Do all your minor pentatonic guitar licks and riffs seem to sound the same?
Do you feel like you’re recycling the same ideas over and over again without ever creating anything new?
If that’s the case, I have good news for you. You’re at the end of the first phase of learning how to use the minor pentatonic scale on the guitar and are now ready for the next and more exciting phase of using this scale.
Learning the minor pentatonic scale has a liberating feeling because it makes it possible, even for an advancing beginner or an early intermediate student to start improvising licks and solos on the guitar.
What most people do when they discover that guitar improvisation using the minor pentatonic scale is not hard is to stick to just one position of the minor pentatonic and play the same dozen guitar licks over and over again.
This is great – this way you’re practicing how to use guitar techniques in the context of improvisation, a very valuable skill.
But at this point it’s good to take things a step further.
In this lesson, I’ll show you how to break out of the box by learning and using all minor pentatonic scale patterns, as well as applying rhythmic and melodic ideas you’re probably not making use of by this point.
The primary goal of learning the minor pentatonic licks and riffs given in this lesson is not to increase your vocabulary of guitar licks and riffs but rather, to get ideas on how to create more innovative ones yourself.
Thus, with each guitar lick, there’s an explanation of the musical elements I’m using, which you can then use in your own improvised guitar licks, riffs, and solos.
One last thing before we start playing licks.
In order to start playing minor pentatonic licks outside the box, you first need to learn all 5 positions of the minor pentatonic scale.
You may not need to be able to connect all 5 scale patterns by this point, but it’s important that you memorize each of them if you want to make the most out of this lesson. (Learn how to connect scale patterns here).
A minor pentatonic pattern 1 (the most commonly used)
A minor pentatonic pattern 2
A minor pentatonic pattern 3
A minor pentatonic pattern 4
A minor pentatonic pattern 5
Now that you can play the minor pentatonic scale all over the guitar fretboard, we’ll start playing licks and riffs that go beyond the most commonly used ways this scale is usually used by beginner and intermediate guitar players.
Minor pentatonic lick 1
The first example is more of a guitar riff than a lick since the main difference between a riff and a lick is that a riff is meant to be repeated.
This riff is mostly based on notes from Pattern 5.
Note that in scale pattern 5 given above, you start on the note A on the 17th fret of the low E string.
In this riff we’re shifting the whole pattern down an octave, thus if you want to play the scale pattern most of this riff is making use of, you should start on the note A on the 5th fret of the low E string.
Things to look out for:
Inverted power chords – It is very common for beginners in improvisation to only use one note at a time.
But using two notes simultaneously is also an option.
The example above makes use of single notes combined with inverted power chords whose notes are in the minor pentatonic scale we’re playing in.
Consider the possibility of using two (or more) notes at a time when improvising licks, riffs, and solos.
These notes can form inverted power chords, root position power chords as well as other intervals or chords.
Hybrid picking – The inverted power chords on the higher strings are meant to be plucked with the fingers, while the other notes are either played legato or struck with a pick.
The technique used to play the guitar with both the pick and your fingers is called hybrid picking. Learning this technique will make playing certain things easier (such as the wide leaps in the example) as well as open up your horizons as to what notes you can play and how you play them.
Variety in rhythm – You don’t need to use complex rhythms to create good improvisations. One can create great music using very limited rhythmic variation.
That said, if you want to get thinking outside the box, you need to consider all your different options, and one of the most important is the rhythm.
In the above example, I use a variety of note durations: crotchets, quavers, and semiquavers (also called quarter notes, eighth notes, and sixteenth notes, respectively) as well as dotting some notes.
We’ll explore dots as a rhythmic element more in the next lick.
Position shifting – Though most of the notes used in this riff come from pattern 5 of the minor pentatonic scale, I briefly shift into pattern 1 on the last inverted power chord in bar one and first in bar two.
The more experience you gain in playing guitar scales and connecting scale patterns, the easier it becomes to shift from one part of the fretboard to another.
Minor pentatonic lick 2
The next lick is made exclusively from notes that find themselves in pattern 2 of the minor pentatonic scale.
Things to look out for:
Vibrato – Guitar improvisation without vibrato is more like a cake without icing sugar. It can still be delicious, but our taste buds tend to be particularly attracted to its sweetness.
Notice the different sound produced by the notes that have vibrato applied to them (which is indicated by a small wiggly line over the notes in the notation)
Dots – We’ve already used dots in the first example in this lesson but I believe they deserve some further emphasis since this rhythmic element can really help you come up with innovative ideas.
When there is a dot in front of a note, its duration increases by ½ of it. Thus the value of a crotchet (quarter note) becomes that of a crotchet + a quaver (eight-note) since a quaver is half of a crotchet.
The first beat in this lick is divided in two notes, but these notes are not of equal duration – one is a dotted quaver and the other is a semiquaver (sixteenth note).
In other words, the dotted quaver takes ¾ of the time in beat while the semiquaver takes ¼.
This creates its own rhythmic flavor, is repeated in other parts of this lick, and you can use it creatively when creating your own.
Minor pentatonic lick 3
The 5 patterns I gave you above are a learning tool, not an end result.
The ultimate goal (which will take some time to reach) is to stop thinking of the minor pentatonic scale in terms of 5 different patterns, and more as a whole roadmap of notes on the guitar fretboard. (Learning the name of the notes on the guitar neck will make this process easier).
In the next example, we’re not going to use any of these patterns but visualize the scale from a horizontal point of view.
The following is the A minor pentatonic scale built on the second note of the G string:
And this is a lick made from these notes:
Things to look out for:
Different scale pattern – my main aim with this lick is to show you a different way you visualize the minor pentatonic scale. Try to form pentatonic scales starting from different notes, and different strings as an exercise.
Slides – Sliding from one note to another is a very common guitar technique that becomes even more useful if you’re only playing notes on the same string.
Minor guitar lick 4
In the next lick we’re going back to the commonly used first pattern, and explore how to make creative use of it.
Things to look out for:
Long notes and rests – Something I notice many students do when they start improvising is that they try to put in as many notes as possible.
In reality, not only do long notes and periods of silence sound great in guitar licks and solos but if you use only notes of short duration they may sound boring or poorly phrased.
String bending – This is my favorite technique, together with vibrato.
When you reach the next note by bending into it instead of striking it with the pick, you can produce a sound that replicates the human voice, hence making the guitar sing.
Minor pentatonic guitar lick 5
The last guitar lick in this lesson is also derived from the notes of pattern one but makes use of a melodic component I would like to make you aware of.
Things to look out for:
String skipping – Many beginners in improvisation only consider notes that are either on the same string or adjacent string.
By skipping strings you add more possibilities to your playing and are likely to come up with innovative ideas since most guitar players, unless pretty advanced, don’t do it.
Skipping strings is a bit harder than playing notes on adjacent strings. Practice doing it here so that you can incorporate it into your playing.
What I hope to have achieved with this lesson is that rather than just teach you a few minor pentatonic licks, I’ve also shown you that there are many possibilities you can use in your licks than playing the same scale pattern up and down.
The next step in minor pentatonic soloing is to start creating a lot of licks of your own using these different rhythmic and melodic components as well as different phrasing techniques.
As well as growing your vocabulary of such components and techniques.
From there, I would go to learning more guitar scales and applying all this to the scales you add to your vocabulary.
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