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Improvization Basics: The Pentatonic Scale

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This post is part of a series called Creative Session: All About Playing Guitar.
10 Essential Principles for Learning Guitar

When I was thirteen years old, I decided to teach myself guitar because I loved the way that modern-day guitar heroes (by which I do not mean your chubby ten year old playing with a fake guitar and an Xbox) improvised what seemed like complicated lead pieces on the spot. After hearing the guitar solo Slash played in Sweet Child O’ Mine, I all but forgot to practice chords in search of the ability to play like that.

I remember that my search was fraught with frustration because that kind of information is hard to find, particularly if you’re a self-taught player like myself. If you’ve got a teacher who will pass that knowledge to you in exchange for a few bucks, you’re in a lucky position. It took me more time than I care to admit to find out where to begin, and as with most others, that beginning was the pentatonic scale.

This tutorial will be relevant to players of all instruments; the principles of improvisation are universal. You’ll still need to put an effort into figuring out how to best improvise on each instrument you play, though — I am dismal at keyboard improvisation, and not because I don’t know how it works, but because I’ve never put much of an effort in outside the guitar.

While this advice will help any instrumentalist wanting to learn to improvise, it’s for those who’ve never done any improv before. It won’t help you improve — it’ll help you get started. So if you’re looking to improve the skills you already have, you might want to skip this tutorial.

Understanding Intervals

I’m going to assume a certain amount of knowledge in this tutorial: you know how to play your instrument, in terms of basic technique and the ability to try the instructions in this tutorial out, and that you have a basic understanding of intervals.

You can introduce yourself to intervals by making a detour to the AudioJungle blog:

  • The Ingredients of Melody: Intervals by Adrian Try introduces you to the concept, and provides you with everything you need to know to grok what follows.
  • Boot Camp for Your Ear: Detecting Intervals with Song Associations by yours truly is about training your ear so that you’re able to tell which intervals are being played when you hear them. This isn’t necessary to learn to improvise, but it will come in handy when you want to go on to more advanced improv such as call and response, and since it takes a long time to learn you should begin now.

Scales are often expressed in numbers from 1 to 7, and some of those will have a b in front of them to signify a minor or flattened interval. 2 is a major second, but b2 is a minor second. This provides musicians with a way of expressing a scale — a pattern of notes — irrespective of key, and is thus a handy tool for you to learn now and continue using after you’ve finished this tutorial.

Minor & Major Pentatonic Scales

A pentatonic scale is, as the name suggests, a five note scale. There are several varieties but here we’re just looking at the two most common: the major and minor pentatonic scales. Let’s check out which intervals make up these scales, and what that equates to in C.

Major Pentatonic Scale

  • Scale: 1 2 3 5 6
  • In C: C D E G A

Minor Pentatonic Scale

  • Scale: 1 b3 4 5 b7
  • In C: C Eb F G Bb

That’s straightforward enough for most of you to begin playing the scale now, although if you play guitar or bass guitar you should check out these tabs, since figuring out the right shapes for these scales on your own could take you a while:

Learn the scales on your instrument until you can play them forwards and backwards easily.

It helps to hear them played sometimes, so here is each scale played on guitar. As scales are defined by the context they are in, the scale is played alone once, and then again with the root chord playing in the background.

Get GuitarToolkit

While I realize just because the iPhone is popular doesn’t mean everyone has one, I like to share when I find something really useful. I no longer have to carry around a tuner or a chord book because of a great little app called GuitarToolkit, and as you may have guessed, it provides you with a scale dictionary too. Great for helping you visualize and memorize the pentatonics (and many others).

It also has a metronome, which is great for you as you learn to improvise since a good guitarist has great rhythm, and good improvisation depends on the instrumentalist’s ability to capitalize on rhythmic opportunities.

This won’t help the non-guitarists among you, but scale shapes and tuning are problems you keyboard players won’t need to worry about.

