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How To Take Your Pentatonic Improvising To The Next Level

Improving your pentatonic improvising to another level


This is an exercise for intermediate to advanced guitarists, who have already learned to improvise "inside" the chord changes.

What I mean by this is, if you can solo over chord sequences using pentatonic or diatonic scales that fit the key of the chord sequence you are playing over, then you are playing "inside". If you are still working on this, then don't do this exercise yet!

So you can do that, let’s see what’s next 

If you CAN do this, and now you are working on more advanced ways to colour the sound of your improvising, using scales such as the harmonic and melodic minor, exotic scales, the diminished axis or wholetone scales, or the chromatic scale... then the following exercise is a great way to:

 An exercise for you 

·      play outside the chord changes in a way that doesn't sound random

·      build tension in your solo

·      find new colors and sounds that you can't get from any of the previously mentioned scales

·      break out of habitual, boring pentatonic patterns

·      find new melodic ideas for soloing or composition that you can't get any other way

 Playing outside chord changes

This exercise is about using pentatonic scales to play “outside” the changes. This means you will be using notes that are not in the chords you are playing over. You will play, at times, very dissonant sounding sequences of notes, but this can sound GREAT depending on your skill level and ear for this kind of playing. Also, it’s very important HOW and WHEN you resolve the tension. For example, if you briefly move “outside” a chord’s normal set of chord tones and related notes, and then resolve to a chord tone on a strong beat, the dissonance will not bother the ear too much. This adds colour, spice, and interest to your playing!

Did you know?

So - did you know can use ANY minor pentatonic scale (from any of the 12 chromatic notes) to improvise over ANY minor chord?

Each minor pentatonic scale will contain a different level of consonance or dissonance for each chord.

You can try this out yourself by improvising over a backing track consisting of one minor chord. Let's pick D minor for an example. First record a backing track with only a D minor chord that lasts for a few minutes.

12 Minor Pentatonic Scale

  • There are 12 possible minor pentatonic scales you can play (each one based off one of the 12 notes of the chromatic scale). Try improvising for 8 bars with each of the following scales, in the following order. After each 8 bar solo, write down some words describing the flavour of that scale over that chord, and the chord or non-chord tones created by that combination. The first 2 are done as examples:

    D minor pentatonic - straightforward minor bluesy. root, minor 3rd, per4th, per5th, b7
    E minor pentatonic - brighter, jazzy blues (dorian vibe). 9th, per4, per5th, maj6th, root
    C minor pentatonic
    F minor pentatonic
    B minor pentatonic
    G minor pentatonic
    A minor pentatonic
    Bb minor pentatonic
    Gb minor pentatonic
    Eb minor pentatonic
    Db minor pentatonic
    Ab minor pentatonic

    Some of them contain no dissonant notes (like D minor pentatonic).

    Some of them contain all dissonant notes (like Ab minor pentatonic). Yes, I know, playing 8 bars of Ab minor pentatonic over a D minor chord will probably sound like VERY weird to your ears. Bear with me for a little longer...

    Some of them contain a mixture (like C minor pentatonic).

How to use them?

But ALL of them are usable in very cool ways. "But how?" you may ask. For example, try improvising in D minor pentatonic, and then inserting a 3-5 note phrase in Ab minor pentatonic and resolving back to D minor pentatonic for a badass Coltrane-like outside bluesy sound. You can use any of the "out" sounding ones in this way to get different colours into your outside playing. To build tension, it's cool to start introducing this gradually, with very short departures from the Root minor pentatonic scale, and then staying longer and longer outside, delaying the resolution until you can't bear it any longer!!

This is approach to playing over minor chords comes from jazz, but it is also transferrable to many other styles, metal, blues, rock etc.

At Ultimate School of Music, we teach guitarists to reach the next level with their guitar playing. Contact us for guitar lessons in Dublin



Jennifer Barlow