A Guitar Exercise from 1994:
This is a 25 year old recording where I am practising lead guitar at home with an exercise set by my then guitar teacher Robert Percy. At the time, I was a couple of years into the lessons which I had began in order to add lead (and inadvertently jazz) techniques to my previously self-taught folk and country blues fingerstyles.
The recording represents a later stage in this practice where I am playing lead over a sequenced backing track and a played rhythm guitar track partly as an application of the technique but also to add enjoyment to an otherwise repetitive exercise.
Audio: Major Pentatonic Scale (exercise)
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The exercise involved the use of the major pentatonic scale (a 5-note major scale – see below for more details). The scale can be used to solo over any major chord regardless of the key of the piece. For example, you would play the E major pentatonic scale over an E major chord and when the music changes to a D chord use the same left-hand fingering but in a position 2 frets lower for the D major pentatonic scale. This also means that the scale being used changes as the chord changes and this provides an alternative to using the same diatonic scale as a blanket for all the chords in the piece. You can of course mix-and-match the use of both the diatonic scale and the pentatonic scales within the same piece and the more scales that you have at your disposal, the more flavours that can be applied to your solos.
Preliminary exercises involved improvising over two major chords (E and D) in a loop and using only the 5 notes of the respective major pentatonic scales. The objective was to gain familiarity with the scales in all positions on the fretboard whilst seeing what melodies might eventually emerge.
My teacher, Robert, then took the resultant melody fragments and incorporated these into a 12 bar solo to accompany the major chord sequence |E|D|CD|E| (played three times). These three major chords, with root notes a whole tone apart, would not naturally occur together within a piece of diatonic music. The solo was presented in notation for me to learn and this constitutes the exercise heard in the audio sample where the recurring solo/theme can first be heard beginning at 1m 05s.
[Sheet music for the 12 bar guitar solo can be found (with a free download link) at the end of this article.]
The primary objective of the exercise was to learn the theme thoroughly through repetitive playing. Having done so, I would also acquire the freedom to vary the theme and improvise in other ways with the knowledge that if I ran out of spontaneous ideas or made a mistake and the improvisation broke down, I could always continue playing by returning to the well-learnt theme. The theme could be also be picked up again commencing at its 5th or 9th bar for added variation. This method is intended to provide more confidence when improvising and formed a second objective to the exercise. Some evidence that this process was taking place can be heard in the audio sample.
Equipment and Recording:
The equipment used was –
Sequencing: Amiga 1200 microcomputer
Guitar: Jackson Stealth Pro (electric)
Effects: Korg A4 guitar processor; Jim Dunlop Cry Baby wah pedal
Desk: Refurbished, 8-track, analogue mixer (in metal case)
Recording: Ferguson Nicam digital stereo VCR deck; Denon twin cassette deck
The recording process was as follows –
1. The backing track was sequenced using Amiga Octamed software and 16-bit, public domain samples.
2. The backing track was played back and a first (rhythm) guitar part overdubbed with the results mixed down and recorded directly to VCR in real time.
3. The VCR recording was played back and the 2nd (lead) guitar part overdubbed with the results mixed down and recorded directly to compact cassette tape in real time.
For the recording of the second (lead) guitar part, guitar effect program changes were included in the Octamed (backing) sequence and implemented by means of a MIDI connection between the computer and Korg A4 effects unit. This meant that my guitar sound would automatically change after every second loop. The purpose of this was twofold, firstly to try out various guitar sounds and secondly to force me to adapt my playing style according to the guitar sound. Only two guitar tracks were recorded. An apparent, 3rd, acoustic guitar playing a double-strum was a sampled sound used in the backing sequence.
The Major Pentatonic Scale:
The major diatonic scale is heptatonic (i.e. has 7 notes).
In the key of C, the notes of the scale are:
Table (i): C major scale
The major pentatonic scale has 5 notes and is derived by omitting the 4th and 7th notes of the major scale.
The notes of the C major pentatonic scale are:
Table (ii): C major pentatonic scale
Similarly, the notes of the D major pentatonic scale are:
Table (iii): D major pentatonic scale
… and the notes of the E major pentatonic scale are:
Table (iv): E major pentatonic scale
This diagram shows the notes of the major pentatonic scale on the fret board where ‘1’ is the root note:
Fingerboard diagram: Major pentatonic scale
This should be a recognisable shape to all guitarists although many would be more accustomed to using the 6th note (as depicted) as the root. For those familiar with the ‘C-A-G-E-D’ labelling of fingerboard positions, the diagram above shows the scale in the G position. The labelling refers to the root chord shape that is under the fingers when playing the scale.
Another particularly useful fingerboard position for the major pentatonic scale is the E position as shown below –
Major pentatonic scale in E position
In the diagram, the black barré and finger positions emphasised with thick black outlines indicate the fingering for the major chord associated with the scale.
