How to Practice Guitar Scales: Pentatonics!
Learn the right way to practice scales and start crafting your own style and voice on guitar today!
Our favourite guitarists speak to us with their playing. They've developed their own styles, built upon their vocabulary and phrasing. Rest assured that you can do the same; developing a style of your own is a skill that can be learned easily, by anyone, starting today!
In this article we'll be looking at how to practice to build your vocabulary and phrasing using the simplest scale pattern in conjunction with Taplature. Whatever your current level you'll pick up some new ideas on how to practice guitar scales which you can keep using forever!
🎵 Scales are just the "alphabets" of music!
All music comes from scales however not many listeners will want to hear you running scales on guitar any more than they'll want to hear you reciting the alphabet! The skill of making music from those scales is akin to the process we use when turning the building blocks of language (sounds and letters) into words and sentences and is fully related to how you practice those scales.
The greatest works are made from the simplest of building blocks.
"What scale should I learn next?"
This is a common question I hear from students new to me. My uncommon answer to most is, "It doesn't matter!" In fact I usually recommend they don't bother learning any other scales (well maybe a little work on the major scale if they've never tried it before) until they've learned how to extract the max from the pattern we all learn first ... the standard pentatonic box, shown here on my Desktop Fretboard in the key of A minor and played at the 5th fret:
That's what we'll be looking at today; how to practice to make this scale box sound like good guitar music. Once you've learned how to do that, you'll have the ability to make any scale sound good. Conversely, until you can get decent results with this simple pattern you'll never make the more complex scales sound the way you want either. In 22 years of teaching I've yet to meet an exception to the rule!
Invariably students who've just learned this shape sound very similar when churning it out over any sort of backing track. It's usually the musical equivalent of reciting the alphabet!
Without a battle plan it's possible to spend a lifetime feeling that improvising confidently on guitar is way out of reach when in fact it's actually only a short step away!
In this article we'll be look at mastering the building blocks I've used when playing the intro to this article's companion video below:
(Click to play)
An instant fix!
What's always lacking with guitarists struggling to make music from scales is rhythm; musical shape and structure for a listener to pick up on! When teaching any scale I'll always present it in a satisfying rhythm so that students are making music with it right away as well as strengthening their "rhythm muscles" with the correct practice that gives them the right workout.
Here's how I do exactly that with the lowest octave of our A minor pentatonic pattern presented as our first rhythmic building block. This 4 beat rhythm is nothing fancy, but it works! Keep your foot and pick moving up and down together throughout and count out loud as you go.
Any problems? Be sure to tackle them using the Million Pound Challenge (click for explanation); for most of you a whole new way to practice guitar.
Ex. 1 (Click for demonstration)
Moving to the next octave gives us the same melody but higher up:
Ex. 2 (Click for demonstration)
Once you've got these two lines down you've not only learned almost the whole pentatonic box but you've also learned a piece of "rhythmic vocabulary" which you can use forever in any number of different musical situations.
It's not really stealing 😜
I "stole" the rhythm used here from a very famous song but I'll be surprised if anyone spotted that. Maybe you'll recognise it now that I've tipped you off but if not here's a clue:
The easy way to start "improvising" on guitar
We can play this pentatonic pattern over just about any 4 beat song (that's why we like this scale!). Here it is in the key of B minor ...
... which fits pretty well right through the main chord sequence of Comfortably Numb ...
Ex. 3 (Click for demonstration)
Notice how our pattern sounds different as the chords change behind it. There is of course a theoretical explanation as to why but we'll leave that for another day.
After running through the sequence using our basic pattern I keep playing using the same rhythm but stamped onto different notes from the minor pentatonic while employing some more advanced techniques. Adding bends and slides into things gives a whole world of possibilities and makes it all start to sound like a lead guitar is meant to!
Try another flavour!
Sometimes it feels good to make the notes fit more tightly with the chords. Here we'll take a 12 bar blues in A and play the same rhythm, still climbing the A minor pentatonic scale but now starting from the root note of the chord in the backing.
This means that we start:
- from the A (low E string fret 5) when the chord is A7,
- from the D (A string fret 5) when the chord is D7
- and from the E (A string fret 7) when the chord is E7.
Those three notes (as with the root notes of the 3 major chords in any key) make the shape of the letter "L" on the fretboard, or if you prefer, make the same shape as a knight's move in the game of chess; one string across, 2 frets up.
Here's the 12 bar blues sequence and you can see me playing over it using the instructions from above in the video.
Ex. 4 (Click for demonstration)
💎 A touch of class 💎
From 3m14s in the video I tweak our rhythm just the tiniest bit for each alternate repetition The tweaked version is shown below and simply omits the last note, offering a little breathing space at the end of the line.
Played over the full 12 bar and still matching up the root notes for our starting point things now sound like so:
Ex. 5 (Click for demonstration)
Alternating patterns like this is a simple way of creating a "call and response" effect. This tool allows you to extend and squeeze more from your musical vocabulary without a whole lot of learning.
Comparing this with the previous version it sounds more interesting as the second pattern complements the first in a satisfying manner. Using the tweaked rhythm over an E7#9 (Hendrix) chord in the 12th bar adds a nice bit of tension to push us back to the beginning of the 12 bar.
There's more on creating "call and response" patterns in the free Taplature Crash Course and as it's an important area of musical "phrasing" we'll be considering that topic throughout this series.
The possibilities are endless!
So far we've been using the rhythm of the riff from (did you spot it?) My Girl by the Temptations but you can do the same with any rhythm you've learned ... or want to learn!
(As an aside, the original My Girl riff also lives in the same basic pentatonic box we've used today. Can you find it?)
Enter another rhythm!
Now ... any Metallica fans out there? Here's exactly the same idea we used above of stamping the A minor pentatonic onto a rhythm "stolen" from one of their classics which I'm sure you'll recognise:
Ex. 6 (Click for demonstration)
As ever, if you have any issue knocking this rhythm out in rock-solid time then you have an ideal Million Pound Challenge to win!
If we apply the same rhythm but now descending the minor pentatonic from the root note A on the high E string..
Ex. 7 (Click for demonstration)
And one final tweak ... I've replaced the root note A on the top string with the same note but instead achieved by bending the B string at fret 8 up a full tone.
Ex. 8 (Click for demonstration)
✨Now ... time for the "magic"✨
For today's video intro music I spliced together the "My Girl lick" (played in the higher octave) and the final "Metallica lick" from above to come up with this 2 bar pattern:
Ex. 9 (Click for demonstration)
As played in the video intro the 2 bar pattern has been squeezed down into a single bar using semiquavers and alternated with a contrasting rhythm pattern giving a full sounding call and response. Where the rhythmic building blocks originally came from is completely hidden by this point but of course you now know the secret!
You can get the tab for this final version in the appendix of "Discover Taplature!" (sent free to all subscribers to this blog) which also covers the topic of understanding semiquavers on guitar properly along with other common rhythmic stumbling blocks.
That's all for now ... but consider this! 🤔
Learning different ways of using and combining simple rhythmic patterns along the lines seen here isn't particularly hard but it can open up a whole world of possibilities. Once you learn how to practice scales correctly, you'll see how easy it becomes to add new vocabulary to your own playing.
Stay tuned and be sure to bring any comments, problems or questions to this thread in the Taplature Forum! See you there!
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