Lick of the Week: Blues You Can Use

Let’s try a simple two-finger pentatonic run that moves across and up the neck. You should be able to play the entire thing with your 1st and 3rd fingers. The lick uses the A pentatonic boxes, joined together as follows:


Easy enough, right? Notice in the third and fourth bars where the pattern varies; instead of the ascending sequence, the pattern reverses before ascending again. These sorts of back-and-forth sequences and pattern fragments add color and melodic tension, rather than just playing a predictable, repetitive scalar run.

So let’s add a little flavor to those spots where the pattern reverses, throw in some quick hammer-on/pull-off notes. Check out the variation below for the last two bars:


Sliding into the final note, and then holding it, resolves the run with a nice “vocal” quality. With solos and short melodic runs, it’s generally the beginning and the end which are the most memorable parts of the melody, so it’s helpful to throw in some stylistic elements in those parts.

As far as picking goes, you’ll notice that there are no picking indications given. The odd-numbered note groupings per string make alternate picking more interesting, but as soon as you internalize the pattern and position shifting, use hammer-ons and pull-offs as much as possible throughout. That will make the entire run sound more smooth and fluid.

Melodic runs like this are great for “connecting” the fretboard, and for getting between distant points quickly and smoothly. The wider intervals of the pentatonic scale are especially useful for these sorts of connector licks.

5 Basic Pentatonic Licks Every Rock Guitarist Should Know

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:


BasicPent01(slow) BasicPent01(fast)

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:


BasicPent02(slow) BasicPent02(fast)

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:


BasicPent03(slow) BasicPent03(fast)

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:


BasicPent04(slow) BasicPent04(fast)

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:

Am Blues Scale

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:


BasicPent05(slow) BasicPent05(fast)

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!

Movable Chords, Part 1

Hopefully by now you’ve had plenty of time to work on all the open position chords we’ve been reviewing over the last week or so. Those are great, and again, nothing sounds quite like an open string or two ringing in with several fretted notes in constructing a clear, resonant chord that you can build a song around.

But movable chord forms will give you maximum versatility up and down the neck, and all around the fretboard. We’ll take a look at the movable versions of the five main chord forms (major, minor, dominant 7th, major 7th, minor 7th) in three segments, using 4, 5, and all 6 strings. This post will cover the 6-string forms.

As with the open chord series, for this series we’ll assume that you have never attempted this sort of chord before, so we’ll start with some fundamentals. Barring is one of the more difficult things for beginners to do successfully, so follow the fingering suggestions closely, and be patient with yourself. Strum slowly through the chord, making sure all notes ring out clear and clean.

A good way to practice barring before trying one of these chord forms is to just use the index finger, barre it across all six strings (pick any position you like), and strum slowly and evenly, maybe a quarter to half a second between each note. By the time you get to the last note, the first notes should still be audible. If one or more of the notes can’t be heard all the way through, you may be slightly altering the pressure of your finger, and allowing the note to choke or deaden early. This is especially likely to happen midway beneath the finger, along the four interior strings (ADGB). Again, maintain even, consistent pressure throughout, and keep at it until you can hear all six notes.

You might be thinking that it would be easier to start with 4-string forms, and move on to 5 and 6 strings. However, it’s actually simpler to learn the concept of barring by starting with all the strings at once. If you can do six strings, five or four strings will be no problem at all.

All of the movable forms we’re going to be checking out will be done at the 5th position. So for 6-string chords, as the 5th fret on the low E (6th) string is A, these will all be A chords. Root notes are indicated in red. Here’s A major:


Try a variety of strumming techniques:  faster, slower, downstrokes, upstrokes, etc. No matter how you play it, you should be able to hear all six notes in the chord.

The interval that determines whether a chord is major or minor is the third, which is played here by the 2nd (middle) finger. So for this 6-string form, to change from major to minor just lift the middle finger:

Am(barre) Am(barre)

It may not be easy to tell in the photo, but the middle finger is actually lifted here, just the barest distance needed. An easy way to build your barring ability is to go back and forth between the major and minor chords, just pressing and lifting that middle finger, without moving the others. When you can play both chords perfectly, moving just the one finger, then you’ve got it nailed.

The dominant 7th form is the same as the major, with the 4th finger (pinky) lifted:

A7(barre) A7(barre)

Again, work back and forth between this chord and the major, this time pressing and lifting only the 4th finger. Work in the minor form also, as that gets more comfortable.

