Soop's Pentatonic School

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  1. #1

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    Soop's Pentatonic School

    Alright, I decided to do something useful and constructive with my 5,000th post instead of rattle off smartass remarks and random Internet memes. Ergo, I've started this thread, which will develop into a series of instruction on pentatonic scales, how to use them freely across the fretboard, and how to do anything BUT make them sound boring and stale. I've decided that instead of posting a massive missive on the subject, I'll break the subject matter into shorter digestible lessons.

    Throughout, I apply the disclaimer that I am only teaching what I know from my years as a music student and a guitar player. I may have different ways of explaining concepts or different terms for common concepts than others, but music is not a highly standardized field outside of the realm of classical and perhaps jazz. If I print a genuine error, please feel free to bring it to my attention.

    "But I've got my philosophy..."

    To start, I think pentatonics are among the most misunderstood and underrated areas of theory and technique among modern guitarists. It's easy to look down on a player for "just ripping out a bunch of pentatonic riffs," or to dismiss the concept as too "simple" since it cuts out considerable opportunity for color shading with missing tones from the diatonic sound. I believe, however, that no single tool in the aspiring soloist's toolbox is more important than mastering the many facets of pentatonic scales and figuring out how to correctly apply them.

    Pentatonics ab initio

    Customarily, music is defined by a 12-tone scale spanning each octave... A B C D E F G, with a whole pile of little #'s and b's tossed in to mark the half steps between the wholes. However, music that randomly uses all of the possible tones all over the place sounds a bit disjointed and has no clear color.

    As a result, we tend to limit our vocabulary so that we may speak more clearly; the foundation of Western music is the major scale, a diatonic scale, which means it is comprised of only 7 tones. One drawback of a diatonic scale, however, is that there are still plenty of opportunities to play "wrong notes," e.g. a note that does not follow the modal tone implied by a chord progression. The song might be in C major, but the C major scale might not always sound right or might have shaky spots.

    Enter the pentatonic scale, a further restriction of our note vocabulary. A pentatonic scale, by definition, only has five tones. The goal of the scale is basically to eliminate strong "color" notes which have the highest potential for creating discord. It is the most "vanilla" of the scales mentioned thus far, but it also reduces risk to an improviser and carries a distinctive, familiar sound.

    The minor pentatonic scale

    This is METALGUITARIST.ORG, so let's not fuck about, shall we? While the foundation of Western music is the diatonic major scale, rock and metal's favorite sounds come from the various minor-sounding modes pulled from it. They're just more badass.

    In terms of interval values, the most common minor-sounding mode, Aeolian ("natural") minor, is constructed as:


    From it, the pentatonic minor is constructed as:


    Note that all we've done is remove the 2nd and flatted 6th degrees from the Aeolian mode.


    Well, what if instead of Aeolian, the underlying chord progression instead implies a Dorian sound with a major 6th interval? Go ahead and shred some flatted 6ths over such a progression, and you'll sound like shit. Some might call it "jazzy," but unless you sell it pretty well, it's just going to be shit. Since the pentatonic minor has eliminated 6th scale degrees entirely, it can freely be used over either progression and will still sound fine.

    The same applies for a Phrygian-sounding progression. That pesky flatted 2nd degree will clash if one tries to play the natural minor scale over it, but with the pentatonic minor, you're still golden.

    This is all very well and good, but get on with it!

    Alright then, I'm putting you to work. If you want to master the pentatonic scale, you need to spend a lot of time with it so that it falls under your fingers effortlessly.

    "But Soop, that's like all I do, man! Pentatonics FTW!"

    "Ah yes, but did you know you could play them outside of the general 12th fret region?"

    It's true! The fact that everybody picks up and gets entirely too cozy in the E minor pentatonic scale box is one of the principle reasons that more experienced players like to shit on this scale.


    The box (vertical pattern of intervals) with which everyone is most familiar is called Box 1, where the lowest point of the box holds the root/tonic/"1" of the scale. All examples in this section are in A pentatonic minor, both because it has no sharps or flats and because it gets us away from familiar territory.

    Root notes (A's) are marked with an *.

