Shifting Pentatonic Scales

(a supplement to a video lesson- watch it here)

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):

fingering diagram

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 fingerboard.

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!