Shifting Pentatonic Scales
Pentatonic scales are frequently used in all sorts of improvised music.
Minor pentatonic scales seem to be especially popular with
guitarists... the problem is that too many players only learn one
fingering for the scale. To be fully pentatonic-savvy, you need to know
fingerings all over the fingerboard, fingerings that start with each
tone of the scale.
There are five different position-based fingerings for each pentatonic
scale. Here's a diagram of those positions for an A minor pentatonic
scale; you can probably download it by right-clicking (or
control-clicking on a Mac):
None of the fingerings use open strings, so they are movable. In other
words, the A minor fingerings moved up two frets would be B minor
fingerings; up three frets, they'd be C minor fingerings, etc. If you
know these five fingerings well enough, you can play pentatonic scales
with different root notes without radically shifting positions on the
Why is this helpful? For one example, if you're improvising over an A
minor chord for very long, you may want to use pentatonic scale sounds
other than the A minor pentatonic. An Am7 chord, fully extended, looks
like this: A C E G B D F#. That's root, 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, 11th and
13th. You may also have noticed that if we put those notes in scale
order starting with the A, we'd have A B C D E F# G. That's an A Dorian
scale. If we looked for minor pentatonic scales in that collection of
notes, we would find three of 'em:
A minor pentatonic: A C D E G
B minor pentatonic: B D E F# A
E minor pentatonic: E G A B D
We could play any of these pentatonic scales over an Am7 chord and they
would give us useful sounds. The B minor and E minor pentatonics do not
contain the third of the Am7 chord - this gives them a slightly vague
or mysterious sound over the chord. They don't sound "out" because
there's not a note in those scales that would clash with the Am7 chord.
But they do have a "floating above the harmony" kind of sound. You can
hear this sound sometimes used in the playing of such diverse musicians
as John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, the Allman Brothers, Kurt Rosenwinkel,
Jerry Garcia and Chick Corea.
Note that in the example I played in the video lesson, I used these
scales in two different ways. Sometimes I played them across the
fingerboard staying in one position for a while; sometimes I played up
and down the fingerboard, using notes from the same scale in different
positions. That's just how I roll! I can't stand to stay in one
position for long. There's too much good guitar expression to be had by
moving along the fingerboard: slips and slides and slurs. If I play in
one position too much, I start to feel like I'm typing instead of
playing a guitar.
I also mixed in a bit of seven-note "normal" scale activity with the
pentatonic stuff. To me, playing pentatonics exclusively starts to
sound gimmicky and self-conscious after a while.
That's it for now. Hopefully, a combination of the video and this
written stuff will help you find your own ways to make pentatonics a
part of your own music. I hope you enjoy this lesson!