Many classic rock solos tend to be built up from various combinations and sequences of easy-to-play pentatonic licks. Let’s take a look at five powerful “stock” phrases, all based around the standard A minor pentatonic box. Each tab is accompanied by a .wav file, at two speeds (92 beats per minute and 160bpm), so you can hear how it should sound.
Here’s a two-string pull-off lick:
For many two-string legato exercises using box shapes, it helps to use your index finger as anchor, similar to barring a chord, but just for the two or three strings you might be using for the lick.
The next one uses a hammer-on instead of a pull-off:
No doubt you’ve heard similar phrases used in countless rock, metal, country, and blues lead playing. Definitely use a metronome and follow the picking suggestions until you get these licks internalized, then you can start putting more distinctive dynamics into it, and make them yours.
Let’s move to the middle two strings of the box, and try a nice four-on-the-floor alternate picking lick:
Again, while these are simple phrases, your advantage is that you’re a guitar player, so there’s all sorts of cool dynamics you can incorporate into even the simplest four-note phrase. In the above example, you can use palm muting to get a percussive “chunk” sound, you can add artificial harmonics for a nice “squeal” effect here and there, you can make some or all of it into a legato phrase, whatever.
You can also play it in reverse, or with a different section of the box, or any of the other four boxes, or transpose it to another key.
Are we having fun yet?
This next lick is a fun and easy one, that will work out both your legato and picking chops. Zeppelin fans will probably note its similarity to the final phrase Jimmy Page plays in the middle (main) Rock and Roll solo:
Don’t be afraid of the triplet-16th/eighth note phrasing; once you get it down you’ll appreciate the polyrhythmic quality. It’s a huge element of developing your own phrasing as a lead player.
All of these examples are shown as just simple repetitions, because that’s the easiest way to get it under your fingers. The idea is to build a nice arsenal of these “stock” licks and take a piece here and there to combine and sequence into a great solo.
The guitar is your voice. Everyone has something to say, what’s on your mind?
The fifth lick involves the use of the blues scale. The blues scale is the pentatonic scale, with a flatted fifth (the tritone or “blue note”) thrown in. Here’s the blues scale as it lays along the first two boxes of the A minor pentatonic sequence:
Take a close look at the above diagram; there are only six notes in the scale, repeated throughout two full octaves: A-C-D-Eb-E-G. See where Box #1 and Box #2 border each other and overlap.
So we’re going to throw that blue note in the mix with this last lick. The first bar of the phrase will just take you through the first octave of the scale, with a little back-and-forth phrasing. The second bar features some easy bending, before moving up to the 2nd box for another bend (but this time no release) with a nice chromatic passing tone (the C#, E’ string 9th fret), before ending on the high root note A (B string, 10th fret), by sliding into it from the G note (8th fret) below.
Check it out, and listen to the .wav files to hear the phrasing and nuances. This is more of a “voicing” lick, in that you don’t need (or even want) to crank it up to too high of a speed; dynamics such as bends and slides really don’t sound all that great at Mach 1:
While all of these licks are fairly simple to play and easy to master, the challenge is to make them sound unique. Use all of those dynamics (palm muting, harmonics, slides, legato, etc.) available to you to infuse the phrases with your voice and personality. Since the above exercises are in A minor, they should all sound pretty good over progressions in the keys of Am, Dm, or Em.
While it’s a rule of thumb to play any exercise in every key, not just the key it’s shown in, with pentatonic exercises there are keys that are advantageous to focus on, primarily because of the way the guitar is tuned. So while it would be great if you can transpose all of these into all 12 keys, the best ones to focus on for pentatonics are: Em (open and 12th positions), F#m (2nd and 14th positions), Gm (3rd/15th), Am (5th/17th), Bm (7th), Cm (8th), Dm (10th). The positions indicate where Box #1 will start, as shown on the cheat sheet.
When thinking about musical keys, think about how the relative minor/major factors into it as well. The relative minor key is always three frets (1½ steps) below the major key. So in your five interconnected pentatonic boxes, Box #1 is minor, Box #2 is #1’s relative major. That means the A minor boxes can also be played in the key of C major. The reverse is true as well; you will find some rock songs in the key of E major whose solos are played mostly in the C#m box at the 9th position.
The concepts are more important than rote memorization of every position and every box; once you learn the boxes in one position and get the hang of transposing, you’re most of the way there.
Stay tuned, we’ll have more intermediate and advanced pentatonic licks coming soon! Please feel free to drop a line in comments if there are any issues with playing the sound files.
If you’re ready for an in-depth exploration of the pentatonic/blues scales and boxes, and want to learn how to develop tasty, memorable licks and melodic runs with them, check out Pentatonic Licks & Sequences. Dozens of fresh licks, along with valuable tips and tricks to construct your own! Get some blues you can use with Pentatonic Licks & Sequences!