Power up your pentatonic playing with this 20-minute guitar workout

Power up your pentatonics with these useful technical approaches to the electric guitar’s most recognizable scale

Pretty much whatever the style, you can bet that you’ll hear the guitar playing a riff , solo or fill that uses a pentatonic scale at some point. Even if you don’t know it, you’re probably already playing licks and riffs that use its notes.

So, what is this scale? Well, in musical terms, the minor pentatonic scale consists of five notes: a root note, b3rd, 4th, 5th and b7th (in the key of A minor, the notes are: A C D E G), and players have been using combinations of these five notes for decades to give us some of the most iconic sounds in rock and pop. 

Richie Blackmore’s riff in Deep Purple’s Smoke On The Water and Jimmy Page’s amazing solo on Led Zeppelin’s Stairway To Heaven are two classic examples of pentatonics in action. Try out our technical exercises to put some pentatonic power in your solos!

The one-shape lick

This features repeating hammer-ons and pull-offs that ascend through the A minor pentatonic scale (A C D E G). The scale fits neatly under the fingers in this scale shape and our lick is best used in classic rock or modern blues-rock-style lead lines. Play very slowly at first, and focus on developing your feel and timing.

Moving between two shapes

This exercise extends the scale into the next fretboard position. This is a really useful extension, because not only can different types of licks be played, but there’s a higher note, too. Seeing this ‘extension box’ as a ‘triangle’ kind of shape across the first, second and third strings helps to visualize it.

Moving between three shapes

Featuring a blues-style triplet approach, this exercise adds another ‘extension box’, but this time on the fifth and sixth strings, giving you an extra low note. The exercise is a little tricky, as you have to ‘jump’ your fretting hand to the different positions, but note how it creates a repeating phrase which carries over three octaves.

Using slides and bends

This blues-rock-style exercise is a staple pentatonic idea in the lead guitarist’s trick bag. Note how different techniques are used to create this slick sounding phrase. Slides connect the three positions, so accurate fingering is important, and an accurately pitched full tone bend in bar 2 extends the range even further.

Practice plan

  1. 2 mins slow and 2 mins fast on each tab exercise
  2. 4 mins mixing up the licks, eg, bar 1 from example 1 then bar 2 from example 2

You’ve tried the exercises and they will help you hone your technical skills, but try to take some musical inspiration, too, and mix one or two of these ideas into your next jam. It could be as simple as a few notes or a shift between two licks in different fretboard positions. Turn our licks inside out and be as creative as you like. Next time, we’ll look at how you can improve the most personal element of your lead playing - vibrato.

Next, try 5 ways to break out of the minor pentatonic scale

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