It’s pretty much a given that most guitar players use the pentatonic scale for the vast amount of their improvising, and for good reason – it sounds great and is relatively easy to play. However, a common problem that I have come across over the years of offering guitar lessons, is that many players want to learn more advanced scales and concepts for their guitar solos, but struggle to get them to sound good. One way to achieve this is by mixing your pentatonic scales, and in today’s online guitar lesson for lead guitar, that’s exactly what we’re going to look at.
Mixing Pentatonic Scales: What Is It?
By the end of this lesson, I hope you will have learnt enough to begin experimenting with imposing different pentatonic scales in your solos. Most guitarists are aware that when you are in, let’s say, the key of A minor, that you can use the A minor pentatonic scale to improvise with. But did you know that you can also use the D minor and E minor pentatonic scales, and they will still sound in key? Not many players are aware of this trick, although you can find examples in the playing of guitar giants Eric Johnson and Joe Bonasmassa, to name just a couple of examples. This is a concept that I like to refer to as mixing pentatonics, as you mixing the pentatonic scales from 3 different root notes into your solo in order to sound more interesting.
How Does It Work?
Whether you are improvising in a major or minor key, you always have at least 3 different pentatonic scales available to you. Let’s take the key of A minor for example, since it is a common guitar key and many of you will be familiar with it. You may or may not be aware that you can use the A natural minor scale to improvise with when you are in the key of A minor. Let’s have a look at the notes in the A natural minor scale:
Most guitar players will also be aware that they can use the A minor pentatonic scale to improvise with when in the key of A minor. As the name implies, the A minor pentatonic scale is a 5 note scale (plus the octave) with each of those notes derived from the A natural minor scale. In fact, A minor pentatonic is just A natural minor with two notes missing, as demonstrated below:
However, A minor pentatonic isn’t the only pentatonic scale that can be formed from the 7 different notes of the A natural minor scale. As mentioned above, you can also form the D minor pentatonic scale from A natural minor. To understand why, we will need to look at the notes of the D minor pentatonic scale:
As you can see, although we are thinking D minor pentatonic here, we are actually playing the 4th, b6th, b7th, root and b3rd of the A natural minor scale, since all of those notes are already present in the scale. The same is also true of E minor pentatonic:
Again, even though we are thinking E minor pentatonic here, we are actually playing the 5th, b7th, root, 2nd and 4th of the A natural minor scale, so we are still in key.
Though at first, the easiest way to perform this concept would be to simply play A minor pentatonic position 1 on the 5th fret, followed by D minor pentatonic position 1 on the 10th fret, and finally E minor pentatonic position 1 on the 12th fret, that may not be the best sounding approach, as it may sound too obvious. You may also find that it is too much movement from one area of the neck to the other in order to perform it fluidly. Therefore, I feel one of the best approaches for this concept is to keep each of the 3 different scales in one area of the neck. You can do this in every position of A natural minor, however for the purposes of this lesson, I will demonstrate it in position 1. Firstly, let’s look at a diagram of A natural minor position 1 with the notes of A minor pentatonic highlighted:
Also contained within A natural minor position 1 is D minor pentatonic position 4. Below is a diagram of A natural minor position 1 with the notes of D minor pentatonic highlighted:
You can also find E minor pentatonic position 3 contained within A natural minor position 1, as illustrated in the diagram below:
Now that you can see the 3 different pentatonic shapes contained within the A natural minor parent scale, let’s have a look at some licks that I came up with to demonstrate the concept discussed in today’s lesson. Each of the examples below uses a mixture of all 3 pentatonic shapes and can be used when improvising in A minor. I have written them fairly “straight” rhythmically, so feel free to put your own phrasing on them. Here’s the first lick, which ascends up A minor pentatonic, before descending down E minor pentatonic, before ascending back up D minor pentatonic:
The second lick in today’s lesson descends down A minor, D minor and E minor pentatonics respectively before climbing back up E minor and A minor, before finishing with a nice slide up to the root note. The first bar in particular reminds me of Eric Johnson:
The third and final lick is probably the most harmonically interesting. It moves through each pentatonic scale freely as it gradually ascends the natural minor position, before finishing with a slide up to the b7 of Am.
Taking It Further
If you have found this concept useful, then I encourage you to take it further and really make it a part of your playing. I will be putting up a lesson in the near future about mixing major pentatonic scales, however there is plenty of work to be getting on with if you are new to mixing minor pentatonic scales. I suggest figuring out which positions of A minor, D minor and E minor pentatonic are available to you in all 5 positions of the A natural minor scale, and construct licks and ideas that utilise the whole neck of the guitar. Once you have done that, it’s time to figure out your ideas in all 12 keys in order to become truly fluent in this concept.
That’s it for today. Have fun, and I’ll see you next time.