Try Out Some Mutant Pentatonics

(Image: © Sammi Chichester)

Push any guitar player into a corner, and it’s their command over their repertoire of killer minor pentatonic licks that can let them fight the way out.

In almost any situation, licks and melodies using the minor pentatonic scale will fit unquestionably over any minor-key harmony and blend in with ease.

When we play with these scales that we learned early on (They're also played by many of our heroes when they're at their most "real" and guttural), listeners feel comfortable with their simplistic construction (The scale is made of all of the “strongest” notes in the key) and their two-note-per-string fingerings make patterns, riffs and licks relatively easy to play.

But what if you shifted a note or two and came up with an innovative, uncharted, exotic, yet somehow familiar framework for untapped creative endeavors using basic ideas you're already extremely comfortable with—but in an entirely new way?

And what if each of those new frameworks all had individual personalities and musical powers that could act on their own or be combined as a team to create a guitar-playing superpower? Enter the world of Mutant Pentatonics.

EXAMPLE 1 is the “baseline” that our various evolutionary strains will be built from:

Now let's look at the first step of the basic idea’s mutation and see what would happen if we shifted just one note. EXAMPLE 2 is the same scale altered by shifting the minor 3rd (three frets above the root) to the major 3rd (four frets), giving it a bluesy, dominant sound.

Players like Joe Bonamassa and Marty Friedman are fond of this sound, and Dimebag Darrell used the scale extensively in his solo on the song “Walk.” Try playing this "Mixo-Pentatonic" over a dominant 7th chord with the same root.

EXAMPLE 3 plays heavily on the Dorian sound that is available with another slight shift in the minor pentatonic “box." Use this one when you’re channeling Carlos Santana or Slash.

The next example is a relative of the blues scale, but instead of including the b5 in addition to the pentatonic scale, the b5 replaces the 5, setting up a more sinister framework that is guaranteed to garner attention when used exclusively to set a mood.

On a fairly heavy theory note, EXAMPLE 4 will work well over a dominant 7th chord based on the b6th relative to its root (Bb7 in the case of this D “Locri-Pentatonic”), but it sounds particularly cool when you’re pulling out your most menacing George Lynch and Jeff Beck-inspired rips.

Moving in a more “major” direction, EXAMPLE 5 channels the Lydian mode (major scale with a #4), but can more easily be seen as a minor pentatonic scale with a flatted root. Try this (based on the “new” root) as a substitution in a major key when you’re looking for a Lydian (see: Steve Vai, Joe Satriani) feel. Or use it to evoke the Harmonic Minor scale over a harmony based on the pre-flatted root (so play this exact fingering over Dm- or A7, the I and V in D Harmonic Minor, respectively). Coolness!

EXAMPLE 6 shifts just enough to sound like an Yngwie Malmsteen acid trip. Use it over 7th chords based on the new root or just go crazy and shoehorn it in whenever you can.

Remember, as with all of the above, stick with the framework created by the new scale, even if it sounds a little “out." Land on a note or phase that is undeniably “in” to follow up, and that lick will be instantly, memorably cool (if you mean it)!

The moral of the story is to come up with licks based on comfortable pentatonic patterns that you already have a grasp on, and shift them into these altered fingerings. For something frighteningly useful, try integrating these transformed scale shapes and tonal feels with the patterns found in the badass lessons by Glenn Proudfoot found here!

The journey into tampering with the DNA of the pentatonic scale has just begun, though. To inspire the mad scientist in you to come up with your own ideas for crafting your own five-note scales and show you some other things to do to manipulate their mutation, EXAMPLES 7 and 8 chop up the intervallic “comfort” of the original scale’s structure, providing a wider leap between scale tones and creating a completely unique mood.

EXAMPLES 7b and 8b present the scale using the same left hand shape shifting over octaves with the different connecting scale tones (the b7 and b6, respectively) creating entirely new feels.

Check out the early Marty Friedman and Jason Becker Shrapnel Records releases for a ton of licks based on patterns like these. Be sure to experiment with coming up with you own variations, either based on existing scales or convenient finger patterns.

I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the possibilities that you’ll find lurking in all of the small moves that you can make to come up with your own pentatonic scale mutations. Post below with your own creations. Happy shredding!

Scott Marano has dedicated his life to the study of the guitar, honing his chops at the Berklee College of Music under the tutelage of Jon Finn and Joe Stump and working as an accomplished guitarist, performer, songwriter and in-demand instructor. In 2007, Scott developed the Guitar Strength program to inspire and provide accelerated education to guitarists of all ages and in all styles through state-of-the-art private guitar lessons in his home state of Rhode Island and globally via Skype. Visit Scott and learn more at