It seems guitarists are a bunch of whiners. As soon as they get something down they consider it old hat and start trawling the internet for articles and videos about how to stop doing the very thing they just learned how to do, or how to get out of some box they spent 3 months woodshedding. This happens a lot with Pentatonic Scales—no sooner do we get them down (well maybe the first three patterns) than we tire of them and start trying to learn modes, or some other scary shit like tapping. It’s at this point that you should consider expanding your pentatonic repertoire instead discarding it like some well-traded groupie.
As any self-respecting guitarist knows, pentatonic scales will cover your ass in any number of playing situations, as long as you don’t find yourself in some kind of jazz contingency. Some players’ entire careers are based on pentatonic scales, and rightly so due to their prowess, and getting some very palatable sounds out of just five notes. Pentatonics are less tedious to learn than say, major scales, as you’re able to memorize the pattern quicker and get to the fun part sooner—actually using them to make music—but they soon become stale and it gets difficult to play anything remotely fresh-sounding.
If you’re trying to incorporate something new into your playing, or get some fresh ideas, the best thing to do first is some serious listening. We need to open our minds a little so put the guitar to one side and whip on some Eric Johnson (preferably live) or some Robben Ford. I chose these two players as they both use pentatonic scales in order to get their very distinct sounds. Eric uses them in a very logical way to create fast, melodic walls of sound while Robben is the absolute master of phrasing where pentatonics are concerned. If you’re not a fan of either then thrown on some Joe Bonamassa, everyone likes that guy, plus his sound is pretty much Eric Johnson meets Gary Moore; check out the two of them floppin’ dicks to Crossroads in this vid.
Jon Finn goes into this and explains it well in his book Advanced Modern Rock Guitar Improvisation, which you should definitely get yourself a copy of, but I’ll try to outline it here. There are a couple of things that Eric does, I don’t know whether consciously or not, but one of them is to play multiple pentatonic scales from the key of the song. For example, if the song’s in A minor then you can always play A minor pentatonic, but when you run out of licks you can play E minor pentatonic (E, G, A, B, D, E) or even D minor pentatonic (D, F, G, A, C, D) and they’ll still work. Why? They all contain notes from the A natural minor scale (A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A), but because of the pentatonic patterns you’re juggling them around and emphasizing notes and combinations you wouldn’t think to play in A natural minor… beautiful sleight of hand. It’ll sound a little weird at first but once you get hold of it, there’s plenty to be milked. Remember: just the play the minor pentatonic scale starting on the note that’s a fourth or fifth above the one you usually play. You can also do this with major pentatonics, for example, if you’re in C major then you can play either F major or G major pentatonic with the exact same logic.
If you’re more inclined to the blues/jazz end of pentatonics then Robben Ford has a couple of tricks up his sleeve. One of them is to play the diminished scale over 7 chords in a blues, but we won’t go into that here; the other is to use sixes instead of sevens at every opportunity.
Simply take the b7 out of a minor pentatonic and replace it with a natural 6, you can also still throw in the b5 for good effect and play this scale over a 7 chord, a minor chord or use it to blow through a blues in the key of your choice. I like it.
More insight from Robben
Before you give pentatonics the old heave-ho, make sure you’ve got the blending of the major and minor pentatonics down in blues playing, as Robben goes into in the video below. This will instantly make you go from mediocre blues player to halfway decent in a couple of hours. Check it out.