor pentatonic are A C D E G. The notes in the E minor pentatonic are E G A B D. As you can see immediately, the E minor pentatonic is simply the A minor pentatonic with a B rather than a C. But this B note is not a problem, because B is still a note in the A minor key (A B C D E F G), so it’s not a wrong note at all.

With this simple trick, I just doubled the usefulness of any pentatonic lick you may know: when you are soloing over an A minor track, you can play all of your licks in the A minor pentatonic AND on the E minor pentatonic, and they will sound great (even if different) in both cases. In fact it is a good idea to try and mix the two scales when you are improvising. If you want to see how to do it, I have prepared a video lesson that shows you how to do that.

As you can see, this trick is very simple. Just because it is so simple, you can use it any time. It’s a great way to spice up a solo!

2 Pentatonic Alteration

Another simple concept that we can apply to pentatonic scales is the concept of “alteration”. By that I mean that we can take a pentatonic scale and change one of its notes in order to obtain a slightly different scale. The new scale will be similar enough to the original pentatonic so that it can be played in a similar way, and yet it will sound different.

But what note exactly should we be changing, and how? Of course this depends on what we want to do with that scale, and for this reason many different “altered” pentatonic scales do exist. I want to share with you a simple example here so to get you started. Take your A minor pentatonic scale, and play it with the note C# rather than the note C. This new scale (A C# D E G) will fit perfectly over an A7 chord, and so it is a great scale to use for a Blues. You can see some practical example of this in the advanced pentatonic video I have prepared for you.

Despite being very popular, this scale has never been considered a “standard” scale and it is thus referred to by a number of different names: Dominant Pentatonic, Mixolydian Pentatonic, Jeff Beck scale, Jan Hammer scale… To make things worse, some musicians indicate different scales with these names. This is quite confusing for somebody who is just learning it, so if you find this names in other books or articles be sure to verify what notes are actually used!

3 Pentatonic “Modal” Scale

This is a more advanced concept than the two before, but it is also one of my favourites: you can use a pentatonic scale to suggest a modal scale. Again, there is not only one way to do that, and in fact one could fill a book with all the possible ways in which this can be applied. Let’s see a simple example so that you will understand what I mean.

For this example imagine you want to solo over an A Lydian chord progression. Clearly, the most obvious scale to use in this situation is A Lydian itself, and yet it is not the only one. In fact, many advanced players would actually use a pentatonic scale instead! But which one? The A minor pentatonic sound terrible over A Lydian (try it! )

The idea here is to do something similar to what we did before by “shifting” the pentatonic, but a bit more creative. On an A Lydian chord progression you are going to play a G# minor pentatonic. Again, this seems the wrong scale for the job, but if you look at the notes involved you will see that it would work great. The notes in the A Lydian scale are A B C# D# E F# G#, and the notes in the G# minor pentatonic are G# B C# D# F#, so as you can see all the notes of the G# minor pentatonic are also present in the Lydian scale. In a sense, we can say that the G# minor pentatonic is “embedded” into the A Lydian scale.

You might at this point wonder why we go such lengths just to play the same notes as the original scale. The first reason is that by using a pentatonic scale you can use all the pentatonic licks you already know. The second and most important one is that the G# minor pentatonic does not contain all the notes of A Lydian, and these missing notes actually create a bit more “space” in the solo. It’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play! The best way to make sure of that is to just try it. Or you can watch the explanatory video on pentatonic scales that I created for you.

A Sound Is Worth A Thousand Words

It is not going to be obvious or easy to apply the concepts I explained above if you don’t hear an example or two first. This is because if you don’t know how it is supposed to sound, it is difficult for you to “make is sound”. To help you better, I have prepared for you a video on advanced pentatonic scales that you can watch by clicking on this link. In this video I will show you how I apply the concepts above to real playing situations, and I give you some tips to make it all easier. Enjoy!

About the Author

Tommaso Zillio is a professional guitarist and guitar teacher. Visit Tommaso’s site to know more about music theory for guitar.

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