How to use the minor pentatonic scale on guitar

The minor pentatonic scale is a big favorite among Rock and Blues guitar players.

The reasons for this are rooted in the theory behind the minor pentatonic but in a nutshell, the minor pentatonic scale on guitar:

  1. Sounds great
  2. Is easy to use

In fact, though guitar players at all levels use this scale, it is a favorite among beginners who want to take their first try at guitar licks and solos.

In this lesson, I will show you how to start using this scale. I’ll be assuming you have a basic knowledge of phrasing techniques like string bending, vibrato and hammer ons and pull offs.

If you don’t know any phrasing techniques yet, I suggest you go through the lessons linked above before going on because though you can still compose melodies on the minor pentatonic without using such techniques, they will probably sound a tad bit boring.

Tip: Guitar scales suggest to you what notes you should play. Phrasing techniques are different ways you can play those notes on the guitar.

The minor pentatonic scale

There are 5 patterns for the minor pentatonic scale but for this lesson, we’ll be only using one.

Learning the other scale patterns and connecting them will give you the ability to play all over the guitar fretboard.

The ideas you will get from this lesson can easily be applied to these other positions of the minor pentatonic.

First, memorize this scale pattern:

Learn guitar lick snippets derived from the minor pentatonic scale 

Next, I’m going to give you 10 guitar licks, or rather, parts of guitar licks, just short snippets to learn.

All of these use notes from the minor pentatonic scale.

The purpose behind these lick snippets is to give you ideas you can use to mix and match when creating your own guitar licks and solos.

While you can’t steal someone else’s entire melody and call it your own, these tiny snippets have been used in different forms and variations over and over again in Rock and Blues music and there’s absolutely nothing wrong in “stealing” them and making them your own.

Some guitar players are over-concerned about originality, and while there’s nothing wrong with trying to come up with something completely new, this shouldn’t come at the expense of not learning what has been tried and tested before.

Here are your minor pentatonic lick snippets. I suggest you learn to play them all correctly (make sure you’re reaching the right notes when performing the string bends) before going to the next stage, where you’ll start creating your own improvisations on the A minor pentatonic guitar scale.

Expand on these lick snippets

Each of the guitar lick snippets above can be used as a guitar lick in itself if it’s inserted in the right place.

A guitar lick can be as short as just one note!

However, you can also add more notes to these lick snippets to either create longer guitar licks or entire solos using the minor pentatonic scale.

Let’s take lick snippet 1 as an example.

It can be a guitar lick on its own if used in the right context, but out of any musical context, it sounds more like an opening phrase expecting a reply.

The following example takes lick snippet 1 and lengthens it by answering the opening phrase.

Now, though I wasn’t thinking in terms of lick snippets when answering the first part of this lick (this is the stage you want to reach, these lick snippets are just an exercise in showing you some options and jog your creativity) the first three notes of the second bar are exactly lick snippet 3, while the last three notes of the lick are exactly like the last three notes of lick snippet 9.

Thus, the next step in using the minor pentatonic scale for improvisation is to take any of these lick snippets and make them longer as I just did above.

You can try to answer these phrases by coming up with something new, or else, find another lick snippet that fits and combines them together.

There is no point in copying the lick snippets note for note. If you want to change the rhythm, the notes, or the phrasing of any of the snippets for your licks to sound better, surely do so.

Minor pentatonic guitar solos

Simplistically speaking, a guitar solo is a succession of these lick snippets.

I say simplistically, because there are other issues, especially when it comes to phrasing, that you need to keep in mind when composing a solo.

However, using these lick snippets in different forms and variations is a good start to creating your first solo – just make sure that together they make musical sense.

The following is a 12 bar solo that just uses notes from the A minor pentatonic in the position given above.

Learn this solo and then take note of the points below it.

Some things to look out for

If you’re able to play the solo above, you should also be able to start creating your own – as you will in the last section of this lesson.

Before you start doing that though, I want you to be aware of certain things that should make your guitar soloing life easier.

1. Don’t be afraid of repetition

When I started soloing, I used to believe that the more notes I put in, the faster I played, and the more techniques I used, the better my solo would be.

The problem with this way of thinking is that it comes at the expense of creating catchy melodies the listener wants to hear.

And catchy tunes tend to have a lot of repetition, rather than have change going on all the time.

For instance, in the solo above you may notice that bars 1 -4, as well as bar 8, have nearly the same rhythm. While bars 5-7 have the exact same rhythm.

From the melodic side of things, bar 2 is like the ending of the song, bars 5 and 7 are exactly the same, while bar 6 uses nearly the exact same melodic idea of these two bars.

All this repetition is not a coincidence, as we’ll see in the next point.

2. Motif and variation

Earlier in this lesson, I told you that a guitar solo is a combination of these kinds of snippets, but also that this is a very simplistic way of seeing things.

The listener’s ear doesn’t want to just hear a series of lick snippets thrown in together, but a melody.

And while a good melody usually has repetition, this doesn’t mean things should always be repeated exactly – or the listener will get bored.

What the ear loves is something it can relate to (repetition) but in different forms and variations.

If you look closely at this solo, you will notice that it’s made entirely of the lick snippets I gave you above but may include melodic or rhythmic variations of each original motif (the lick snippet in our case).

3. Complexity

You may have noticed that this solo is fairly simple. I don’t use short notes, complex rhythms, or any particularly hard guitar techniques.

A simple solo is NOT a bad solo. The quality of your vibrato and the accuracy of your string bends are much more important than how many notes you put in.

That said, not all my guitar solos are as simple as this.

What I suggest you do is to first learn how to write relatively simple guitar solos like this and when you learn things such as playing guitar faster, more elaborate rhythms, or more difficult techniques, incorporate these into your solos.

Guitar solo exercises

Armed with this knowledge it’s time to take a dig into creating your first solos using the minor pentatonic scale.

As a starter, in order to start thinking creatively apart from playing well on guitar, I suggest that you take each of the 10 guitar lick snippets above and continue each into an 8 bar solo.

Though I’ve given you some guidelines for creating solos with the minor pentatonic scale, the best way to master the art of guitar improvisation and soloing is to actually do a lot of it!

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