The first guitar scale I learned was A minor pentatonic. It’s still my scale of choice in most rock and blues situations. But if any of you have heard my tunes you know I don’t do a lot of straightforward blues and rock–I like to get a little WEIRD! So here are a few ideas I’ve picked up from talented folks about how to break through the same old pentatonic riffs.
1. You know the entire scale, right? There are five shapes that take you across the neck (one octave, anyway…then they repeat). You can’t complain about being stuck in a rut if you’re only using the first shape you learned! Do a web search for the other four shapes.
2. More obvious for those who might not think it’s obvious: Hammer ons, pull offs, palm muting, string bends, vibrato, double stops, tapping, slides with the fingers, bottleneck slide, string skipping, hybrid picking (pick and fingers), chickin’ pickin’, and combinations of these. Many lessons & things to be learned in studying these techniques. If you’ve left one out you’ve got some catching up to do!
3. Take the scale up and down one string, sliding around, one scale note at a time, skipping over notes to jump different intervals. If you’re playing in a key that hits the 12th fret, don’t forget that includes the open string, so you can do any scale riff with open strings, such as Van Halen style tapping, Satriani hammer/pull off clusters that climb up the neck, etc.
Taking this to the next level, you can work on riffs on just the first two strings, the first and third strings for quality string skipping practice and any combination on other strings.
4. Learn sequences. Instead of going through the scale one note after the other create patterns within the scale and run that pattern (in order) off of each note in the scale. Examples such as:
1-2-3, 2-3-4, 3-4-5…
1-2-3-1, 2-3-4-2, 3-4-5-3…
1-2-3-4, 2-3-4-5, 3-4-5-6…
1-2-3-4-3, 2-3-4-5-4, 3-4-5-6-5…
1-2-3-4-5, 2-3-4-5-6, 3-4-5-6-7…
1-2-3-4-5-4-3, 2-3-4-5-6-5-4, 3-4-5-6-7-6-5…
There are many others, but this is a good start. Don’t forget to play them backwards too. Those numbers refer to order of the picked notes starting with the first note on the 6th string, by the way. They’re not scale degrees, so you could apply them to any scale beyond pentatonics.
5. Add any note outside the scale. Overdoing this might make you sound as if your guitar is broken, but as you learn the nuance of adding chromatic notes you’ll get a feel for how spicy you want to make it. Generally speaking (VERY general) you want to add a chromatic note quickly on the way to a note that’s in the scale, so you might want to save the sustained notes in your riff for scale tones. There are plenty who will disagree with that but hey–I’m just offering an idea to try!
6. Switch between major and minor pentatonic? Depends on the song, but in many blues tunes (for example) the results can sound pretty cool.
7. Apply diatonic harmony principles. If you’re saying “Huh?” then I’ll make a quick pitch for my Rhythm Guitar Poster. Basically, if you’re playing blues in G major you can play Am, Bm or Em pentatonic, as they’re all essentially parts of the G major scale (part of A dorian, B phrygian and E aeolian, to be more specific). If you’re playing in the key of E minor you could try Em, F#m and Bm pentatonic (essentially parts of the D major scale). There’s a nifty pdf on what pentatonics go with which key that you can get here.
8. Solo with octaves within the key you’re in. So in A minor pentatonic you’d only use A-C-D-E-G octaves, either riffs created from groups of A-C-etc. or octave chords where you strum the octave notes at the same time, muting any unneeded strings.
9. Learn E minor (or whatever key) arpeggios, triads and chords every way you can and solo off those notes. Apply to other chords in the progression.
10. If you don’t know the major scale yet, it’s really time to get the ball rolling on that. The major scale is the foundation of western music and the gateway to all the cool advanced things in guitar, such as modes, chord theory, etc. You’ll have many more soloing options at your fingertips with the major scale in the mix–and not necessarily “happy” sounding riffs you’d expect upon first learning it. Jamming in E blues knowing you could have the following options in your fingers: E maj/min pentatonic, E dorian, E mixolydian, E blues, E aeolian and others? Learning the major scale first will make the advanced stuff sooooo much easier to grasp. Do it!
11. Listen to players who make their pentatonics sound amazing and learn their riffs! Check out my blog on the blues radio station I created and fine-tuned at www.pandora.com. It talks about the blues legends I programmed into the playlist along with a few tips on how to jam along and get inspired.
12. Do you always use your index finger FIRST when you move to the next string? For example, if you’re playing the first shape in the key of Am (starting on the 5th fret), does your index finger always play the 5th fret FIRST before hitting the next note on that string? If so, try reversing it. Play the pinky on the 8th fret FIRST (if you’re starting on the 6th string), then that index on the 5th fret and so on across each string.
Of course, I’m am but one humble guitar teacher and lifelong student of the instrument, so additional suggestions are most welcome.