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How to Improvise in the Pentatonic Box

Updated on November 3, 2015

Improvising in the Pentatonic Box and Understanding Chords

Learning to improvise in the pentatonic box is a first step to exciting guitar solos! How do you improvise on guitar? The key to easy improvisation is understanding what works best and what works best is usually the pentatonic scale. The most useful scale for guitarists is the "pentatonic box" and this page will show you how to use it and how chords relate to it.

The pentatonic box can be used in a major or a minor form and adding the flatted fifth makes it into the blues scale. If you want to play rock, pop or country music, the blues scale is the best thing to use when improvising a lead. The blues scale is based on the pentatonic box....

Intro image and guitar graphics are all my own creation, please do not copy!

Improvising in the Pentatonic Box - Movable shapes - Comparison of Major and Minor Pentatonic and Blues Scales

Pentatonic Box and Blues Scales
Pentatonic Box and Blues Scales

How this works - on the left is the minor version.

On the right you will see the major version.

These are movable scales, so I have labelled degrees of the scale by numbers, not by note names - you can obviously use the boxes in any position on the neck for any major key and its relative minor.

The keynote or ROOT is labelled R and is marked in red. This is the most important note and should be returned to most often when improvising. The second most important note is usually the 5th, which is marked in green.

Blues notes, which may be played or bent up to, are marked as blue.

Pentatonic Box Improvisation - Play in any major or minor key! - Use this chart to find out where to position your blues scale box, or pentatonic box

Note names on String 6
Note names on String 6

Welcome to the world of Jazz! You can improvise in any major or minor key using this chart of Note Names on String 6

First establish what the key of the song is (First and last chords will give you the best clue, or check the key signature of the music)

Also check if it is major or minor (minor chords have "m" after the name - for example Am means A minor)

Make sure you start on the correct root note for the key -

Am means use the left hand diagrams and start with index finger on A

C means use the right hand diagrams and start with little finger (pinky) on C

Have fun!

Improvising in the Pentatonic Box - why is it easier?

Why not start with the major scale?

The very first scale we probably learnt in classroom music was the major scale, doh, re, mi, fah, soh, la, ti, doh. We might have sung "Doe a Deer" from the Sound of Music, we probably drew a keyboard and wrote C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C on the keys, we might even have done the "tone tone semitone tone tone tone semitone" thing, it is possible we were actually asked to make up a little tune starting and finishing on C - but could we easily improvise over C, F and G7 using those notes?

My guess is that most of us couldn't do it very well, those of us who knew a little theory probably tried to play the notes of the chords, but when the tune was quick, we lost it.... and so we learned improvising was difficult from the very people who should have taught us it was easy. Then one day we would have met a kid with an electric guitar, saxophone or piano, who could blow us away with the blues, What was the secret of their genius?

They knew how to avoid the notes FA and TI or F and B in our C scale example. These notes are great when you know how to use them, they provide the semitones that drive music forward and give the major mode its character but they also clash with some of the chords in that key - badly! That is why major scale improvisation is incredibly hard for most beginners and why teachers should be ashamed of setting the bar far too high for most kids!

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Single cutaway style Les Paul type basswood body guitar with two humbucker pick ups, 22 fret rosewood neck, accessories include spare string set, gig bag, picks and 15 Watt amplifier.

 

Pentatonic Box Scales on C and A with usual or common chords - Chords that fit with the pentatonic box scales

C major and A minor pentatonic with common chords
C major and A minor pentatonic with common chords

Obviously these will also fit with the blues versions! The D5 chord is a power chord - it can exist as D major or D minor with box scales. Although we are missing F from both scales, the F chord itself will also work well with the pentatonic C and A minor scales.

Record yourself playing a simple rhythm (maybe about 4 bars) on each chord, then try soloing - you should find it works fairly well.

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Great Rock Songs To Learn

Playing rhythm counts too!

Why not learn the rhythm guitar to these songs, then see which ones use the pentatonic box or blues scale in the lead guitar? You can check them out on my profile.

20th Century Boy

Band In A Jam Project

Best Songs To Learn On Guitar

Best Way To Use A Guitar Pick

Hallelujah

Harley Davidson Guitar Stuff

Hey Joe

Highway to Hell

House of the Rising Sun

Improvise on guitar - first lesson

One

Perfect Day

Play Guitar REALLY Fast

Satisfaction

Smoke On The Water

Stairway to Heaven

Summer of 69

Playing in the pentatonic box.... - Or thinking outside the box?

You decide - you can type whatever you like in the search box to find it on Amazon, or simply browse through these pentatonic gems!

Why the Pentatonic Box works

Learning to play rather than analyse....

For guitar players, the pentatonic box eliminates the difficult notes and falls really nicely under the fingers. In terms of music theory, the major and the relative minor are interchangeable too just by changing the root of the scale. That doesn't just apply by the way to guitarists, it can be used on ANY instrument at all for easy improvising just by being aware of the notes. Here is a musical example in C:

C major contains:

C D E F G A B C

C is the ROOT

A harmonic minor includes:

A B C D E F G# A

A is the ROOT

When using the major or harmonic minor scales, you have to be constantly aware of what notes will clash terribly with the chord - FAH and TI in the major scale and RE, LAH and TI in the harmonic minor

Apart from the G#, they are the same but with a different ROOT or anchoring note.

C major pentatonic:

C D E G A C

C is the ROOT

A minor pentatonic:

A C D E G A

A is the ROOT

The notes contained are identical, one scale is a "mode" of the other. The pentatonic modes do not have the awkward notes in, so you can focus on the root, the fifth and the melody without fear of painful "crunches"

Major and Harmonic Minor Scales - With derived chords

Chords in C major and A minor
Chords in C major and A minor

Record yourself playing each chord over a simple rhythm for about four bars, then try to "solo" with the major and minor scales given here. Note which notes don't "work" with each chord and which notes do work best.

Improvisation Manuals for Teachers - Integrating the jazz theory with the simple approach

If you want to play jazz, you need to improvise. If you want to improvise, where do you start? How do you teach improvising too? Here are some great books to help with teaching improvisation.

Now, whether you play guitar or any other instrument, I hope you will experience the fun of jamming without fear!

© 2011 Lisa Marie Gabriel

Thanking you for visiting Improvising in the Pentatonic Box - I hope you found it useful!

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    • Paul Ward profile image

      Paul 3 years ago from Liverpool, England

      Clear and succinct - this will benefit a lot of guitarists.

    • deepakeapen lm profile image

      deepakeapen lm 6 years ago

      Very helpful lens. Pentatonic scales are the most versatile scales and has a lot of scope for creating melodic solos or riffs. Listening to a lot of blues songs will give a lot ideas for improvisation. To start with B.B. King's licks and riffs are the best for beginners. You will get a lot of improvisation ideas from his style. Another tip for improvising on scales is to first practice the scales on different positions !

    • TheLittleCardShop profile image

      Malu Couttolenc 6 years ago

      Wonderful information and easy way to understand the Pentatonic box, very helpful page :)

    • brando87 profile image

      brando87 6 years ago

      the box is very easy to move into from other positions as well. B.B. King's little sweet spot moves easily to the pentatonic box. good lens.

    • Richard-H profile image

      Richard 6 years ago from Surrey, United Kingdom

      For someone who has very little technical knowledge of the subject, this article has made it so much more clear.

    • Heather426 profile image

      Heather Burns 6 years ago from Wexford, Ireland

      Awesome! This is such a good explanation!