How To Mix The Major & Minor Pentatonic Scales
One of the biggest mistakes that I consistently see in guitarists that I coach, is in their approach to utilising new scales in their solos.
Rather than build upon their repertoire of ‘go-to’ licks and phrases, guitarists typically try to make a full switch to whatever new scale they are working on.
I encounter this when players are tackling all of the modal scales, as well as when they are working on the major pentatonic.
It is the major pentatonic scale that we will be focusing on in this quick win lesson, for a number of different reasons:
Firstly, the major pentatonic scale is widely used in the blues and is a brilliant scale to include in your playing.
Additionally, the major pentatonic scale is typically the first scale that guitarists tackle beyond the minor pentatonic scale and minor blues scale. This makes using it quite difficult for guitarists initially – partly because it is new, but also because it doesn’t lend itself so easily to the creation of licks and phrases.
The framework that we will cover here will not only make it easier to get to grips with the major pentatonic scale; you will also be able to apply the same idea in the future when working through other new scales, like the modes.
So with that in mind, let’s get into it!
The reason that guitarists get into trouble when learning new scales is that they often make a total switch from whatever they were playing before, to the new scale.
This is almost always problematic for three main reasons:
Firstly, in most cases the scale that you are working through is not totally new. I illustrated this point with the modes in one of my most recent quick win lessons – How To Start Soloing With The Modes.
In brief though, most new scales that you learn are likely to share some notes with scales already in your repertoire. So by thinking that you are playing a totally new scale, you are actually ignoring some of the useful overlap that exists between scales.
Secondly and more importantly, by making a full switch to any new scale that you might be working on, you lose all of your familiar touch points. If you have crafted a number of effective licks and phrases using the minor pentatonic or minor blues scales, you shouldn’t discard them. Not only have you worked hard for those licks, but they are what connect you to the instrument and make you feel comfortable.
Lastly, even if you hypothetically feel happy and confident to tackle a new scale from scratch, it doesn’t make sense to do so.
The minor pentatonic scale is the core sound of the blues.
So regardless of how many scales you add to your repertoire, if you want to retain a bluesy feel in your playing – you never want to stray too far away from the minor pentatonic.
If you do, it will take some of the beautiful bluesy feel away from your playing, which will most likely be to the detriment of your lead playing.
These problems apply whenever guitarists are trying to apply new scales in their playing. Sadly, it often leads them to give up on the new material that they are working through and revert to their go-to phrases and licks.
If you are moving away from the minor pentatonic for the first time and working on the major pentatonic, I want to ensure this doesn’t happen to you. So now, let’s turn our attention to the major pentatonic scale and look at its specifics.
The major pentatonic scale
Guitarists struggle with the major pentatonic scale for the reasons outlined above. They try to move away totally from the minor pentatonic and target the new and upbeat blues sound the major pentatonic offers. This is problematic for the reasons outlined above.
However there are two further reasons this approach causes guitarists difficulty:
Firstly, the major pentatonic scale is almost always mixed with the minor pentatonic scale. The major pentatonic lacks some of the edge and tension required for the blues. By itself, it sounds too happy and upbeat.
As a result, guitarists typically mix the scale alongside the minor pentatonic or blues scales. In this way they can retain edge and bite in their lead playing, whilst adding some of the warmth of the major scale.
Secondly, it is difficult to use the major pentatonic scale indiscriminately over all of the chords in a typical 12 bar blues progression.
In the key of B, a typical major blues progression would include the chords of B7, E7 and F#7.
B7 would be the I chord, E7 the IV chord and F#7 the V chord. If this is new to you, then I would recommend heading over to the article ‘An Introduction To The 12 Bar Blues‘. There I run through the theory behind these progressions and the usage of the roman numerals to explain which chords are being played.
For now though, let’s look at the clash that occurs with the IV chord:
To understand why there is a clash, we need to look at the notes in both the chord and the major pentatonic scale. Let’s look first at the chord of E7.
There are numerous different ways to play this chord, however one of the most frequently used is as follows:
It is difficult to play the major pentatonic scale over this chord, because there are certain notes within the scale that clash with those in the chord.
In the key of B major for example, the major pentatonic scale contains the note of D#. This note clashes with the note of D in the E7 chord and produces a dissonant and unpleasant sound. You can see this here:
The dark blue dots show the notes that appear in the E7 chord (not all of which it is worth noting, are played – you miss out the notes on both E strings).
As you can see, many of the notes that appear in the major pentatonic scale in this position also appear in the chord. The white circles show the additional notes that appear in the major pentatonic scale, but not in the chord.
Finally, the two yellow notes show those notes that appear in the major pentatonic scale, which clash with the notes found in the chord.
