The Pentatonic Scale is generally the first scale every guitar student learns. It is pivotal for learning to improvise, and it can be found in most any solo. Sometimes, it’s easy to get bored with the pentatonic scale. I am going to offer up a few suggestions for bringing new life into the pentatonic scale.
Major and Minor Pentatonic
One of the basic principles of blues is mixing major and minor pentatonic scales over a blues progression. The general rule is that in a minor progression you can use minor pentatonic, and in a major progression you can use either. The minor across the major creates a “bluesy” sound, that we are all to familiar with. However, the real fun comes in when you start mixing the major and minor pentatonic scales together. For example, in a 12 bar blues, it is very common to solo over major pentatonic on the one chord, and switch to minor pentatonic on the four chord. You should also try writing licks that weave in and out of major and minor pentatonic scales. There are so many great possibilities. Check out the solos from “Bold As Love” as done by John Mayer, or “You Shook Me All Night Long”. These both go back and forth from major to minor pentatonic.
Pentatonic with CAGED
If you don’t understand CAGED very well, you may get lost here a bit. It is simply a system that helps one learn the 5 basic inversion of chords up the guitar neck. It is called CAGED because those forms are based off of open C, A, G, E, and D. The forms also ascend up the neck in the order of the letters in the word CAGED. For more on that, come take some lessons at Freeway Music! 🙂 Anyways, there is are also 5 pentatonic forms that fit with each CAGED form. This allows you to chase chords using pentatonic scales. A great example of this again is “Bold as Love”…Hendrix, Mayer…take your pick.
Pentatonic Chord Scales
You can create a chord pattern of the pentatonic scale, and harmonize up each pattern of the pentatonic scale. Once you are familiar with these patterns, you can begin to use them to solo or comp for another player. This is a great way to start learning how to chord solo.
Using Pentatonic Scales For Outside Tones
Most everyone uses the pentatonic scale in major or minor, but it’s seldom that people use them any other way. For example, if you play D major pentatonic over the key of G, it creates a 3, 5, 6(13) maj7, 9. So, you can solo with more outside notes. If you play A major Pentatonic over G, it creates maj7, 9, 3, #11, 6(13), which is even more outside and colorful. One can do this with various chord types, in various combinations, for some very interesting sounds.
There you go, These are some great ways to take that boring old pentatonic scale, and make it more awesome! If you don’t understand everything in this blog, that’s okay…that is what lessons are for. Find a great teacher, and study privately. Nothing can beat that!
“Good players play off of scales; great players play off of licks.” ~ Robert Newton
Have you ever walked into a music store and perused the sheet music section? If you have, odds are that you have seen the Signature Lick series of books for various guitar players, bass players, drummers, etc. There is no way around it: writing licks is imperative to becoming a great player. Here are some reasons you need to get to writing some licks today.
Bag of Tricks
It’s great to have a deep bag of tricks to pull from. Have licks assembled for various scenarios. You can construct licks around certain chord progressions, styles, feels, effects, and more. It’s the equivalent to having more colors on your palette if you are a painter. If you are going to take a solo in a song, make sure you know the song inside and out. Then, create licks that you can access.
Having licks or riffs written in advance gives you a different point of reference. You can almost create your own “scales” and patterns. The licks you create will spawn other licks and ideas. I assign my guitar students at Freeway Music to create licks with each concept we learn. Make sure you begin the ritual of creating licks and keeping a record of them.
As you continue to create licks, your style will rise to the surface and give your playing a unique signature. It’s great to learn and transcribe other people’s solos and “steal” or “borrow” ideas; however, you don’t want to be a clone of another player. People will call you out and say things like, “He’s just copying Stevie Ray Vaughn.” Take what you learn and put your own spin on it. Focus hard on your own creativity and style and people will take notice.
Once you have created a pool of licks, you will have unique starting points. This will help define who YOU are as a player. So, don’t take it lightly. Start by writing 5 licks per day around a specific concept and don’t stop writing licks ever! Best of luck in your musical journey!
In How to Solo Part 1 we covered the basics. Then, we learned three approaches to soloing in How to Solo Part 2. Finally, I explained the principle of telling a story in How to Solo Part 3. The first part of telling a story is the “rising action.” As promised, in this part we will talk about ways to accomplish that principle. Here are 5 ways to build up your solo:
The highest note you play in a chord is called the “lead tone.” It stands out to the ear more than any other note. The same applies when taking a lead. When you start in a lower register and move up, your solo will seem to grow. I encourage my guitar students to put on some backing music or jam with friends, and practice starting on lower notes and climbing to higher ones.
