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10 ways to level up your pentatonic playing

Zakk Wylde
(Image credit: Scott Legato/Getty Images)

The minor and major pentatonic scales are most guitarists’ first step into the world of soloing, but these five-note scales hold more power and possibilities than meets the ear – they’re far from just ‘beginner’s scales’!

By looking at these essential shapes from a new perspective, such as playing on a single string, or in pairs or clusters of notes, you can build a more complete understanding of how pentatonic scales work, and help towards every guitarist’s ultimate goal – to create music.

Here, we’ve written 10 musical ideas for you to try out, each demonstrating a more versatile and expanded approach to pentatonic playing. It doesn’t even matter whether you master every riff and lick. 

What’s most important is that you identify the pentatonic scale being used and notice how our lick differs from a plain ol’ run through of the shape. And if you can rinse through all 10, well, you’ll be a pentatonic master in no time at all!  

The shapes you need to know

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These five shapes link together on the fretboard: the highest note on each string in shape 1 is the lower note on the same string in shape 2; the higher notes in shape 2 are shape 3’s lower notes. 

Keep going to link all five shapes up and map out the E minor pentatonic scale across the fretboard. Move up or down to play in a different key.

Ex 1. Morello-ish Low-String Riffs

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This heavy, Tom Morello-meets-Jimmy Page-inspired riff will help you memorise the E minor pentatonic scale (E G A B D) along the sixth string. It’s also a really common way to build riffs and you can move it to the other strings if you want to try other key signatures.

Ex 2. One Lick, Three Octaves

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This bluesy A minor lick is essentially a five-note phrase in A minor, which you can move around and play in any octave. Start by learning the first five notes, using your first and third fingers to hammer on, then slide up with your third finger. The rest of the lick is the same, just played in different octaves.

Ex 3. Metallica Moves

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This Kirk Hammett-style lick combines shapes 1 and 2 of the E minor pentatonic scale up at the 12th fret – giving you three notes to play on each string. It’s a stretch, yes, but this approach opens up a whole new world of shreddy phrasing that two-note-per-string playing can’t offer. Practise six-note phrases to get used to our lick.

Ex 4. Soul-style Diads

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This soul lick uses doublestops in the A major pentatonic scale (A B C# E F#). Learning note-pairs on adjacent strings is just as musical an idea as the more traditional pentatonic approach. Top tip! A major pentatonic has the same notes as F# minor pentatonic (F# A B C# E). All pentatonic scales have a relative major/minor option.

Ex 5. Up A 5th

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For this jazzy, Steve Lukather-style lick, we’re playing an E minor pentatonic lick over an Am chord to create a cool Dorian mode flavour. We are still completely in the key of A minor, so all the notes work nicely, but not typically pentatonic sounding. Simply think ‘up a 5th’ over a minor chord for this cool trick.

Ex 6. Lydian Mode Trick

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Another cool modal trick is to move a minor pentatonic shape down a semitone over a major chord for those classic Satriani and Vai Lydian flavours: we’re playing G# minor pentatonic over an A major chord here. It’s a great way to play the mode as it focuses the fingers on the key Lydian intervals while still ‘feeling’ pentatonic.

Ex 7. EVH-Style One-String Lick

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This Van Halen-style tapping lick is a great way of viewing the A minor pentatonic scale along the first string. Play the 5th and 8th frets with your fret hand and use your tapping finger to move from the 10th fret up through the scale to the 22nd fret. On the final tap, hold the note and bend the string up a tone, with help from your fret hand.

Ex 8. Wylde Phrasing

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This lick is in the style of players like Zakk Wylde or Slash and uses a four-note pattern using a third string hammer-on and pull-off, then a single note on the fourth string. Get used to the phrase by repeating the first four notes of the lick, then move up the neck through the scale shapes. The whole lick can be played with two fingers.

Ex 9. Major and Minor Pentatonic

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This lick shows how one lick can be transposed to both a major and a minor key. In bars 1 and 2, we’ve played an A major pentatonic lick between the 9th and 12th frets. In bars 3 and 4, exactly the same lick is played three frets higher which, coincidentally, uses the notes of the A minor pentatonic scale.

Ex 10. Bluesy Fusion Lick

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This fusion lick also combines notes from A major and A minor pentatonic to create a sound in the vein of Steely Dan or Robben Ford – this time in one fretboard position. It begins with a minor 3rd to major 3rd change, which is a very powerful moment of tension and resolution, when played over a major or dominant 7th chord.