Quick Summary: In this guitar lesson we take the C major pentatonic scale through a system of memorization and practice the creative discipline of building melody.
Great players know their scales and not just in the sense that they've memorized a pattern. They know how to do something with those scales and how to draw something musical out of a static line of notes. I've always been impressed by how effectively Joe Satriani uses modes to accomplish this. Even while playing a lot of notes in each song his melodies are always catchy and noticeable, yet the base scale or mode is well-represented.
To get good at this, you've got to do a few different things well:
- Know and memorize the scale (the boring part)
- Understand how to apply the scale and improvise
- Build a creative melody within the bounds of the scale
- Exercise the scale to reinforce memory
In this lesson we'll examine and traverse this process using the C major pentatonic scale - in a guitar context - and go after some basic application through exercises and building melody.
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Let's get started by looking at some of the most useful and common forms of the C major pentatonic scale.
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The C Major Pentatonic Scale Pattern
There are a lot of sites that you can use to grab guitar scale diagrams, though my personal favorite is all-guitar-chords.com. They have a PHP guitar scale generator that works really well. It hasn't changed in years, but it's still my go-to.
Go to the above URL and select the third fret form, key of C and "Pentatonic Major."
You can use this tool to get different forms and "segments" of the scale based on fretboard position. Let's go ahead and setup our pattern in a guitar scale diagram that's a bit easier to read.
Guitar Scale Diagram for the Third Fret Form
Now that we've built a diagram for reference, we can build some simple tabbed exercises to help us memorize the pattern. I'll use Guitar Pro 7 to build the tabs and record the audio.
Building Exercises from the Scale Pattern
We'll start by ascending through half the scale and then descending back to the starting note. Keep in mind the location (and tone) of the root C note at the third fret on the second string.
In this example we can use our ring and pinky fingers to stretch and grab the notes on the fifth fret. You could do the same thing starting at a different string. For example, you could start on the fourth string and play through the second, like this:
Play through these patterns a few times, starting at different strings and building some fretboard speed. It's a pretty simple way to exercise the scale and encourage muscle memory.
In the second exercise we expand our run to the high E string, then begin to descend a couple of notes down to the third fret on the second string. For the next exercise, let's continue our descent (playing the scale backwards), all the way down to the root note.
Now that we've gone through the shape in its entirety, let's work on moving it from the third fret form and changing the key.
We can use a simple lateral fretboard exercise to accomplish this.
You can continue moving this pattern up and down the fretboard in either direction. Go through these exercises until you've become familiar with the pattern and are able to play through it (either forward or backwards) without looking at the diagram or tab sheet.
Once you're comfortable with the shape, we can start breaking it down into more melodic note lines.
Improvising & Building Melody with the C Major Pentatonic Scale
Now that you've memorized a common form of the C major pentatonic scale, you can apply that pattern to create melody lines in the key of C. In a lot of cases, this might mean you simply follow a segment of the pattern, note-for-note, with a little bit of bluesy technique, perhaps something like this:
Let's continue to build on this idea by moving up the fretboard, adding a few more notes and mixing up the eighth and quarter note balance.
In the above measure, we've used a combination of eighth and quarter notes, along with a full bend to produce a musical and memorable melody line. We've also worked our way from the root fifth string all the way to the second, using only notes from our scale.
Let's look at one more example:
As you can see, we aren't simply following the pattern of the scale, yet we're still using it as a boundary to inform and govern our solo building or melody line. This is where music theory and lead guitar playing can help each other out. Instead of guessing, or relying on a single pattern from muscle memory, we can follow this tactic:
- Know the key you're playing in
- Identify and memorize a scale from that key
- Build melody or a guitar solo based on the structure provided by that key
In this example we've used the key of C and the major pentatonic scale. Additionally, we've used only one form (the third fret form) of the C major pentatonic scale. What if we wanted to branch out?
You could change any of those three variables.
- Move to a different key (E major pentatonic scale)
- Move to a different scale (C Dorian scale)
- Move to a different fret form (C major pentatonic positioned at the eighth fret)
For example, if you want to see a different form of the C major pentatonic, you could go back to the web page we started with and select the eighth pattern (eighth fret):
From there, we can build another scale diagram:
Now you have a fresh pattern that can go through the same process as before to create a new melody or solo. Since our tendency when improvising is to rely on muscle memory, this gives us a smaller chunk of scale to memorize (scales technically span the entire fretboard), allowing us to learn scales in a form that we can actually use.
Just like we did with the third fret form, you'd look for melody within these notes by adjusting timing and adding technique.
Try to repeat the process with other scales, scale segments and different keys.
Keep in mind that any one scale gives you a ton of different positions and shapes to work with. Fight the urge to move on too quickly. Keys give you tons of scales and each scale gives you 12 fret forms, where each form then gives you melodies and segments within that form. The flow would look something like this:
It's important to understand that the scale, though it provides context is not the point of this lesson. While a scale might give us a grid on which to work, I like to think of it as a blank canvas. There's really nothing to it until you've figured out how it can be applied.
Without proper application, a memorized scale doesn't do you a lot of good, especially if that scale is too long.
Break your scales down and work on drawing melody out of them in a way that's musical and useful. Under this system, each scale you take the time to memorize will provide a lot more mileage.
If you have questions about the lesson, want to alert me to a correction that needs to be made (we hope that's not necessary) or have other thoughts you'd like to share, feel free to do so in the comments section below.