The minor 7th (m7) is the easiest of these 6-string chords to play:

Am7(barre) Am7(barre)_

The m7 may be easier than the others, but it can be deceptively simple. You still want to be sure that all six notes are coming through clearly. Work back and forth between the m7 and the minor, by pressing and lifting the 4th finger.

The major 7th (M7) chord is slightly more difficult than the others, but not too bad:

AM7(barre)_ AM7(barre)

The “bunching” of the 2nd and 3rd fingers in the middle there will probably feel unnatural at first, but stick with it. You may find it easier to switch the 2nd and 3rd fingers. Either way, this will definitely be the most difficult chord in this group to switch from or to another chord.

Try all five chords in various positions, up and down the neck, and in various combinations of chords and strumming patterns.

Stay tuned, we’ll look at 5- and 4-string movable formations in a few days.

Power Chords

The most basic building block of rock and metal is the power chord. It’s a great place for beginners to start learning rhythm guitar, as only three (or even two) fingers are required. Below, check out the chord diagram and photo for the basic A5 chord, on the low E-A-D strings at the 5th position:


As you can see from the indications below the chord chart, this chord consists of the root, the fifth, and another root note an octave higher. (We’ll try to keep the references to intervals at a minimum here, but there will be a free cheat sheet posted on the Resources page.) There are several advantages to knowing these simple but effective boxes:

  1. They can be moved anywhere along the neck, and across the neck with minor adjustments.
  2. They are the basis for the more developed major/minor barre chords.
  3. The interval that gives a chord a major or minor quality is the third. Since the power chord has no third, it can be played in either context.

Let’s move the box across the neck by one string, from the E-A-D string trio to the A-D-G grouping, staying at the 5th position. Now it is a D5 chord:


So far so good. But as you might guess, the next string grouping will need a small adjustment in our box formation.

Continue reading “Power Chords”

Back to Basics: 2-Finger Chromatic Patterns

Following up from last week’s diagram of the chromatic scale, let’s take a look at some basic patterns derived from it. There are six possible two-finger combinations, diagrammed below:



This is where the terminology can be somewhat tricky if taken literally; while we’re referring to the above fingering combinations and patterns as “chromatic”, they really aren’t. “Chromatic” means a descending or ascending sequence of semi-tones (half-steps). These are two-finger patterns that replicate on every string, which is symmetrical, rather than truly chromatic. But “chromatic” is also commonly used to refer to patterns which are atonal, or not derived from any clear scale or key.

As always, these are just names for things, and you should feel free to call them whatever works for you. For our purposes here, “symmetrical” and “chromatic” can be used more or less interchangeably to refer to these patterns.

Anyway, let’s take a look at the basic 1-2 pattern being worked across the strings and back in several variations (see tab below):


Use strict down-up alternate picking until you’re comfortable with each pattern, then reverse the picking sequence (start with an upstroke). Check out the triplet/sextuplet variation below:


It sounds pretty cool at higher speeds. As with any new exercise or pattern, take it slowly, use a metronome and work your way up to speed.

Finally, be sure to try out the pattern with hammer-ons and pull-offs. It may take a bit of practice to work in the alternating pick directions from one string to the next, but it’s an efficient way to develop the picking hand.


Keeping in mind that these tabs are highlighting just one of the 6 possible 2-finger combinations in just a couple of positions, there’s a ton of useful practice material to be mined just from these simple patterns. Use the neck diagrams at the top of the post for reference, and work through all the above tab variations with the other possible finger combinations.

Next week, we’ll combine some of these fingerings into more challenging patterns, and we’ll also show you how to sequence these patterns to produce more interesting musical ideas. See you then!

Back to Basics: The Chromatic Scale

The Back to Basics series will profile fundamental concepts and patterns, in order to provide “building block” ideas for players of all levels.

The chromatic scale encompasses all 12 notes of the octave. (For guitarists especially, the term is also used to refer to exercises which are not based on any particular tonal or scalar root, and incorporate patterns of some or all of the fret-hand fingers.)

Since all of the fingers come into play, the chromatic scale is ideal for warm-up patterns. Musically, since by definition all possible combinations are included, short chromatic patterns can also be useful for connecting scalar or modal ideas to one another.

There are two common ways to play the full chromatic scale:  in open position, from the open low E (6th string) to A on the 1st string (2 octaves + perfect 4th), or in any position, with a small shift on most strings, ascending and descending. (See corresponding diagrams and tabs.)


Chrom5 Chrom5Tab

Continue reading “Back to Basics: The Chromatic Scale”