You have most probably heard about the pentatonic scale. It is the most popular approach when it comes to electric guitar solo-ing. Most of guitarists present it as the simplest scale, the easiest way to create good music. I totally agree. The pentatonic scale is just awesome. Except that one particular question bothers me a little: WHICH ONE?
To answer this question we need to take some time to understand what pentatonic means and then to have a quick look on how the pentatonic is actually a very wide variety of Scales and Modes.
At first, let’s see what *The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians* has to say in order to clarify the term:
A term applied to a scale, or, by implication, a musical style or system characterized by the use of five pitches or pitch-classes. The term is used more strictly to describe the so-called Anhemitonic (meaning ‘without semitones’, used mainly in conjunction with ‘pentatonic’ to distinguish music in which the Mode or Scale consists of combinations of major 2nds and minor 3rds) pentatonic collection, typified by the set C–D–E–G–A; of the five modes arising from the collection, the major (i.e. with tonic C) is generally regarded as ‘the (common) pentatonic scale’. The notion of pentatonic can be refined by recognizing the distinctiveness of the scale’s minor third ‘steps’, therefore the motif G–A–C is more characteristically pentatonic than C–D–E, even though both belong to the same pentatonic scale.
That’s just beautiful, isn’t it? A very precise and well-shaped definition of what pentatonic means.
First described by Westerners variously as the “Chinese” or the “Scottish” scale, the pentatonic scale figures prominently in such diverse musical cultures as those of the British Isles, West Africa, Southeast Asia, and aboriginal America, among many others.
Anyhow, the pentatonic usage varies widely and, in some cases (like the Chinese System, Japanese gagaku tradition or the sléndro tuning of Javanese gamelans), the very property of the term ‘pentatonic’ has been questioned. Whether explained in terms of mono- or polygenesis, this ‘king’ of scales warrants further research.
Returning to our point of interest, this scale is the most famous and desirable when it comes to electric guitar, especially in Rhythmic Music genres. And it is probably the most tolerated scale when it comes to improvisation – maybe more than (or at least the same as) the classical modes (aka The Church Modes). The pentatonic scale is extremely easy to fit into any musical context.
Jerry Bergonzi (contemporary jazz tenor saxophonist, composer, and educator) shows how altering one or two notes of the pentatonic scale will eventually lead the musical discourse into any of the modal contexts, including melodic and harmonic modes, fitting any chord or any functional progression. Frank Gambale (contemporary jazz fusion guitarist), in his ’Spicing up the Blues’ lesson, has showed how major and minor pentatonic scales can be used together (having the same root) on the same chord or progression, in order to sound authentic, spontaneous and original, by adding loads of flavour to your solos.
It’s the scale that we mostly use when approaching string bending, which, in my opinion, is one of electric guitar’s prime signatures. There is no other instrument on EARTH that allows you to bend in the same way the electric guitar does and to deliver similar results. Some of the greatest guitarists & music coaches out there state that if you are not able to execute a perfect bend, it is almost like you don’t exist as a guitarist. This technique is a characteristic of electric guitar without question.
As disputed above, the pentatonic scale (and the resulting modes) can be easily extended and manipulated in order to match any tonal or modal context, due to the fact that it contains within itself most of human kind’s creativity.
Being extremely polished and explored by giants of all rhythmic music genres (and many others), the pentatonic scale easily became a standard requirement for electric guitar playing.
If you want to extend your knowledge about this topic, you are very welcome to attend our Scales & Modes workshop. We will go through each of the five modes of the pentatonic scale, analyze them & play them. I will then show you how to use & modify these modes, in order to better fit your needs, so that you sound awesome in every possible way. Pentatonics might look easy and might sound simple, but the truth is that this amazing pattern is just another ‘musiverse’ that’s waiting for you to dig in.