When you play these together, you end up with the following clash:
As you can hopefully hear, the clash that occurs between the notes found in the major pentatonic scale and the IV chord in a 12 bar blues progression is highly dissonant.
Long story short, it is unlikely that you will use the major pentatonic scale by itself. Rather, it is likely that you will mix the scale alongside notes of the minor pentatonic or blues scales.
Mixing the pentatonic scales
In my experience, the best way to start targeting the major pentatonic scale is by taking a minor pentatonic lead approach. So instead of trying to heavily target the major pentatonic scale, you do the opposite and start by playing almost nothing but the minor pentatonic scale.
This might sound a little odd, but it makes sense when we break it down into more manageable chunks:
1.) To begin with, I would recommend taking some of the ‘go-to’ licks that you use in your playing and with which you feel very comfortable. This is important, as you want to start in a position of comfort and familiarity.
2.) Once you have refreshed your memory on those ‘go-to’ licks, the next step is to establish where you can find the nearest notes from the major pentatonic scale which appear in the same section of the fretboard.
In the examples that I demonstrate in the video above, I start by playing in the first shape of the B minor pentatonic scale. As noted in my last quick win lesson – where I looked at how the major pentatonic scale crosses over with the minor – you will find the following notes in this section of the fretboard:
The notes shown here in dark blue are those which appear in just the minor pentatonic scale.
Those shown in white are those which appear in both the minor and the major pentatonic scales.
Lastly, those in yellow are the ‘new’ notes from the major pentatonic scale.
So, in this section of the fretboard, there are 3 ‘new’ notes from the major pentatonic scale which appear in 7 different positions.
3.) Even with this focused approach, trying to target all of these notes across this section of the fretboard is likely to be overwhelming. As such, I recommend trying to add in notes from the major pentatonic scale one at a time.
Specifically, I would recommend targeting notes that you can easily include within the framework of your initial licks.
I illustrate this from just before the 40 second mark in the video above, where I play the following:
At 120 beats per minute (BPM) this is how this lick sounds:
I then take the same essential framework for the lick, but now add in just one note from the major pentatonic scale.
The specific note I add in is the 8th fret on the G string. This is the major 3rd interval and the note of D#. This is how the same lick looks with the inclusion of that note:
At 120 beats per minute (BPM) this is how this lick sounds:
Now as you can see – even without the inclusion of the note from the major pentatonic, the licks aren’t identical.
This I feel is a byproduct of targeting additional notes from a new scale. It alters the flow of the lick and leads you to create slightly different ideas. Hopefully though, you can hear how just a single note from the major pentatonic alters the feel and character of the phrase.
As with so many elements of blues guitar, you can get a huge amount of mileage from this concept. In the single area of the fretboard on which we have been focusing, there are 3 new notes from the major pentatonic scale which appear in 7 different positions.
You can target each of these notes in different ways, and use a variety of techniques (like slides, bends and hammer ons) to add these notes into your licks. In doing so, you will quickly find yourself using the major pentatonic scale with confidence 😁
Once you feel comfortable targeting individual notes, you can start to increase the number of notes from the major pentatonic which appear in each phrase. In this way, you exponentially increase the number of potential combinations and can create a wide variety of interesting ideas in just a single area of the fretboard.
Lastly, once you feel comfortable in a single area of the fretboard, you can start to move this idea elsewhere. Here I would recommend working through the 5 shapes of the minor pentatonic scale. In each of these shapes, look at the crossover that exists between the minor and major pentatonic scale and repeat the steps laid out above.
As you go through the various steps of this process, there are just a few final points to keep in mind:
Firstly, there is no rush to craft as many major based pentatonic licks as you possibly can. It is much better to work through this idea slowly but to feel confident doing so than it is to fire through it but not totally grasp the crossover and connecting points between the major and minor scales.
It is also worth noting that adding just as single note from the major pentatonic scale into an otherwise minor pentatonic based lick can significantly change its feel. The benefit of this is that you don’t need to target lots of notes from a new scale to enrich the sound of your solos. The drawback however is that if you are not careful, you can totally alter the feel of your playing, almost by accident.
As such, when you are working through this idea, do so with intention. Target each individual note with intention and listen to the impact it has on each phrase. Once you start to feel more comfortable combining phrases together, you can then do the same with the overall feel of your solo.
This will ensure that you define the sound and feel of your solos with purpose, as opposed to mixing scales and hoping for the best.
On that note, this quick win lesson comes to an end. Good luck! 😁 Let me know how you get on and if you have any questions, just send them across on your dashboard. Otherwise I’ll see you next week for another quick win!