You know the minor pentatonic (the basic scale used in blues-rock riffs and soloing) but it only works on bluesy tunes—it clashes with those with major-scale melodies. Here’s how you can effectively use the minor pentatonic scale on those non-bluesy tunes.
One of the first things that most guitar players learn—after a handful of chords—is the minor pentatonic scale, aka the blues box. It’s a five-note scale that’s highly useful for blues, rock, and other styles in that it allows you to easily play credible solos—even if at first you don’t really know what you’re doing. This might be a simplification of what blues legends like Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, B. B. King, and T-Bone Walker actually do, but it works! While these guitarists are primarily known for their electric work, Clapton with his MTV Unplugged era notwithstanding, the minor pentatonic is of course an equally essential scale for acoustic guitarists. In this lesson I’ll get you up to speed on the scale and how to use it in context—a little sample of what I teach in my recent video Jamming the Blues for Electric and Acoustic Guitar (Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop).
1. Get The Box Under Your Fingers
Start by playing the blues box in G, or the G minor pentatonic scale (G Bb C D F), as shown in Example 1. Use your first, third, and fourth fingers to stop the third-, fifth-, and sixth-fret notes, respectively. You can play the scale in any key by moving the box up or down; place the box in the right key by fretting the root note on string 1 with your first finger. For instance, to play the A minor pentatonic scale (A C D E G), just shift everything up two frets, as string 1, fret 5 is an A; going down two frets from G minor pentatonic gets you F minor pentatonic (F Ab Bb C Eb). For a good workout, try playing the blues box in different keys, both ascending and descending.
2. Try It In Context
Generally speaking, you can use the same minor pentatonic scale to solo on either a major- or minor-key tune. But the trouble is, the blues box doesn’t neatly work on every kind of tune. Let’s say you have a song—whether it’s blues, country, or rock—in the key of C major, with a melody containing lots of blue notes (put simply, the flatted third and seventh, or Eb and Bb in the key of C). The C minor pentatonic scale (C Eb F G Bb) will in fact work in this context, because the song contains those blue notes. Play the blues box at the eighth fret, and even on the acoustic guitar, you can bend some of the strings for a bluesy effect (Example 2).
But what if I’m playing a tune in C, based on the C major scale (C D E F G A B)? If I jam using the blues box over that song, it’s going to sound wrong. For instance, imagine playing blues licks from C minor pentatonic over the chord progression to “Something,” by the Beatles (Example 3). It’s not happening. The way to make the blues box work in an instance like that—a major-key song without blue notes—is to move it down a minor third, or three frets. Use the blues box shown in Example 4, and it will sound a whole lot better.
Let me give you another example in the key of D. If I were to play something like Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey” and wanted to add some bluesy fills, I might try playing a blues box at the tenth fret, as in the last measure of Example 5. But, as you can hear, that sounds inappropriate. So take it down three frets to access the B minor pentatonic scale (B D E F#A), as in Example 6, and you’re golden. As before, you can add some cool bends (Example 7).
3. Understand How It Works
It might be helpful to understand why the three-fret trick works. It’s kind of complicated if you don’t yet know music theory, but bear with me: Every major key or scale has a relative minor. C major (C D E F G A B), for instance, shares the same notes as A minor (A B C D E F G); D major (D E F# G A B C#) is equivalent to B minor (B C# D E F# G A). On the fretboard, you can take the first note of any major scale and go down three frets (again, a minor third) to find its relative minor. For another example, if you play an A major scale (A B C# D E F# G#) starting on string 6, fret 5, the note three frets below, F#, is the first note of the F# natural minor scale (F# G# A B C# D E).
Take a song like “Tupelo,” which has a melody that’s drawn from the D major scale (D E F# G A B C#). In Ex. 5, I played some fills using the D minor pentatonic scale (D F G A C). The reason that didn’t sound so hot is because the notes F and C clash with the song. So when I switched to the B minor pentatonic scale—in other words, the relative minor of D major—it worked much better, as the notes are all in the song’s key and scale.
That’s almost understandable, isn’t it? If not, just remember: When you want to play a bluesy solo, find a song’s root note on the first string and build your blues box there. You know the shape. If it sucks, just take it down three frets and it will work. I hope that this tip will allow you not to just play bluesy solos but to actually use that versatile minor pentatonic scale/blues box in almost any situation.
Fred Sokolow, a Los Angeles–area multi–instrumentalist, is the author of hundreds of instructional books and videos for guitar, banjo, mandolin, lap steel, and ukulele.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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