From Pink Floyd to Metallica, John Mayer to AC/DC, Pentatonic scales are the backbone of some of the most iconic guitar solos ever written. I am truly excited to begin a series on this and I invite you to follow along with me.
Pentatonic scales are an integral part of any modern guitarists inventory when it comes to playing lead solos, riffs and improvising. So much music (and rock in particular) really exploits the power of pentatonic scales.
If you want to be a proficient lead guitarist or a decent improviser you really need to master these scales!
At the end of this post I’ve written a lead guitar solo that incorporates what we will discuss here, plus a few extra things…
I also put quite a bit of effort in to the backing tracks so it’s an enjoyable experience playing along with the exercises. If you need to listen to this first for motivation, be my guest.
Is This Series For Me?
Good question – here’s what you’ll get…
- The 5 pentatonic scale patterns
- How they are related
- Experience playing pentatonic solo’s, which will help your improvising
- Discover a practice routine to master any new scales you learn
- How to use Pentatonics in any Major or Minor Key.
- Give you confidence to use pentatonic scales in your solo
- Build a deeper knowledge of the fretboard
- Strengthen your technique
- Learn how to improvise freely over the entire fretboard
Let’s dive in and make you brilliant!
The Most Used Pentatonic Pattern In History
I still remember the day my first guitar teacher showed me this scale. It was super easy to learn and it instantly sounded great when I “improvised” with it (more like played up and down heaps of times with little variety) but hey, it was my first time.
From that moment on, I just wanted to continually get better at controlling my improvising skills, because it seemed like it just wasn’t that hard.
You see, when it come to this scale it really isn’t that hard to sound good.
Here is the A Minor Pentatonic Scale. We play it in the 5th position like this. It is probably the most used pattern in the history of humanity.
5th Position A Minor Pentatonic Example
What is a pentatonic scale exactly?
Well, it’s a 5 note scale.
Just to keep things really simple, the A minor pentatonic scale is derived from the A Natural Minor scale.
Here’s A Natural Minor:
A B C D E F G
And here’s A Minor Pentatonic
A C D E G
These five notes make up the A Minor Pentatonic Scale.
Let’s briefly talk about the “A Minor” part of this scale’s name.
I’ll make this quick.
A scale is a series of notes.
This group of notes creates a key.
A key is what we call the “home” sound of a scale. In this case, the sound of the A Minor Pentatonic scale fits like a glove over a chord progression in the same key.
So, a song with a combination of the following chords will work well with the Am pentatonic scale, because they come from the key of A minor.
Am Bdim C Dm Em F G
The backing track I’ve used for this article uses chords from this key.
The Circled X in the diagram above tells us where the root notes are. In the 5th position, these notes are all A, which is the minor key we’ll play in for all the examples in this post.
I don’t want to go to deep here because the study of keys is an important concept that you should explore in more depth. I’ll write write an artifice on that one day. In the meantime, I’m sure if you googled ‘understanding Major and Minor Keys” you’d probably find some helpful content.
We’ll cover major keys later in this series, but seriously, all we want to do for now is get into the part where you start learning shapes and sounding great.
Scale Practice Routine
The following exercises are for you to use as way of completely owning the A Minor Pentatonic scale and generating some musical ideas to solo with.
You will also develop great technique and discover a system with which to use when ever you learn a new scale.
Also, get the lesson guide, which will have all the exercises and solo in one easy place so you can totally focus on nailing this!
Ascend and Descend
This might seem obvious but a great first step to mastering a scale is playing it up (ascending) and down (descending) without any breaks. Your aim is to keep everything in time, sounding clean and well executed.
Ok, did that seem pretty easy? Good, let’s heat this up. In the above example we are playing on the beat, using 1/4 notes, using just downstrokes.
The real technique develops when you try rhythm divisions like 1/8 notes, 1/16 notes and triplets.
Here’s the same idea again but using 1/8 notes at the same tempo. This means it needs to be played twice as fast. I would suggest using alternate picking for this.
Hmmm, that’s a little bit harder. Here’s the ascending descending idea again with 1/16 notes, this means 4 notes played to every beat. We’re talking four times faster than 1/4 notes. Again, alternate picking is best here.
Phew, now we’re moving! If you struggled with this you may need to build up to it over a few days.
Now, we could also try this with triplets, but we’ll save that for another day. Instead let’s move on to a new technique for the practice routine.
This is where things get really interesting. Instead of just playing up and down the scale we going to play small groups of notes to create a more interesting musical sound, and it can work so well in solos!
What is sequencing?
We pick a number, say 3.
We’ll play the first 3 notes of the scale.
Then we go back and play the next 3 notes beginning from the second note in the scale.
Then we go back and play through the next 3 notes, starting on the 3rd note and so on.
Confused? Don’t be. Just try the exercise below and all will be revealed.
Here’s how we could do it with our A minor pentatonic scale, ascending.
And here is the same concept, descending.
This is such a great way to build coordination and add some ‘pazaz’ to your solos. Really take the time to master this at different speeds, keeping good pick control. Try to avoid pauses as you play this.
Let’s have a look at sequencing in 4, which is exactly the same deal, but we’ll play notes in groups of 4 instead of 3.
