Outside the Box: Pentatonic Shapes

The pentatonic scale and its five boxes are powerful, because the patterns are simple to learn and easy to apply quickly. The basic minor box (#1) is the first pattern many players memorize:

PentBox01

The intervals for the minor pentatonic scale are R(root)-b3-4-5-b7, the notes (in the key of A minor) are A-C-D-E-G. While this shape is the easiest of the five boxes to learn and apply quickly, as luck would have it, there’s an even easier pentatonic shape. If you start from the b7 instead of the root, you get a simple two-string shape:

PentShape01_int

Use the fingering as shown below:

PentShape01_fing

Work the shape, ascending and descending, using strict alternate picking, until it’s smooth and even. It shouldn’t take long before you can nail this at a fairly high speed:

PentShape01

You can probably already see where this shape lies an octave higher, and two octaves higher. Linking all three octaves together provides a cool way to navigate quickly and melodically up the neck with little difficulty.

PentShape02_int

Even though the shape starts on the 7th of the scale and ends on the 5th, you can play it as is over an A minor (or C major) progression, and hear how it locks right in melodically. Beginning and ending phrases on scale degrees other than the root or 5th can produce some interesting ideas.

For this extended shape, use the fingering suggested below, just the 1st and 3rd fingers, sliding up from the 4th degree of the scale to the 5th in each octave. This will facilitate quick fretboard navigation, and give a smoother, more even sound.

PentShape02_fing

PentShape01_3oct

Check out this quick sextuplet lick that weaves back and forth through the scale:

PentShapeLick

Remember to work the shapes ascending and descending, in as many keys as you can, and come up with sequences of your own. The next post will take a look at how major and minor scales can be mapped for better navigation as well.

3N/S Patterns: Blues Scale

Recalling the Scales and Intervals series from a few weeks back (and we will be looking at the various intervals in the coming week), learning and memorizing scale patterns is probably the best way to build an arsenal of melodic licks.

As we’ve alluded to before, one of the most efficient ways to learn scales and cover some real estate on the neck is to use 3-note-per-string patterns. (“3N/S” seems like a convenient shorthand to use, hence the post title.) These patterns lend themselves very well to a variety of rhythmic and melodic sequences, many of which we’ll cover soon.

But first, let’s take a look at some scale patterns, starting with the blues scale. Unlike the diatonic major and minor scales, which have seven notes, or the five-note pentatonic scale, the blues scale has six notes (hexatonic). It is the pentatonic minor scale with an added flat fifth; intervallically, it’s spelled 1(R)-b3-4-b5-5-7.

Here’s the usual positional layout for the A minor blues scale, covering the first two of the five box positions:

Am Blues Scale

This is great if you want to remain in position, but if you want a convenient way to navigate, and come up with melodic sequences that are more efficient and easier to play at higher tempos, then the 3N/S style is really useful. Here’s how the blues scale looks in 3N/S:

Am Blues

It’s really just the same two-string shape, repeated three times across the neck, with position shifts. Just play the first two strings a few times at first to get the shape down; the first three notes are likely to be awkward to play at first, since about the only way to play that part is by using the third (ring) finger, a 1-3-4 fingering. Consider it a good way to get that tricky 3-4 fingering combination into shape. Play the shape ascending, and then back down, per the tab below:

Blues01

If it’s too much of a stretch to start down at the 5th position, move the whole shape a few frets up.

Practice the entire sequence in a few different keys, in various positions along the neck. The first note is the root note, so if you start the sequence at the 7th fret of the low E string, it’s in B minor, 9th fret would be C#m, and so on.

Try this melodic sequence using the 3N/S pattern in sextuplets:

Blues02

Use strict down-up alternate picking, take it slow at first and build up speed. Use a metronome to track your progress.

Stay tuned, we’ll have some other 3N/S scale and modal patterns over the coming week, as well as some sequences to try out on them!

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:

LotW2

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:

LotW2_

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.