I don’t know about you but I cringe when I hear a guitar player (usually in a guitar shop) scraping the A minor pentatonic barrel for all it’s worth by running up and down the scale as fast as possible. You can almost hear the tab numbers in their head… 5-8, 5-7, 5-7, 5-7, 5-8, 5-8... What’s with everyone playing exclusively in A minor anyway? I suspect this is due to it being the ‘demonstration key par excellence’ of all guitar teachers and guitar rags, second only to E minor. So how do you avoid cringing people out when playing pentatonic scales?
Don’t get me wrong I’m not against playing stock pentatonic licks, you know the ones everyone and their grandmother plays, which always seem to go down well. Why? I cringe when I play them but I know that a certain percentage of the audience is expecting to hear them. You may want to play your latest string-skipping sweepathon but unless you’re playing to a room full of guitarists (who’ll just scoff and make comments about what they would have played instead), you’re going to have to suck it up and include those classic licks.
Position 1 (or the Eric Clapton box) of the Minor Pentatonic Scale is possibly the most overused pattern in guitar history. It has everything you need, it’s cozy, it fits nicely in your hand, you can do bends, hammer-ons and pull-offs to your heart’s content. On the downside it kind of kills your creativity as it’s almost impossible to play something original—it’s all been plundered, pillaged and played to death. As much as it hurts to do this, our first key to not sounding like everyone else is to avoid position 1, or at least wean ourselves off it.
There are other pentatonic patterns?
Guitarists aren’t too keen on the other patterns simply because they’re not very user-friendly, kind of clunky and lack the feel of position 1; plus, most instructional material shies away from them in favor of Eric’s box, suggesting you should learn all five patterns but not really expanding on them. I’d suggest learning fragments of the other patterns as it reduces clunkiness and gives you some alternatives to coax your fretting hand away from box 1. Check out the following fragments you could use in a blues (I've added in the b5 to the minor pentatonic), you'll be amazed at what you can come up with with just a handful of notes.
It’s amazing how the pentatonic scale on guitar has really become a box-like structure in the mind of your average guitarist, yet it’s not a huge leap from the confines of box 1 to what a player like Eric Johnson does with them. Joe Bonamassa also does a cheaper version of this which he probably picked up from Eric Johnson, but I’d advise against going and learning a ton of Johnson/Bonamassa licks in favor of incorporating the idea behind their lines into your playing instead.
The intro to Eric Johnson’s party piece ‘Cliffs of Dover’ is a great example of moving through patterns, in this case E minor/G major pentatonic; the idea here is not to play it note for note but to see how he links up the boxes and smoothly descends the fretboard without it sounding like some cheap pentatonic lick. [Click for TAB/Notation]
For a fun exercise see if you can come up with some alternative licks for bars 1-7 (E Minor Pentatonic) and 13-15 (G Major Pentatonic) and create your own intro to Cliffs of Dover.
One Octave Rinse and Repeat
Another trick I’d encourage you to use is to work in one octave at a time in a similar way to how we learn scales with the 2 Position Scale System, which gives you a logical way to link up one-octave patterns without getting lost. Check out the tutorial if you haven’t used it before, the idea here being to get away from the use of the standard box shapes. Whatever you play in one octave can and should be repeated in the next, the good thing about the 2 Position Scale patterns being that they repeat in a logical way all over the fretboard.
I’ve also created these handy 24-fret blank neck diagrams for you to plot out your monster pentatonic licks. Feel free to download and print out. There’s also a 7-String version if you have one. Enjoy!