Obviously, the louder you are, the more attention you will draw. Practice increasing the range of volume you have on your instrument. Start with the softest possible sounds you can make, then get even softer. Build your way up to the loudest possible sounds you can make…and then get louder. There are so many ways to accomplish this task. Since I am a teacher, I’ll explain it like I do to my guitar students. Playing with your fingers (as opposed to the pick) is softer, for instance. Having your volume knob down and then cranking it up is a useful tool many guitarists don’t take advantage of. The pickup you use, adding distortion, and adding effects…they all can create more volume for you.
This is a piggy back to volume and applies mainly to those who can play more than one note. Two or more people singing at the same time is more powerful and dynamic than one. Although, I once saw a sax player record his lines and then harmonize it live. Try taking a solo with single notes and then add voices to it to make it grow. One of my biggest complaints to my students is that they often view the guitar as one block as opposed to 6 different singers that can be combined in any way. This different view of the guitar can be a very useful tool when trying to raise the dynamic of a solo.
There is power in simple repetition. Repetition is simply a powerful thing. See what I did there? Haha! When somebody says something and they say it again and again, it tends to become more noticeable. Simply play a phrase and repeat it as many times as you feel. You’ll be amazed at how it will affect you and the audience. Anytime I’ve ever taken a guitar solo and repeated a phrase, the audience starts getting into it. The phrase is often easy, and I feel like I am cheating in a way…like I know something they don’t…haha!
This is my favorite and one of the most important aspects of successfully growing a solo. Space is an often overlooked principle of music. The power of silence and patience is a virtue that all musicians need. As referenced in the last part, you cannot come out running. Practice playing a note or notes, and then wait as long as you possibly can to play the next note…and then wait a second longer. You’ll find yourself creating lines you normally wouldn’t make. You’ll also find yourself in control. You will drive the solo as opposed to the solo driving you. Then, as you organically begin placing more notes, the solo will climb in a very natural way.
What are you waiting for? Put on some backing music, or jam with your friends ASAP! Practice the principles of pitch, volume, voices, repetition, and space separately. Then, fuse them together to for a more complex formula to make your solo grow dynamically. Your playing will certainly benefit and you will get the crowd’s attention. Best of luck and happy soloing!
We talked about the basic fundamentals of soloing with groove, soul, creativity, and vocabulary in How to Solo Part 1. We also touched on three basic approaches to soloing: scales, chords, and melodies in How to Solo Part 2 . Now, we are moving into the art of telling a story. I personally loved the wisdom I garnered from taking private music lessons, and perhaps one of the lessons that most stuck with me was learning how to tell a story. My guitar teacher’s name is Robert Newton. He is such an amazing music instructor! We were having a guitar lesson and he taught me how to tell a story with my solo. He said, “just like you would write a paper or a story, you need to include these three basic parts:”
A related series of incidents in a literary plot that build toward the point of greatest interest…
Don’t come out running! The worst thing you can do as a player is to come out full-throttle and running. Where do you go from there? Exactly…there is no room to grow. Make sure that you ease into the solo. Be patient, just like you would if you were sparking a conversation with someone. Let the solo naturally unfold. A solo can almost write itself if you let it. Then, begin to make your solo more interesting and exciting. If you are unsure how to do this, then you are in luck! My next blog entry “How to Solo (part4)” will be dedicated to this process alone. Rising action can ebb and flow, but should culminate with the climax.
A decisive moment that is of maximum intensity or is a major turning point in a plot…
This is the point that your solo should be building up to. You should be rocking full-throttle and moving the crowd. For some reason, when I think about a climatic solo, I think about Jimmy Page’s solo in Stairway to Heaven by Zeppelin. I know…it’s one of the most overplayed tunes…but for a reason. That solo is great! Right around 6:20, Page starts rocking his first climatic part of the solo. Then, shortly after, he rips out another lick that takes it up a notch further into the vocal section. The climatic part of a solo can be as long or short as you want it. You can also have more than one, as long as the 2nd one eclipses the first one. Just make sure that you bring it down at the right time. There is an inner sense of when it’s time to pack it up, and you better obey that inner sense for fear of losing the crowd. Sometimes it will be 10 seconds and sometimes 2 minutes, but you’ll know. Then, you will begin the “falling action.”
All of the action in a play that follows the turning point. The falling action leads to the resolution or conclusion of the play…
Once you have the crowd at the climatic part of the solo, you need to gently bring them down to resolve or end the solo. Think of it as the cool down period after a workout. Like a cool down period, it should be slightly shorter than the warm-up or rising action. You basically should play a short section to wrap up the solo for the listener. Again, there are no hard and fast rules here, and the falling action can vary in duration. You’ll just have to trust your senses again. ALWAYS listen to that inner voice. It seldom is wrong. As you become more experienced, it will become easier and easier.
The next time you take a solo, keep the principle in mind of telling a story. Simply being aware of the process is the first step. Grab your listeners, give them a payoff, and gently let them down. Go listen to some of your favorite solos and soloists and see how they do it. Until next time, happy soloing!
How to Solo Part 4