I think all guitarists go through this phase at some point: You’re playing a bunch of rock classics in a covers band at the local bar… it’s time for a solo and you throw in everything but the kitchen sink in an effort not to play the same old tired pentatonic licks you probably got bored of as soon as you learned them but wait… unless you’re playing to a room full of guitarists, people love this stuff! They want to hear it—perhaps you don’t want to play it—but they want to hear it! You may also secretly begrudge guitarists that play nothing but cheesy pentatonic licks and get all the plaudits after the gig; I know I do.
If you’ve been to Music College or been forced to spend a lot of time with a bunch of guitarists under some other circumstance, you may also frown upon pentatonic licks and believe them to be somewhat basic, or even retarded. If you’re coming from that kind of environment the last thing you probably want to do is partake in the Chuck Berry school of guitar soloing but… what they also say at Music College is that you need to suck it up play what the song requires (unless you’re Jeff Beck and can take it to some mystical place or play some lick no one else would ever have thought of) instead of trying to superimpose some Steve Vai style acrobatics over the solo to Rockin’ In the Free World [cringe].
I too shied away from pentatonic licks until a recent gig where the setlist was rock classics and nothing else. The trouble was we only had ten or so tunes so we had to extend them, and the responsibility for doing that in a 3-piece usually falls on the guitarist’s shoulders. It was a small venue and the crowd were up and dancing, the songs couldn’t end, especially as there were balloons and shit everywhere. I’m a couple of minutes into the second solo in La Grange and running out of ideas. I’ve abused the Clapton Pentatonic Box to death and now’s not the time for exotic scales or some cringeworthy diminished run. Suddenly my fingers gravitated to the Chuck Berry hand position and a bunch of excessively repetitive licks spewed forth; believe me I felt dirty but the crowd loved it.
As it was a small venue I got to talk to some of the crowd after the gig. I was surprised at comments like, ‘It was as if you were playing melodies from all those 60s rock and roll numbers, I could hear a bunch of other songs in there, it was great!’ I have to admit it felt good, and the dirtiness I’d previously felt subsided as I basked in the glory of the reaction to my newly resurrected repertoire of once vetoed pentatonic licks.
The Moral of the Story
I guess the moral of the story is, ‘suck it up and play what the song requires’, which will serve you well in almost any playing situation. By the way, if you want to add a few of those tried and tested lick to your soloing repertoire, just in case, check out this lesson which features more than enough to extend any classic rock track.
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