Typically, lead guitar players (at least the good ones) don't simply run through an entire scale and try to pass it off as their own solo.
Because scales are structural.
They are a static construct.
In other words, they're templates and not finished products. Thus, using them properly and effectively to create lead guitar patterns means we have to view them as structural guidelines for building melody.
Memorized structures go into our brain and creative, melodic solos are the output.
This article is about the process by which we can go from stale, soulless renditions of memorized scales to creative and melodic lead guitar runs.
We'll look at how to use segments of pentatonic scales as frameworks to build more interesting solos and melodies.
Supplemental Material for Learning Pentatonic Scales
Guitar Tricks has a ton of additional material on pentatonic scales and solo building. Here are a few I'd recommend checking out as supplemental to the material we're going to cover in this lesson:
- Major Scale Patterns and Positions
- Scales into Solos: Minor Pentatonic
- Scales into Solos: Major Pentatonic
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You can checkout my full review of Guitar Tricks here for more information.
Why Pentatonic Scales?
Whether consciously, or simply out of habit, most guitar players quickly build a distinct familiarity with simple pentatonic scales and patterns. The reason is that most common forms of the pentatonic scale (particularly minor pentatonics) allow you to avoid triplets.
Triplets, for example, would look like this:
Triplets guitar tab pattern. (View Larger Image)
As you can tell, this is far more labor-intensive for your hands and fingers than the familiar dual interval patterns offered by many pentatonic scales. You'll notice the above tab is in 3/4 time, which means we have three beats per measure, thus we can't divide each measure into two, like we would in 4/4 time.
Now, take the minor pentatonic scale with its root on the sixth fret:
The minor pentatonic scale with its root at the sixth fret. (View Larger Image)
While we can play any scale in any time signature, the minor pentatonic fits nicely into each 4/4 measure, because we can group each pair of intervals.
Instead of playing 1-2-3 we can play 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, etc.
This is how we take short segments of pentatonic scales to develop familiar templates and structures that will help us build better solos and melodies. Pentatonic scales make this process easier because they can be quickly recalled and are extremely easy to improvise, considering how we've grouped the notes into pairs of two.
Here's a rough look at the process:
- Memorize a simple pentatonic scale at a particular fret position
- Identify segments of that scale to use as a structural template for your solo
- Begin building the solo from your template by adding notes and applying technique (bends, vibrato, etc.)
I'll cover some of the most common pentatonic shapes but, keep in mind this process can work with any scale regardless of how simple or complicated it might be.
You can follow along with the scales I use if you want to stick with our established context.
Minor Pentatonic Guitar Scale with Root on the Third Fret (key of C)
Minor pentatonic scale, third fret form in the key of C. (View Larger Image)
Starting with the full scale shape we can pull out sections to use for improvising.
We can visualize the process by extrapolating a segment from the full pentatonic pattern. (View Larger Image)
I've started with the notes on the fifth and sixth strings, giving me this section:
Segment from the minor pentatonic scale. (View Larger Image)
From here, I can add slides, bends and vibrato to create a more dynamic and improvised lead melody.
Let's expand on this pattern by adding the interval from the same scale at the third string.
Segment from the minor pentatonic scale. (View Larger Image)
Again, we can expand on our previous pattern.
It's certainly not the most beautiful thing, by any means, but it's a good example of how these pieces can lead to much longer solos and melodies.
Now, to bring the melody higher, let's focus on the notes from the three highest strings in the aforementioned scale. Once we have a pattern developed there, we can bring the two shapes together, going from low to high or vice versa.
You can often divide a scale by the top and bottom three strings. (View Larger Image)
Here's the entire solo I've improvised for all three bars.
Again, not dazzling but, it illustrates the concept.
We've taken three simple pentatonic scale segments and built an entirely unique and melodic solo. We've also developed a familiarity with three different soloing "templates" (each expanding on the one prior) that can be utilized at any fret and in any key.
Just for quick review, here are those templates again:
Let's repeat the process with a blues pentatonic scale, this time in the key of G.
Pentatonic Blues Scale with Root on the Third Fret (key of G)
Blues pentatonic scale in the key of G in the third fret form. (View Larger Image)
Again, we'll break this scale up into three sections.
This time, instead of having each section build off the previous one, I'll extrapolate three different segments of the scale.
First, I'll isolate this grouping of five notes on the fifth and fourth strings.
And the tab sheet:
Keep in mind, the segments you choose to target don't all have to be in horizontal order. For example, my next grouping uses three different notes from the top three strings.
And a rather simple translation to tablature:
For our last segment, we'll grab all five notes on the two highest strings (high E and B).
And a suggested tab arrangement:
Here's another solo I came up with based on the last two scale segments we've isolated.
Now again, there are better solos that could have been written from this pattern. Yet, the method and application of the scale is still illustrated.
Instead of playing straight up and down the pattern, I've used timing, technique and note arrangement to create something entirely new and unique that is rooted in the same scale and key.
You might also notice that I didn't stick too strictly with the shape of either pattern.
I basically melded the two together to create a longer solo.
If a note is not in the particular segment you've chosen, but still in the parent scale, you can still use it. The segments are merely suggestions and not rigid boundaries that can't be stretched within the bounds of music theory.
Summary and Further Application
Pentatonic scales are uniquely easy to break down and use in segments.
This is why I don't often find myself memorizing entire pentatonic patterns. While that practice does have value, I'm far more likely to make progress with a small sample as opposed to a larger group of notes.
Anytime you want to build a solo, or some kind of melody, this is an acceptable plan of action. The theory involved goes in this order:
- Chord Progressions
First, you choose a key which gives you a sequence of notes and the chord progressions (or bass lines) thereof.
If you don't have chord progressions established (you just want to build solos) you go straight from the scale to the melody.
Then, use the scale as a reference to provide structure for your own creativity.
And this process can be followed regardless of the scale or mode you're using. Any time you have a sequence of notes that resolve, you can arrange, apply technique and establish timing as you see fit. You're probably better off spending your time doing that as opposed to simply memorizing one scale after another.
Your Thoughts and Questions About Simple Pentatonic Scales
To be clear, this is a small piece of the theory puzzle involved with scales and building solos. However, knowing this component will allow you to take a scale and do something with it, instead of just bank it in your memory without serving a purpose.
If you have questions about pentatonic scales or building solos out of them, drop them in the comments section below.
References and Works Cited
"Guitar Scales." Guitar Orb. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 May 2017.
Guitar Scales. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 May 2017.
Flickr Commons Image Courtesy of Kmeron