For Guitarists: Extended Pentatonic Scales

The shapes provided earlier are quite limited, given that the notes in each scale appear repeatedly throughout the guitar. Take the time to break out of the basic shapes and figure out how to play the scale up and down the neck.

The shapes are awesome for helping you get started, and for helping you dive into a key you don’t normally improvise in, but if you find yourself wanted to quickly crawl up to the 17th fret and back down to the 5th by playing every note in the scale between those points you may find yourself out of luck if you only spend time on the basic patterns.

GuitarToolkit makes this easier as it will show you each scale on the entirety of the fretboard.

Enough Scales, Let’s Rock

Keep at the extended scales, but certainly don’t try and memorize them before you continue learning how to improvise.

At this stage you know the scales, and it’s time to start making music out of them. Most improvised lead segments are not totally improvised; whether the musician realizes it or not, the lead is often made up of many riffs they’re familiar with tied together with the notes in between, at least at the start. As the musician practices improvisation, they either begin to truly improvise on the spot, particularly with jazz-style improvisation that forces the musician to do so, or they rehash the same solo in different ways by overusing the same riffs.

Exploring a Riff

At this stage it’s important to be mindful of that potential plateau, and also accept that putting riffs together and then experiment with them is how you learn to improvise. Using one of the scales, come up with a few short phrases. I started with the minor pentatonic, so here’s a riff in A minor pentatonic you could try (excuse my attempt at ASCII tab):

E —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  — 
B —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  — 

G —  —  —  —  —  —  — 5 —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  — -
D —  — 5 — 7 —  —  —  —  —  — 7 —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  — 
A —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  — 5 —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  — -
E —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  — 

It’s very basic, but it gives you enough to play with. First, learn the riff until you don’t have to look at the tab to play it. Then begin to experiment.

Do the following:

  • At first, don’t change the notes themselves. Play with different rhythms. Make each one different as you repeat the riff, so it sounds like you’re improvising when the only thing that’s changing is the rhythm, not the notes themselves.
  • Add fills. For instance, instead of starting the riff going straight from 5 to 7 (or C to D), hammer-on from 5 to 6 and then to 7 quickly (C - C# - D). Don’t emphasize the C# - you’re not adding a new note to the riff, you’re just using it to get from C to D.
  • See how hammer-ons and pull-offs change the sound.
  • See how bends change the sound.
  • Finally, add or omit notes, or change existing notes to something else in the scale.

Creating New Riffs

Now that you’ve fully explored one riff, it’s your turn to come up with another short phrase and repeat the process. Fully explore these phrases until you feel you can do anything with them.

The next step is to connect them. Learn to move from one to the other while sounding musical. Add riffs in between or just use a single note, or just go from one to another directly. Master the transition.

At this point you need to continue coming up with riffs. At this stage, the riffs are smaller subsets of the scale that are helping you explore it bit by bit. Connect them, explore them on their own, and eventually you’ll become totally familiar with the scale as a whole and can start to move beyond reliance on the riffs.

Remember not to use the same pattern too much, and try to deliberately shake things up. If you find yourself only including adjacent strings in your riff, start skipping, and if you notice you’ve barely used certain notes in the shape, add them into your existing riffs or your next one.

Your First Solo

… will suck. Doesn’t matter how long you sit down and play with the scale without backing music first. It will take time, time and more time to learn to make up music on the spot that goes with certain rhythms and certain chord progressions.

But don’t let that discourage you. It’s more discouraging, I think, to expect that your first attempt with this newfound knowledge would sound any good.

What you need is to fire up your DAW or even a sequencer and create a drum track and a chord progression. It can be a guitar chord progression, a keyboard progression, or a choir singing chords if you really want. But those two elements are essential as they form the foundation of your solo, and they provide you with training tools — how to solo with the rhythm, and how to solo with the main melody of a song.

At this point, the next step is to practice a lot using the same kind of explore-and-connect technique you used to become really familiar with the scale. Your first attempts, once you’ve gotten a basic handle on the process, might sound something like this:

If you can do that within a few days, you’re on the right track. Tune back in next time for more on basic improvisation.

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