Step outside the pentatonic box with these fresh blues guitar solo approaches


Every lead guitarist uses pentatonic scales - chances are that the first scale you ever learnt was the minor pentatonic.

Like a comfortable pair of slippers it’s easy to slip into trusted pentatonic shapes without really thinking about it. This is often where the fingers begin to do all the work and you play without really thinking about note choice. Great for muscle memory! Not so good for creativity or putting your individual stamp on solos.

However, just by stepping one or two frets away from these safe and familiar shapes you can create exciting new flavours and breathe new life into well-worn licks.

Each of these examples has the minor pentatonic scale at its heart - think about the original shape as you tackle each lick and notice how we’ve tweaked it.

Thinking pentatonic while including ‘outside’ notes is the best of both worlds - you get the familiar feel of those pentatonic shapes with the creative sounds of non-scale tones.

Major and minor notes

This lick is a typical example of ambiguous tonality: the 3rd intervals spell out an A9 chord (A C# E G B) over the course of bars 1 and 2, before moving up into 12th position for an Am6 (A C E F#) flavour. The beauty of blues-based lead is that you’re not limited to major or minor - the clashes give you a sweet bluesy tension.

Mixolydian notes

This line targets the major 3rd (6th fret, fourth string and 9th fret, first string) outside of the minor pentatonic shape. This gives a brighter dominant 7th sound, outlining the A7 chord - you’re also playing the Mixolydian mode without trying! These ideas sound great in a I-IV-V blues progression like A7-D7-E7. Try D Mixolydian over a D7.

Dorian notes

This lick looks like the A minor pentatonic scale plus major 6th and major 9th intervals (the 7th fret of the second and first strings respectively). These two notes lend a jazzy Dorian mode sound to our minor pentatonic core. Your ear may identify the sound as the major pentatonic scale - because it also features 6th and 9th intervals.

Diminished scale ideas

This lick uses the diminished scale (aka the half-whole scale due to its semitone-tone structure). This means that ‘outside’ notes such as the b9 (6th fret, first string) and b5 (6th fret, fourth string) give a momentary feeling of tension. We’re basically weaving between ‘good’ (pentatonic) and ‘bad’ (diminished) notes to create a cool sound.

Practice Plan

  1. Two minutes: Play through one exercise slowly
  2. One minute: Play through the same exercise up to speed
  3. One minute: Experiment with the extra notes outside of the minor pentatonic
  4. One minute: Move and adapt the chords to different fretboard positions
  5. Try the other examples

Play the tab examples as transcribed and try also moving them to different fretboard positions. Experiment by trying one or two of these different approaches in your next jam.

It could be as simple as adding a few outside notes to a familiar minor pentatonic solo to make it sound more jazzy, or, as you get more confident, you may even be able to step completely away from the humble pentatonic scale.

Remember, think pentatonic!

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