Advanced Uses For The Old Pentatonic Scale

You love the sound of Modal scales, but you struggle to make them sound "right"? The solos you hear have an "airy" feel that you cannot grasp? Are you playing too much? Well, it may be that you are not using enough pentatonic scales in your soloing!

The majority of non-professional guitar players thinks that pentatonic scales are nice tools to use on a Blues or a Classic Rock track, but they have little use for them out of these contexts. I used to think the same way, and in fact I focused most of my practice on modal scales (Dorian, Phrygian, and all that). And yet, the more I studied the solos of my guitar heroes (Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Eric Johnson, and later Andy Timmons and Guthrie Gowan, just to name a few) the more I realized that they used the pentatonic scale more ofter than I would have. Not only that, but they were able to make the pentatonic sound different — as it was not a pentatonic anymore, but a modal scale or similar.

I used to be confused by all this, and it was only with the years (and a lot of music theory) that I was able to understand completely what they were doing an why. I cannot possibly be able to write here a complete theory of advanced uses for the pentatonic scales, but I want at least show you some simple tricks that can be applied in a simple way by anyone. These tricks are so simple that I am surprised they are not widespread, but i couldn't find any online resource explaining them in an understandable way. So, here we go:

1. Pentatonic "Shift"

This is a simple but powerful idea. You probably know already that you can play the A minor pentatonic over any chord progression in A minor — in fact this may well be the first thing you learned when you got started in soloing. What you probably don't know is that the A minor pentatonic scale is not the only scale you can use in this situation, in fact you can also use the E minor pentatonic. Yes, I know that at first sight it might seem the wrong scale to use, but if you actually try it it sounds great.

Why it is so? Well, the notes in the A minor pentatonic are A C D E G. The notes in the E minor pentatonic are E G A B D. As you can see immediately, the E minor pentatonic is simply the A minor pentatonic with a B rather than a C. But this B note is not a problem, because B is still a note in the A minor key (A B C D E F G), so we are playing only "legal" notes here.

It goes without saying that you are not limited to use only one pentatonic or the other: you can use BOTH the A minor and the E minor pentatonic at the same time, such as playing one phrase in one scale and the next in the other scale. I have prepared for you a video on pentatonic scales that shows how this would work in practice.

As you can see, you don't need a doctorate to understand this trick — and for this reason you can use it anywhere, anytime, with very little thought involved.

2. Altered Pentatonics

A second concept that I want to show you is the concept of "altering" the scale. What I mean by that is that you can modify a scale (in our case here, a pentatonic scale) by changing one of its notes so that you get a different but similar scale. Easier said than done, you may reply. What notes you should change, and what not?

Well, there are many ways of doing that, so here I will just show you a simple example that you can use immediately. Take again your old faithful A minor pentatonic scale, and replace the note C with a C#. This new scale (A C# D E G) will fit perfectly over an A7 chord, and so it is a great scale to use for a Blues. You can see some practical example of this in the advanced pentatonic video I have prepared for you.

This scale I just showed you is very popular, but strangely enough it never got a standard name. Different musicians refer to it with different names such as: Mixolydian Pentatonic, Dominant Pentatonic, Jeff Beck scale, Jan Hammer scale... In fact some people use these names to refer to other different scales. Quite confusing! To be on the safe side, if you find this names in other books or articles be sure to verify what notes are actually used!

3. "Modal" Pentatonic

A slightly more advanced concept is to use a pentatonic scale to suggest a modal scale. This can be done in a myriad of ways, and would require a book in itself, so again I will show you one simple example in order to get you started.

Let's say that you want to solo over a chord progression in A Lydian. You can of course play the A Lydian scale over it, but you will find that many accomplished players would not simply use that scale when soloing over it: too many notes!

So, the idea here is to do something similar to what we did before by "shifting" the pentatonic, but a bit more creative. On an A Lydian chord progression you are going to play a G# minor pentatonic. Again, this seems the wrong scale for the job, but if you look at the notes involved you will see that it would work great. The notes in the A Lydian scale are A B C# D# E F# G#, and the notes in the G# minor pentatonic are G# B C# D# F#, so as you can see all the notes of the G# minor pentatonic are also present in the Lydian scale. In a sense, we can say that the G# minor pentatonic is "embedded" into the A Lydian scale.

Of course you might wonder why we go that far in order to play pretty much the same notes. There are two reasons for that: first of all you can use all the pentatonic licks you already know, and they will sound different than usual (since you are playing them on different chords) but still good. Second, the G# minor pentatonic does not contain all the notes of A Lydian, and these missing notes actually create a bit more "space" in the solo. It's not the notes you play, it's the notes you don't play! Don't take my word for it, if you don't believe me, you can try for yourselves or you can watch the explanatory video on pentatonics that I shot for you.

How Does It Sound?

Of course, you will not be able to master the concepts I have explained above just by reading about them. You will need to try them on your guitar, that goes without saying, but even more important than that is that you need to HEAR how these options sound. For this reason I did an advanced pentatonic video that shows you how to work with these scales and applies them in real playing situations, so that you can get to hear and see all of that without figuring it out on your own. Enjoy!

Tommaso Zillio is a professional prog rock/metal guitarist and composer based in Edmonton, AB, Canada.

Tommaso is currently working on an instrumental CD, and an instructional series on fretboard visualization and exotic scales. He is your go-to guy for any and all music theory-related questions.

Tommaso Zillio