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The Pentatonic Scales
At some point a guitar player usually becomes interested in learning scales after open chords and barre chords have been learned. Playing licks and improvising solos is no doubt one of the most exciting things that can be done on a guitar – for both the player and the audience. In this article I am going to present the workhorse of scales for many guitarists: the pentatonic scale.
Getting to know scales can be overwhelming. The way that the many possible patterns are presented and the names that they are given can lead to mental overload. Some guitarists get away without learning scales and still come up with great licks and solos but learning scales helps make sense of the fretboard and trains the ear. In my article about barre chords, I used the CAGED approach, a very useful way to see how chord forms connect up and down the fretboard. This system works just the same for scales. I've come across this approach to unlocking the fretboard on a number of sites and in a few different books, but in my opinion the most valuable resource is Fretboard Logic by Bill Edwards. I highly recommend it.
Scales are groups of notes with a common key center played one after the other and just like with chord forms, there are five basic patterns that provide an excellent starting point -the C-A-G-E-D sequence. The pentatonic is a five-note scale which is where it gets its name. After a week or so of learning how these scale patterns connect with the C form leading to the A form and then G form and so on, you will be shocked to find that you can now improvise a solo because you have a map that can be used for any key to hit the ‘right’ notes.
The diagram below displays the CAGED pentatonic scale forms with the root note of each scale in green. If a song is in the key of G, the root note for each of the five pentatonic scale forms will be G. At first it will be necessary to count up the frets from the open position to know where the root note is located. You can also figure this out by knowing the root note for each chord form as talked about in the article on barre chords. For example, the barre form of the G chord has the root note on the 6th E string (the fat one), so you can look at the pattern for the G form pentatonic and know where this pentatonic scale form should be positioned to play in the key of G.The diagram to the right shows the C Form of pentatonic moved up fret by fret, forming scales for playing in different keys.
Use this diagram as a reference: you need to get obsessed with learning these patterns and where the root note is by heart. Start playing the scales in different positions up and down the neck. Remember that once you get to the D form you just start again with the C form, then the A form, and so on until you run out of frets. Note that the numbers in the circles on the diagrams represent which finger to use for each note.
Pentatonic Lead Patterns
In the diagram below are two pentatonic lead patterns, which
are the same five notes played in different positions, to give you more range
up and down the neck. For any given key, if you start lead pattern 1 on the
third fret, this is equal to starting lead pattern 2 on the eighth
fret. The reference for each of these lead patterns is the first chord form of
the CAGED sequence included in the pattern. So the C chord form is the
reference for Lead Pattern 1 and the G chord form is the reference for Lead Pattern
2. So therefore, Lead Pattern 1 is referenced by the A string and Lead Pattern
2 by the E string. This should be clearer after looking at the diagram below. Don't get confused by the different terms used here- the form is just the pattern that can be moved around to make different chords and scales - G form means that particular shape or pattern and not an actual G chord.
Practicing Scales and Lead Patterns
Begin by practicing the five scale forms—CAGED—in sequence and get into the habit of naming the scale form, the position on the fretboard and the root note as you go. For example, A form (based on the A shape barre chord), 2nd fret, B scale. At first you will have to keep looking at the diagrams but after a while you should be able to visualize the form of the scale on the fretboard without looking. Practice both ascending the scale and descending back down using alternative up and down strokes with the pick even if it feels awkward at first. Use a metronome or drum machine when the forms have been learned and start playing them very slowly in sequence starting at different positions on the neck and building speed very gradually. Never play faster than you can play without making mistakes. Before long, connecting these pentatonic scale patterns will become natural and then you can have some real fun playing along to songs and improvising licks and solos.
Playing Lead Guitar
A great tool besides a drum machine is a looper which you can use to record a chord combination and then improvise a lead over your own rhythm guitar. DigiTech JamMan and the RP series of guitar processors are great for this kind of one man jam practice. I highly recommend the RP series for value for the money. Playing along to MP3 tracks is excellent fun, and a great way to get a feel for lead guitar too.
Scales are really just patterns to use to help you find your way around the fretboard – they don’t sound very exciting played note by note as scales. As you get to know them better you can start the real job of using them to make melodies and come up with licks that complement the song. The best guitar players for my money play lead in a way that has plenty of breathing space—musical phrases that express perfectly what the singer is singing about and played with the same emotion. This is an act of creation and the most exciting thing about playing guitar, which as an instrument has incredible potential for musical expression. You don’t want to play lead in a way that clutters a song.
Listen to how Jimi Hendrix expressed himself on guitar; the lead in Dylan’s "All Along the Watchtower" is a great example of a superb solo. It‘s broken down into four eight-measure segments, each with a different mood, mostly using the C# minor pentatonic scale (C#, E, F#, G#,B). Another beautiful solo is found on Jimmy Page's "Stairway to Heaven," which uses the A minor pentatonic. The minor pentatonic is built using the root, minor (flattened) third, fourth, fifth and minor seventh of the musical scale. I've included a diagram comparing the C major pentatonic and the C minor pentatonic—notice the subtle difference in patterns. The form used here is the G form, probably the easiest and quickest to play.
Practice like crazy until your fingers can take no more, give it a rest and come back to it. If you do this every day it really won’t be long until you are surprising yourself with how good you’ve gotten in a short space of time.