Blues Guitar Institute

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How to Actually Use Pentatonics to Play Great Blues Solos

Lesson ID: TB425

We hear the minor pentatonic scale is important. So we grab a book or diagram and go to work.

Bring on the big box patterns.

But then something happens. Every time we take a solo, it sounds like we’re practicing those patterns.

It’s so easy to get stuck practicing scales without every actually practicing how to use them.

In this lesson, we’re going to work on putting all that scale practice into action. We’ll take the minor pentatonic scale through the chord changes in a way that actually sounds musical.


Map the Minor Pentatonic Scales for the Chords You’ll Solo Over

In a typical 12 bar blues you’ll need three chords. Each of them 7th chords which pair nicely with the minor pentatonic scale.

We’ll use the Key of G as an example. That means we’ll need the G7, C7 and D7 (I IV and V – read more about this notation) chords and a minor pentatonic scale to go with each.

The minor pentatonic scale consists of these intervals:

  • Root
  • Minor 3rd
  • 4th
  • 5th
  • Minor 7th

We’ll use the scale formula to quickly refer to these intervals throughout the rest of this lesson: 1 – b3 – 4 – 5 – b7.

Using the formula, we find the notes of the G Minor Pentatonic scale are: G – Bb – C – D – F.

Limit Yourself to Learn the Scale on a Deeper Level

Placing limitations on your practice helps you focus and can help drive results.

We’re going to place two limitations on this lesson:

  1. Only use the top four strings (strings: 4, 3, 2, 1)
  2. Only play in the 3rd position (generally, frets 3 – 6)

You can (and should) expand your study to other positions and strings as you progress. For now, keep it to the top four and the 3rd position.

Here’s how to play the G Minor Pentatonic Scale with these two limitations:

This may not immediately sound like the minor pentatonic scale to you. This is part of playing the scale with these limitations. I want to get to know each note in position that is available to me. But I also want to make sure I know where my root is.

So, here’s how I practice the scale in position:

  1. Play from the root to reach (as far as you can go on the strings while maintaining position).
  2. Descend using the same pattern back to the root.
  3. If there are notes below, continue descending until you reach the lowest note.
  4. Ascend back to the root.

This accomplishes both goals: you map all the notes but focus on the root.

Remember, we’re only using the top four strings in this lesson.

Practice the chord and scale relationship one chord at a time. Immediately after you learn the notes of the scale, improvise a lick or two. Get familiar with the notes.

Add the other two chords as you’re get comfortable with the first.

Let’s keep going. Next, we need to map the C and D minor pentatonic scales.

Map the Scale for C7 and D7

The formula for the minor pentatonic scale doesn’t change. We just need to apply the formula to the other chords to get the notes of that minor pentatonic scale.

Notes of the C Minor Pentatonic Scale: C Eb F G Bb

We’ll use the Root to Reach form of the scale as with the G Minor Pentatonic scale.

Notes of the D Minor Pentatonic Scale: D F G A C

Now that you know the notes of each chord’s matching minor pentatonic scale, let’s jam!

Improvise Matching the Scale to the Chord

Playing licks over one chord is just the beginning. Now, we need to play the changes.

Butt, what does playing the changes even mean?

We usually solo over a chord progression. The chords move under the solo. A good soloist knows this and plays tones that bring these changes to light.

The idea is to lead the music.

You are playing lead guitar after all 🙂

For this lesson, we’ll match the chords in a G Blues progression – G7, D7 and C7 – with it’s minor pentatonic scale.

When soloing over the G7 chord, we’ll use the G Minor Pentatonic scale. For C7, we’ll use the C Minor Pentatonic Scale and for D7, the D Minor Pentatonic Scale.

In the beginning, focus on two chords at a time rather than trying to tackle an entire 12 bar blues progression. The most frequent chord pairing in the progression are the I and IV chords. In G, that’s the G7 to C7 and back chord change.

Use this loop to try out your licks. The loop is two bars of G7 followed by two bars of C7.

Match the pentatonic scale to the chord that’s played.

When you’re ready to incorporate a third chord, try drilling the final four bars of a 12 bar blues on loop. That covers the V IV and I chord. And if you loop it, you’ll also drill the I to V chord change.

Remember for this lesson to jam while holding your position and only use the top four strings. As you progress, expand your scope but it’s best to start small. Then build.

Find and Target Unique Tones

The scales we’ve mapped aren’t made up of the same tones. That’s part of what makes the Blues, well…

the Blues!

It breaks some rules.

But it sounds good. And we can leverage the differences between the scales we’ve mapped when we solo.

If we look at the notes of the G Minor Pentatonic Scale:

G – Bb – C – D – F

And compare that to the notes of the C Minor Pentatonic Scale:

C – Eb – F – G – Bb

You’ll see a lot of common tones. But the D in the G Minor Pentatonic Scale isn’t in the C Minor Pentatonic Scale.

And the Eb isn’t in the G Minor Pentatonic Scale.

That makes these notes a great choice to signal a chord change. Notice how I favor the Eb over the C7 part of the follow jam.

Go Beyond the Minor Pentatonic Scale with these Two Quick Tips

After you gain confidence with the minor pentatonic scale, here are two ways to round out your sound.

Use the major third.

Seventh chords like the G7, C7 and D7 in our example each contain a major third (1 – 3 – 5 – b7) but the minor pentatonic scale does not (1 – b3 – 4 – 5 – b7).

Still, chord tones are always good note choices when soloing. They are guaranteed to work. So while soloing, incorporate the Major Third interval from the chord you’re soloing over.

Here’s an example mixing the Major Third of G (B) into the minor pentatonic scale:

Here I highlighted the Major Third by landing on it. But I embellished it by hammering up from the Minor Third.

This particular embellishment happens often in the blues.

Another way to go beyond the minor pentatonic scale is to use the Flat 5th interval – part of the Minor Blues scale.

1 – b3 – 4 – b5 – 5 – b7

It’s perfect for chromatic runs like this lick over the D7 chord.

In Summary

To recap:

  1. Map the minor pentatonic scale for each chord in the progression
  2. Use those notes to improvise licks over each chord
  3. Find and use the unique notes to highlight each chord
  4. Go beyond the minor pentatonic scale with the major third and blue note
  5. Drill the chord changes with focus
  6. Put these concepts to work in a real blues solo of your own!

For a real world example, check out the example solo at the beginning of the video lesson. I use many of these concepts we just covered.

This works!

Use the loops above to jam and get a feel for how you approach these chord changes. Lessons and videos are helpful but there’s no substitute for hands-on practice.

This pentatonic based method is a solid way to start playing the changes. I hope it helps you jam and create your own solo!

Play On!

When you are ready, there are two ways I can help you:

Back Porch Blues Course:  A proven system to fingerpicking the blues.  This step-by-step course guides you through building fundamental fingerpicking skills.  Plus, you’ll learn three levels of a delta blues style performance study to put your new skills into action.

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