Quick Hit: How to use the D major pentatonic scale to build guitar exercises, basic scale runs and improvised melody.
Good guitar players know their scales and not just to the extent they've memorized patterns. They understand guitar scales as structures that can be used to build melody.
It has always amazes me how effectively Joe Satriani uses modes to do this. Despite playing a lot of notes in all of his songs, the melodies are always catchy and memorable, while still allowing the base scale and mode to be well-represented and easily deciphered.
To get good at this, you've got to do the following:
- Know and memorize guitar scales (brute force memorization)
- 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 beginner lesson we'll walk through the above process using the D major pentatonic scale with subsequent guitar tabs and diagrams. Once we're familiar with a workable scale shape, we'll do some extremely basic exercising and applying of that pattern. If you want to cover additional topics, go to our how to play guitar start page.
Using this Content
This article is ideal for self-taught guitar students, kids first learning guitar or guitar teachers looking for a printable resource they can use to build a strong tutoring-style guitar lesson. Feel free to use the content, graphics and format of this article, but if you refer to it in another website or publication, please credit Guitar Chalk and refer to this article's URL.
First, let's look at once of the most useful forms of the D major pentatonic scale on a guitar's fretboard.
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The D Major Pentatonic Scale Pattern
There are plenty of different sites you can use to explore and reference guitar scales, though my preferred stop is all-guitar-chords.com. They have a PHP guitar scale generator that allows you to select all of the following variables, and generates a scale graphic:
- Pattern Type (fret location)
- Chord or Key
- Scale Type
Go to the above URL and select the fifth fret form, key of D and "Pentatonic Major." It should look like the following screenshot:
I like this method because it allows you to extract forms and segments of scales based on fretboard position without having to deal with full fret diagrams (all guitar scales continue in both directions). Let's go ahead and setup our pattern in a guitar scale diagram that's a bit easier to read than the screenshot.
D Major Pentatonic scale guitar Diagram (Fifth Fret Form)
Now that we've built a diagram for reference, we can build some simple tabbed guitar exercises to help us work through the notes and memorize the pattern. I'll use Guitar Pro 7 to build the tabs and record the audio.
Building Exercises from the Scale Pattern
Start by ascending through half the scale and then descending back to the starting note, just to get a feel for the intervals. Keep in mind the location (and tone) of the root D notes at the fifth and seventh frets. Those will serve as reference points for the scale and key that you're playing in.
Use your pinky finger to stretch and grab the notes that extend from the fourth to the seventh fret.
You can expand the exercise by starting in the middle of the scale pattern, at the fourth fret. For example, start on the fourth string and play through to the second, like this:
Play through these patterns a few times, starting at different strings and building up speed as you go. For reference, the tempo on the recordings is set at about 80 BPM, which is fairly slow.
It's a pretty simple way to exercise the scale and build some muscle memory. Good guitar exercises are (unfortunately) fairly boring and shouldn't be over-thought.
In the next scale exercise we expand our pattern to the high E string, before descending all the way back down to the first note on the low E. In simpler terms, we play the scale all the way through twice, once forwards and once backwards.
A good indication of how well you know the scale shape is whether you can play it through without looking at the fretboard.
Now that we've gone through the shape in its entirety, let's work on moving it from the fifth fret form, thus changing the key.
Use a basic lateral fretboard exercise to accomplish this:
This idea can easily expand by moving the pattern up and down the fretboard in either direction, to any fret you choose. Try a few different frets until you've become familiar with the pattern and can play it comfortably, backwards and forwards, at different frets.
A good indication of how well you know the scale shape is whether you can play it without looking at the fretboard.
Once you're comfortable with it, we can start applying the scale to form more melodic note runs.
In other words, we can start improvising lead guitar.
Improvising & Building Melody with the D Major Pentatonic Scale
At this point you've memorized an extremely common form of the D major pentatonic scale. Now it's time to apply that scale to create some kind of melody.
This can take the form of an extremely simple interpretation of the pattern, perhaps just a few notes with some bluesy technique applied:
This tab is in the key of D and is based on the D major pentatonic scale. It's simply four notes selected from the scale with a slide and full bend. This is an extremely basic form of improvisation.
We can build on this idea by moving laterally, up the fretboard, adding notes and varying balance between eighth and quarter notes:
In our second improvisation example, we've combined eighth and quarter notes with some basic lead guitar technique, creating a somewhat musical and memorable melody line. This helps get some creative distance between what we're playing and the scale from which it originated.
This is how we can play something impovised, yet an educated listener could still tell that it's derived from a pentatonic major scale.
Let's look at one more example:
Again, we are not strictly following the order of the scale, rather using it as a boundary to inform and help govern our creativity. Instead of guessing, or relying on a single pattern from muscle memory, we've successfully followed 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
We've used the key of D, the major pentatonic scale and only one form of that scale. What if we wanted to branch out? You could change any of those three variables:
- Move to a different key (C major pentatonic scale)
- Move to a different scale (D Dorian scale)
- Move to a different fret form (D major pentatonic positioned at the 10th fret)
If you simply wanted a different form of the D major pentatonic scale, you could go back to the web page we started with and select the 10th fret pattern:
From there, we can build another scale diagram, which is simply a higher segment of the same scale:
This pattern can go through the same process as the one at the fifth fret, thus creating a new melody or solo. Going through this exercise helps fight our tendency to rely on muscle memory during improvisation. Instead, this gives us a smaller chunk of a scale to memorize before forcing us to apply some creativity.
Just like we did with the fifth 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.
Further, any single guitar scale can give you a ton of different patterns to work with. Fight the urge to move on too quickly. Keys give you tons of scales and every scale gives you 12 fret forms with countless melodies and segments within that form. A flow chart of this process would look something like this:
In other words, when you understand how keys, scales and melody all link together, your creative opportunities expand, exponentially.
It's important to mention that the scale, while important for context, is not the point of this guitar lesson. Sure, it gives us a grid on which to create, but it's more like a bland canvas than a finished painting. There's nothing to it until you've figured out how it can be applied.
Without that application, a memorized scale doesn't help much, especially the super-long, fretboard length scales.
That's why I recommend breaking your scales down and work on drawing melody out of them in small, easy to manage pieces. Under this system, you'll get a lot more mileage out of each scale you take the time to memorize.
Ask a Question
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.
Flickr Commons image via WeronickaOI