    Box 1, A minor pentatonic

    • Play this shape approximately 1000x, or more if you're not bored yet.
    • Use only your 1st and 3rd fingers (develop that 3-fret stretch slowly if it feels uncomfortable). I also recommend strict alternate picking.
    • Try not to think of the exercise in terms of fret numbers or note names, but as a pattern of intervals. This will make it easier to shift to other keys later. Keep reminding yourself which box you're in.
    • Play as slowly as you need to, with a metronome, such that you play cleanly and without missing any notes after you've got the pattern memorized.
    • When you do get bored, try double-, triple-, or quadruple-picking the pattern (i.e. 5555-8888-5555-8888-5555-7777...)
    • Put your guitar in your lap the next time you're watching an episode of the Simpsons or something else you're familiar with. Zone out, don't watch the fretboard, and just slowly and carefully run the scale up and down, burning the pattern in.
    • Challenge yourself to name the scale intervals aloud as you go: "1, flat 3, 4, 5, flat 7, 1..." When you're doing this, make it a point to stop at the 1's and get a feel for where the tonic notes are. They're important for resolving lines.

    Once you've worked that a whole bunch (seriously, work on it for a day or two at least!) continue in a methodical fashion on to the rest of the boxes in this key.

    Box 2

    Box 3

    Box 4

    Box 5

    And just for good measure, here's Box 1 again, but at the higher octave. We're going to eventually build a loop that lets us connect everything across the whole board, so it makes sense to be able to play every available box.

    Box 1 (higher octave)

    Can you play Box 5 below the lower-octave Box 1? Give it a whirl.

    That's all for now

    I understand that there isn't anything terribly "musical" in these examples, but have some faith that we're going somewhere with this. Even if you're pretty good at ripping out some Zakk Wylde licks, most people aren't familiar with all the boxes and how they relate sequentially, and it never hurts to study things you think you're already familiar with.

    With that, I'm going to grab my metronome and work a couple of these myself.

    Thanks for keeping me around!
    Making metal every night and day.

  2. #2

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    Thanks, I'll read into this some more tommorow morning

  3. #3

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    Very excited about this. Though sometimes rightfully so, pentatonics get a bad rap. There are players (guitar and otherwise) whose entire careers are based on playing INSANE stuff that is mostly nothing more than interesting uses of pentatonics. The big one that comes to mind is Scott Henderson. So much of what that guy plays is just completely out of this world, but can be boiled down to into some crazy pentatonic substitution.

  4. #4

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    nice lesson Soop! and 5k posts since may? is there some secret bullshit thread I don't know about?

    Don't worry about people talking behind your back, it just means you're one step ahead and they're in perfect position to kiss your ass!

  5. #5

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    Thanks for the lesson, Soop. I've only just realized how useful Pentatonics can be and I'll definitely be utilizing your help. I always thought they were just a lazy scale for wanky guitarists

    But then I saw this video:

    0:39 and again at 1:40
    [VIDEO]]YouTube - seminario rosenwinkel[/VIDEO]

  6. #6

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    Seriously, any guitarist who isn't familiar with the five pentatonic boxes really shouldn't consider themself a guitarist. Or, at least, a lead guitarist.

    Also worth a look - three-note-per string pentatonic patters. Thanks for posting this, man!
    "They can kill you, but the legalities of eating you are a bit dicier." - David Foster Wallace

  7. #7

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    I personally don't care for the minor pentatonic scale. I really like half steps, and the minor pentatonic eliminates all of the half steps, unless you add the #4 blues note.

    Just my personal style, but I just don't use them much at all.

  8. #8

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    Quote Originally Posted by Seanbabs View Post
    I personally don't care for the minor pentatonic scale. I really like half steps, and the minor pentatonic eliminates all of the half steps, unless you add the #4 blues note.

    Just my personal style, but I just don't use them much at all.
    No half steps within the scale. Not necessarily within the harmony, though.

    One of the coolest ideas I've ever gotten came from a guy I studied under in college. It's pretty straightforward - seventh chords are basically stacked thirds, so you can look at them as either a major triad with an added 7th (the standard bottom up approach) or a triad with a different note in the bass (kind of a top down look). So, Fmaj7 can be thought of as an F chord with an added note a third above the 5th (F-A-C-E), or also as am Am chord (A-C-E) with an F in the bass. If you then use an Am pentatonic over an F, you're implying a whole bunch of other tones - A-C-D-E-G against an F gives you your M3, 5, M6, M7, and M9th, implying more of a 9th harmony. It's more of an arpeggio-like sound, but it's a cool one.

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