The remaining fingerboard positions for the major pentatonic scale, C, A, D in the CAGED system, are shown below –
Major pentatonic scale in C position
Major pentatonic scale in A position
Major pentatonic scale in D position
For left hand movement between positions, the following diagram showns the notes of the pentatonic major scale in all five positions on a fingerboard. The positions are colour coded according to the CAGED system –
Major pentatonic scale labelled in the CAGED system
Consider, as an example, that you intend to write a solo or improvise to a piece of music that contains an E major chord. Normally, in diatonic music it would be an easy matter to ascertain the key of the piece which would be one of E major, A major, B major or their related minor keys C# minor, F# minor and G# minor respectively.
In the keys of E major/C# minor, you could use the E major (Ionian)/C# minor (Aeolian) scales. The notes of both scales are the same.
In the keys of A major/F# minor, you could use the A major (Ionian)/F# minor (Aeolian) scales. In this case you could also emphasise the tonality of the E chord by using the E Mixolydian scale. The notes of all three scales are the same.
In the keys of B major/G# minor, you could use the B major (Ionian)/G# minor (Aeolian) scales. In this case you could also emphasise the tonality of the E chord by using the E Lydian scale. The notes of all three scales are the same.
Because each key contains a different set of 7 notes, you cannot use the same 7-note (diatonic) scale harmoniously in each key but must change scale according to the key.
However, the major pentatonic scale has only 5 notes and so will be harmoniously compatible with more than one key. In fact the notes of the E major pentatonic scale (E, F#, G#, B, C#) are notes of each of the keys listed above and so the E major pentatonic scale could be used as an alternative to the scales listed for all three major keys and their relative minor keys although it does not include some useful notes (such as an A for the key of A major).
In each of the above cases, a player might typically chose a scale according to the key of the piece and use this as a blanket or coverall scale throughout, perhaps occasionally dipping into one of the alternative scales for effect. In this case, the solo or melody can be made to follow the harmony of the piece by emphasising the notes of each chord and treating other notes as ‘passing notes’.
However, the because the major pentatonic scale will always be in harmony with its associated, namesake major chord, it provides for another method. Thus, you can use an E major pentatonic scale over an E major chord and when the chord changes to a D major, for example, switch to using the D major pentatonic scale. This change can be achieved by simply using the same scale in a position 2 frets down the fingerboard or alternatively, you can keep the left hand position the same and change the CAGED shape (from the G form to the E form, for example). Similarly, you can use the minor pentatonic scale (described in the next section) for the minor chords.
With this method your solo will automatically follow the harmony because you are changing scale according to the chord. This method is particularly useful when you do not know the key of the piece or where the key is ambiguous. Examples of the latter include the exercise above where 3 major chords, each a tone apart, are used and rock progressions using E, G and A major chords.
The major pentatonic scale of any key is the same as the minor pentatonic scale of its relative minor key. Thus, the G major pentatonic scale is the same as the E minor pentatonic scale and so on. The only difference is that G is the root note in the first case and E is the root in the second case. This can be seen in the diagrams below –
Major pentatonic scale (G form)
Minor pentatonic scale (Em form)
Although both scales are depicted in the same position on the fingerboard, the major pentatonic scale is referred to as being the “G form” or “G position” because it includes the notes of the G major chord in the root position while the minor pentatonic scale is referred to as being the “Em form” or “Em position” because it includes the notes of the Em chord in the root position. Likewise, minor pentatonic scales correspond to major pentatonic scales in the other four positions in the CAGED system.
The minor pentatonic scale is commonly used and for many guitarists it is the first scale that they learn. If you already know the E minor pentatonic scale then you only need to move 3 frets down the neck to be playing the E major pentatonic scale (and so on).
Adding a single note to the pentatonic scale (for a blues feel) results in the blues scale. A minor (flattened) third is added to the major pentatonic scale to produce the major blues scale while it is the flattened fifth that is added to the minor pentatonic scale to produce the minor blues scale –
Major blues scale
Minor blues scale
The “blues note” on the 5th (A) string is more commonly used than that on the 2nd (B) string because it can be accessed without a left hand position change.
This is the music for the 12 bar guitar solo used in the exercise –
This music is available in printable form (A4) as a free download using the link below –
Feel free to contact me (via the Contact Form) if you have used the exercise described above to create music with your own embellishments or improvisations. I will consider publishing any recording (preferably less than 10 minutes duration) on this site.
Information and tutorials related to pentatonic scales can be found at most guitar-related websites and there are also useful videos in YouTube. The following selection covers the topics raised above –
1. The major pentatonic scale at Anyone Can Play Guitar
2. The 5 pentatonic shapes (with video) at Guitar Lessons
3. The CAGED system at Guitar Lessons
4. All 5 positions of the major pentatonic scale YouTube video
5. Minor pentatonic scale with position changes at Guitar World
6. Major pentatonic scale with position changes YouTube video
7. General theory of pentatonic scales at Wikipedia