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The Minor Pentatonic

If you are a rock, blues, jazz, funk, heavy metal, or country guitar player, the first solo you ever played would probably have been in the minor pentatonic scale. Why? Just because. This handy little scale can adapt itself to any song and any style. It’s like a symbiotic organism to contemporary and popular musical pieces. Move it back three frets, and – voila! – it becomes the major pentatonic scale. Needless to say, personally, it’s the scale I use the most. Let me rephrase that, it’s the only scale I use. Put an extra half step here and there to spice it up, throw in hammer-ons and pull-offs, sliding notes, bends and exaggerated vibratos, and you have yourself a nice little gadgetry of soloing power that will knock everyone out of their socks!

I’m not going to go into great lengths explaining the minor pentatonic scale from a music theory point of view, or some esoteric essay as to how it becomes part of your guitar-human essence. This brief column is to draw out the scale and show a few variations of it. For the more advanced guitar gods out there, this columns is sure to be “one of many”, but I hope I can reach the diamonds-in-the rough beginners and pass on some knowledge and tricks I have come across over the twenty or so years I have been playing guitar.

Here is the A-minor pentatonic scale in its purest form:

Figure 1 – The minor pentatonic scale: up and down

I like to think of scales from a visual standpoint on the fretboard. The previous scale originates and stays on the fifth fret, and in my mind looks like this:

String

5th fret

6th fret

7th fret

8th fret

1

1

4

2

1

4

3

1

3

4

1

3

5

1

3

6

1

4

Figure 2 – The minor pentatonic scale “box”

The numbers represent the fingers:
1 – Index
2 – Middle
3 – Ring
4 – Pinky

There are various lessons that talk about “boxes”, this is the first one. The box method is also very useful way of looking at minor pentatonic scales, because they give you the flexibility and versatility of applying the scale in multiple places across the entire fretboard. But we won’t talk about those here… I do recommend you research these “boxes” later. Weird, wild stuff.

For all my fellow beginners, you must memorize this scale, or pattern, or fingering, or shape. Practice it over and over again. Use downward picking, upward picking, alternate picking, play it slow, play it fast, shift it to different locations on your fretboard. Choose the best representation of the scale that takes you away from thinking about it. Have you ever seen The Karate Kid? You know, “Karate not here. Karate not here. Karate here.” The same rule applies to the minor pentatonic scale. Don’t think it – feel it… breathe it… live it… be it.

The other important thing to know is which one to use. By which one, I mean which key to use. For example, if you know a song is in A-minor, you should use the A-minor pentatonic scale. If a song is in C-major, you should use the… the… anyone? Bueller? Bueller? Again, the A-minor pentatonic scale, because C-major and A-minor are close relatives. Kinda like G-major and E-minor. As you play along your favorite MP3s, you will discover the beauty of immediately knowing what key the song is in and quickly dive into a sweet and soulful pentatonic solo. This is a skill you need to master in order to use the scale.

Now to throw in some twists. Here’s a variation of the A-minor pentatonic scale with a different “shape”. It sounds the same, though.

Figure 3 – The minor pentatonic scale: with sliding notes

Here’s the first scale shown in this column, but with some “extra notes”, which gives it a more bluesy feel. You’ll notice that there are half-step runs on the fifth and third strings, or chromatic.

Figure 4 – The minor pentatonic scale: with flattened fifths

This is another variation of the A-minor pentatonic scale, similar to the previous one, but with the chromatic runs in different locations of the scale. You’ll hear this scale shift from minor to major during these runs. Very bluesy, indeed.

Figure 5 – The minor pentatonic scale: with sharpened thirds

Now, the following variation of the A-minor pentatonic scale has “extra notes” almost everywhere. This example will give you ideas about where to add color, flavor and texture to the scale.

Figure 6 – The minor pentatonic scale: with chromatic embellishment

Here’s the finger/fret distribution of the previous scale:

String

5th fret

6th fret

7th fret

8th fret

1

1

3

4

2

1

3

4

3

1

2

3

4

1

2

3

5

1

2

3

6

1

4

Figure 7 – The minor pentatonic scale “box” (variation)

As a more advanced example, here is a downward run using the A-minor pentatonic scale using a series of hammer-ons, pull-offs and “extra notes”:

Figure 8 – The minor pentatonic scale: application example

Thanks for tuning in, and keep on rocking!

Carlos Walter

http://www.myspace.com/carloswalter

http://www.youtube.com/user/carloswalter1975

http://www.reverbnation.com/carloswalter

http://www.mp3.com/artist/carlos-walter/

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