Beginners Guide To Improvising Using The Pentatonic Scales

By Ken K - Littleton Guitar School

 

Improvisation is a key component of the blues and rock genres of music, and an intimidating step for someone who has never considered playing something in the moment as it can seem like an impossible task. A great starting point for anyone is learning scales, specifically the pentatonic scale.

 

What is the pentatonic scale? The pentatonic scale is a five note scale that is commonly used for improvisation.  The scale removes the 4th and 7th notes from the major scale to create a pool of notes that are generally consonant with most progressions, creating easy note choices as chords change. The minor scale likewise removes the 2nd  and the 6th. Removing these notes from the major and minor scales respectively removes any half step changes in the scale, meaning you will never play notes that reside right next to each other on the fretboard. As a result, the pentatonic scale also guarantees that no matter what chord is being played in a major key, the player can move in either direction in the scale to land on a chord tone if they aren’t already playing one. For example, a C major pentatonic scale contains the notes C, D, E, G, and A, while excluding F and B which are found in the full major scale.


Why is the pentatonic scale a good tool for beginners? Beyond the simplified note choice, it also comes in several easy shapes which never exceed more than four frets, so no difficult stretches will have to be made. These shapes only need to be learned once, then can be moved up and down the neck depending on what key is desired.

 

If the key is major, let your pinky determine land on the note on the fretboard and start your scale from there, and if the key is minor, let your pointer be on the starting note of the scale.

 

While the pentatonic scale is a great beginner’s tool, there are some limitations associated with it. For starters, you lose two notes that can be used for consonance in specific chords, or even intended dissonance. On top of that, while learning scales as “shapes” is a helpful tool, it can hamper your creativity, so be sure to explore moving from shape to shape to find new voicings of notes.

 

Some tips for the pentatonic scale:

  • Speed is not everything. Mastering the shape can lead to rapid fire movement across the scales, and while this has its place in improvisation it can be overused and hampering  creativity, so slow down!
  • Learn what notes are good to bend. Bending notes is one of the most expressive things that can be done on a guitar, but in its essence and bend is changing the pitch of whatever note was being played. Make sure the note you bend to is in the pentatonic scale or you might find your epic bend seem far out of place in your solo.
  • Practice and explore. Search for backing trackson the internet or better yet, go out and buy a loop pedal and loop a progression. Improvisation isn’t something some people can do and something that some people can’t. It takes patience, time, and a lot of bad attempts before it starts to sound good.  And then the magic happens.

About the author: Ken K lives in Denver, Colorado where he is a professional guitarist and guitar teacher who helps students enjoy learning and playing guitar. If you, or someone you know is interested in taking guitar lessons in Littleton, Highlands Ranch, Centennial, Lone Tree or other southwest suburbs of Denver, CO - definitely contact Ken!

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