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Rut Busters! Pentatonic Purgatory (#1)

Updated: Jan 5, 2021

The Minor Pentatonic scale is usually the first scale beginning guitarists learn - and rightly so. It is ubiquitous; it occurs in every culture's music on the face of the planet.

Furthermore, the geometry of the scale pattern on the guitar neck is easy to visualize and access, and is the predominant scale in all forms of popular music.

So no matter how advanced you get, you will never get away from the mighty Minor Pentatonic scale!

So the first order of business is to accept it and recognize it for what it is; a beautiful, foundational thing!

In spite of the inflammatory nature of this blog's title implying that ruts need to be busted and using pentatonic scale patterns is akin to purgatory, the fact of the matter is you have to have a rut in place in order to bust it, and the fact that being stuck in a pentatonic rut feels like purgatory means you have done it so much that you're really good at it. And that's a good thing!

See the introductory blog of the Rut Busters series wherein I talk about the absolute necessity of having ruts - I call them the "default mode," and how you need a positive and accepting attitude about them.

Concerning the Minor Pentatonic scale, there are many different permutations (they're called, "modes") and fingerings, but for the sake of simplicity I'm going to focus in on just one piece of the most common Minor Pentatonic pattern. I call these isolated pieces of a scale, "functional areas."

A functional area is a particularly useful area of a scale pattern in terms of ease of fingering. Functional areas are the bread-and-butter vocabulary from which to draw when soloing.

I go into great detail about all this in my lesson series, Concepts for Basic Improvising. What you are about to get here is a small portion of Lesson 6: Adding the Dorian 6 to Pentatonic Patterns.

We're going to deal with the Minor Pentatonic scale in the key of A. The large scale pattern is this:

The "functional area" of this pattern is this:

I've included the scale degrees or numbered intervals - it's important that you know that information.

  • For those of you who know enough to ask the question, "Why didn't you say, 'flat-7 (or minor 7th) and flat 3 (or minor 3rd)?'" - I refer you to my blog, Arguing Over Fretboard Diagrams.

I'm not going to get into possible fingerings here; just finger it however you want to. Fingering is always relative to what it is you're doing - where you're coming from, where you're going and so on.

On the 4th and 3rd strings (the 7th, Root, 3rd and 4th) we have what's commonly called "the box."

This is a very important area and you should already be familiar with it - if you're stuck in a rut, that is! If not, you need to start here. (If you are not a Master Guitar School Site Member you will be prompted to sign up to access the lesson.)

To help bust the Minor Pentatonic rut we're going to add a single note to the pattern above.

Notice there are two possible notes we could add on the 2nd string between the 5th and the 7th. They are both 6ths. The one closest to the 5th is the Aeolian 6th. The one we're going to add for this lesson is the one closest to the 7th - the Dorian 6th. That results in this pattern:

Getting into the complete Dorian Mode is beyond the scope of rut busting, but just adding this one note to the Minor Pentatonic scale can back-door you into the Dorian Mode.

The Dorian 6th adds a wonderful non-pentatonic flavor to any solo - assuming it's consonant with the chord progression.

In a typical Blues context, the Dorian 6th can be added at any point in the song form, but is especially strong when played over the IV chord. That's because the Dorian 6th in the key of A is the major 3rd of the IV chord - in the case of a Blues in A that would be D7. The Dorian 6th says, "IV!"

The 3rd of any chord is what I call a "money note" or a "target note." It's the strongest, most definitive-sounding note the chord. You want to create phrases that emphasize the 3rd of the chord, and so leaning towards using the Dorian 6th over the IV chord makes a lot of sense. Although, to reiterate, it can be used anywhere in the form with no problem - and doing so will help you to bust out of Pentatonic Purgatory!


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