How to Use the Pentatonic Scale in a Lead Guitar Solo

The pentatonic scale is the most common scale used for playing rock lead because it sounds great over every chord change in a key, and you can begin to make music with it almost immediately. There are three ways to play the pentatonic scale pattern for lead guitar solo:

  • A progression in a major key

  • A progression in a minor key

  • A blues progression

The advantage of the pentatonic scale pattern is that you can use just one pattern to satisfy all three of these musical settings. This is an unbelievable stroke of luck for beginning guitarists, and you can apply a shortcut, a quick mental calculation, that allows you to instantly wail away in a major-key song, a minor-key song, or a blues song — simply by performing what is essentially a musical parlor trick. This is a great quick-fix solution to get you playing decent-sounding music virtually instantly.

As you get more into the music, you may want to know why these notes are working the way they do. For now, here's a brief explanation that'll get you playing in the right scale: A minor pentatonic scale uses the same notes as the major pentatonic scale in the key three half-steps higher. For example, if you take the notes in the G minor pentatonic scale, you can use the same notes for a solo in Bb major, which is three half steps higher (G to Ab to A to Bb). Because the blues scale is a form of the minor scale, you can just use the pentatonic scale in that key.

Play the descending scale in the following figure, which is in C pentatonic major in eighth notes, beginning with your left-hand little finger on the 1st string, 8th fret.

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This particular pentatonic pattern allows you to keep your left hand stationary; all the fingers can reach their respective fret easily without stretching or requiring left-hand movement.

Now that you’ve played the scale, try it in a musical context. This is where you witness the magic that transpires when you play the same notes over different feels in different keys.

Pentatonics over a major key

The following figure shows a C major progression in a medium-tempo 4/4 groove. The written solo is a mix of quarter notes and eighth notes from the C major pentatonic scale, moving up and down the neck.

Solo in C major over a medium-tempo 4/4.
Solo in C major over a medium-tempo 4/4.

Pentatonics over a minor key

And now, as Monty Python once said, for something completely different. Or is it? In the following figure, the feel changes (to a heavy backbeat 4/4), the key changes (to A minor), but you still play the same notes. Notice the strikingly different results.

An A minor solo over a heavy backbeat 4/4.
An A minor solo over a heavy backbeat 4/4.

Pentatonics over a blues progression

And now, incredibly, a different groove again that will work with the same scale you've already played. The following figure is an up-tempo blues shuffle in A. Note that the eighth notes in this example swing — that is, they are to be played in a long-short scheme.

An A blues solo over an up-tempo shuffle.
An A blues solo over an up-tempo shuffle.

Click here to download and print this guitar tab.

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