Here’s how we do it ascending.
And here’s how we do it descending.
When sequencing in 4, there are occasions where you need to roll your finger from one note to the next.
This works much better than completely taking the finger off the fretboard and then placing it on the note directly below or above. You’ll get what I mean if you try and play this example a few times. (We’ll talk more about finger rolls in a moment.)
To be honest you could sequence with any number of notes in the group and each would have a unique sound, so it’s worth exploring at some point. But for now, if you’re new to this, just stick with sequence in 3 and 4.
So far we’ve used a pick for everything, but let’s apply some ‘legato’ techniques.
What is legato?
Some kind of educational building blocks for kids?
Some kind of pasta?
Legato means ‘to play smoothly’ and on guitar this means we want to create smooth lines by using the pick less while playing notes. One way to do this is with a hammer on. In the example below we pick the first note, then the second note is triggered by our third finger “hammering on”.
Hammer On Example
Here’s how we could use this technique for the whole scale. The 4th finger might struggle at first, so give it time and go slow to start with.
Notice in the second half of this exercise we get quite an angular sound because each string’s notes are ascending, but the when we go to the next string we are getting lower in pitch? It creates a strange up and down sound that could be useful for adding interest to a solo.
How did you go with playing that?
Here’s some things to watch out for.
- Pick the first note confidently and then hammer on firmly, right behind the fret wire.
- Keep the first finger down until after the hammer on has occurred. Taking it off early kills the note.
- This is easier to do on electric guitars, if you’re using an acoustic you’ll need to use more force.
- Try to stay in time. It’s easy to go too fast with hammer on’s. Your aim is for all the notes to be evenly spaced at this stage.
This is basically the opposite of a hammer on, which we use when notes are descending.
Pull Off Example
What you want to do is pick the first note then, pull the finger off so it kind of flicks the string which triggers the next note, so we don’t need to use a pick.
How did you go with that one?
Here’s some things to watch out for.
- As you pull off the finger pull down slightly to trigger the next note, but be careful not to bend the notes, this action needs to be quite fast.
- Make sure the finger which will play the second note is already pressing the down, if you don’t do this the note won’t work.
- Don’t expect to get it perfect the first few times.
- Try to keep them in time.
We could also use slides to play scales and it has a similar sound to hammer on’s and pull off’s and is a very expressive technique, when used properly.
Again, timing is really important at this stage. A cool thing about slides is they can be used for ascending or descending.
Here’s what a slide sounds like.
Here’s how we could use slides to play up and down this scale.
The last technique we’ll look at today is Finger Rolls.
The basic idea is play a note in the scale, and then play the note on the string underneath (or above), using a finger roll. If there isn’t a note there, use the closest note with a different finger.
No idea what I am talking about?
That’s cool, just try the exercise below.
It’s tricky at first. The idea is to roll your finger up or down to the note, rather than completely taking your finger off and then putting it back on, this happened a little bit when we sequence in 4.
This technique can create some really clever sounds in a solo.
Try to avoid sustaining the first note into the second note.
Ok, so before we finish up and I give you the solo that puts all this together lets think about practice, so you get as good as you can as fast as you can.
Here’s a few points to consider.
Recognise that Jamming and practicing are not the same thing.
Jamming is more like playing and enjoying the things you’re already good at, like some favourite riffs or songs.
Practicing is purposefully trying to get better at things you’re not good at. Pay close attention to how you could improve things like clean execution of notes, efficient technique and actually learning things correctly.
This is the bit that takes discipline. You need to believe that the ‘not so fun’ things at the beginning lead to you being better in the end and therefore – way more fun!
Rehearsing is repeating something with the aim of it being performance ready, which is a little different to jamming and practicing, because it suggests you already know how to play it, it just needs fine tuning.
Knowing the difference between these elements might help you when you structure your guitar time.
If you want to go fast, go slow.
Practice solos, exercises and scales at varying speeds. The benefit of slow is so you deeply learn what you are doing.
Once you can actually play it at a reasonable speed start using a time keeping device to measure your speed and to keep your timing tight! Great players play phrases with a good sense of rhythm.
Slow gives you a chance to work out your picking directions.
Try and play up to the desired speed and then slightly faster, so the desired speed ends up feeling easy and nearly mindless.
To develop muscle memory, you’ll need to play the same things daily for a week or two.
Have you looked at your upcoming week and booked in when you’ll practice each day?
A Minor Pentatonic Solo #1
Thanks so much for making it this far. Let’s wrap this up with our first of many lead guitar solos.
This one has a straight up rock feel and is all built around the 5th position pattern we have been looking at.
Use the performance track to help you learn it.
Once you’ve done this a few times, try playing your own solos using ideas from mine or other sources you like.
Also remember to get the lesson guide which summarises everything for you to work on. Click here to download.
Want more? Check out Pentatonic Scales Part 2.
Here’s the solo. Enjoy.
P.S. If you get stuck with the solo, I have put in a slowed down track below the solo.
Solo # 1
Solo # 1 Backing
Complete Am Rock Ballad 70 BPM Backing Track
Want to try the solo slower?