Can You Make Pentatonics Better?

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Great music tells a story. It builds on a plot and holds the listener’s attention as the story unfolds. We are especially moved by soloists who bare their souls and who keep us riveted with every twist and turn from their narrative. Pentatonics are the backbone of modern guitar vocabulary. Partially because they just sound good, but also because they lay so easily on guitar. There are several ingredients that make a guitarist sound brilliant, but one of the most important is chromaticism. Could there a be a way we could combine these two? Let’s find out.

This term chromaticism comes from the Greek word chroma, which means “color.” Using chromaticism means having the freedom to use all 12 notes over a given chord. Imagine the possibilities and freedom to play any note over a chord in composition or improvising! The quickest way to start adding color notes to the minor pentatonic scale is to add the 2nd and the 6th, which then gives you a Dorian mode. I’ve outlined it below using the A minor pentatonic scale.

A Minor pentatonic: A–C–D–E–G

A Dorian: A–B–C–D–E–F#–G

In general, there are chromatic notes that are outside the chord/scale, and notes that are outside the key. The latter carries a lot of tension against a chord and needs movement or resolution. From my days of playing jazz gigs in Toledo, OH, I recall what legendary trumpeter Jimmy Cook once told me regarding playing outside: “You can go up to the attic, but you have to come back down.” In other words, you can play outside tonally, but you must resolve at some point in order for your music to sound coherent.

Let’s get started on this journey of chromaticism together.

Before we go hog wild and add random notes, let’s begin by taking an A minor pentatonic scale and fill in the chromatic notes between the already existing box pattern. It’s almost arbitrary, but it will enable you to hear different colors added within the scale (Ex. 1).

Chromatic Burst of Energy. In beat 1 of Ex. 2, we start with an A Dorian fragment followed by an extended chromatic line. The line in beat two starts on the b7 (G), highlighting the b5 (Eb) on beat 3, descending chromatically all the way down to B, and ending with A major pentatonic.

Bounce Around! We start on the b5 (Eb) followed by a typical chromatic rotation where we bounce around the b5. This idea lays quite well in the familiar pentatonic box. It’s easy and will add spice to your shredding (Ex. 3).

Side Stepping. A common approach to playing “outside” is side stepping. In other words, take the scale you’d normally use and displace it by a half-step above or below. By doing this, you’ll have instant access to notes that are harmonically outside the key—don’t think of them as wrong notes, just coloring notes. In Ex. 4 we take a pentatonic pattern from E minor pentatonic and sequence it in F minor pentatonic. As the notes can be analyzed over the E5 chord, it’s more important to view them as passing notes. Remember, the power of the sequence overrides the harmony!

Extend the Side Step. Ex. 5 uses the same concept of side stepping above but adds a note (D) to the displaced pattern. By doing so, this breaks the predictability of the phrase and places subsequent notes in new places.

Changing Tones.Ex. 6 is a fun lick to learn that starts with a strong, repeated three-note polyrhythmic figure (A#–B–D). The chromatic part occurs on beat 4 and utilizes changing tones, which is a type of non-harmonic tone.

Don’t Start On 1. The line starts on the 2nd (B), goes up a whole-step to C# followed by a double chromatic approach to Bb, down a whole-step to (G#), and finally resolving to the root (A). Once the A note is reached, there’s a cascading flurry of four-note groups settling in A minor pentatonic (Ex. 7).

Scrambles. This example (Ex. 8) was inspired by the legendary New York guitarist, Mark Hitt. Mark was a unique player, combining a rock sensibility with a jazz quotient. He developed an arsenal of twisting lines using chromaticism that he referred to as “scrambles.”

The pattern alternates between 1–3–4 and 1–2–4 fingerings, a typical fingering of the diminished scale. It can be analyzed where notes of the pentatonic are being targeted, but it’s all about the texture and excitement that is created. Make sure to play the line with slurs to get a fluid, legato sound.

Half-Step Approach. In this instance, we take the Im triad (Am) from the pentatonic scale and approach each chord tone from a half-step below (Ex. 9). This is more of a concept and exercise rather than a lick. This idea can be used with just about any improvising application.

One String Wonder. Ex. 10 highlights a series of chromatically descending half-steps. It’s an easy technique to get down and one I often use. It provides melodic interest, but also serves as an easy way to connect one position to the next. Here, we start on a high F that walks down a fourth to C in half-steps, followed by a C minor blues phrase.

Practice Tip

These chromatic lines sound best when played fast and with conviction. As always, approach new material slowly and accurately. Ignore your inner voice that may tell you that the “outside” notes are wrong. Once you’re able to play the lines up to speed, you’ll be amazed by how impressive it sounds. These ideas that will add motion, color, and excitement to your playing and enhance your musical expression when soloing.

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