I've been playing guitar for about 9 years now. From a young age, my teachers focused a lot on pentatonic scales. So that's what I'm defaulting to when improvising, soloing, writing stuff, etc.

Recently, I learned the modes (from switching to a new teacher). However, I'm not finding them very easy to apply to my music.

I'm very comfortable using the pentatonics in many different ways so that it sounds different in different situations. However, I'm looking or some recommendations on maybe what kind of scales to focus on? Or certain styles?

  • Consider that pentatonic scales are basically just the major/minor scales with the questionable notes removed. The notes that are left in the pentatonic scales are the ones that almost always sound good no matter how you play them. With that in mind, think of the left-out tones as color notes or passing tones. You don't want to linger on them, but they can be used to spice up an otherwise standard lick. Jan 9, 2013 at 22:06

6 Answers 6


It may be less about breaking out of the pentatonics, and more about breaking in to them: breaking them open.

When you're playing a run with a minor pentatonic scale, throw a 2 and 6 in to the mix. At first you'll pick the wrong ones some or most of the time. But that will pass. Suddenly you've got Natural Minor, Dorian Minor, and Locrian under your belt. Even if you don't associate the names with the scales, your ear will start to learn which to use when.

Here's an E Minor Pentatonic with E Natural Minor notes (in parens).

$6.0 (2) 3 $5.0 2 (3) $4.0 2 (4) $3.0 2 $2.0 (1) 3 $1.0 (2) 3

Also see the answers to this qustion.


I still (despite meaning to learn) don't know which mode I am in. Ever...

But I know that if I look ahead to the chords coming up I can plan on dropping down a semitone rather than a full tone on my way to the new chord, for example, or I can shift my position so that I am no longer at the 5th fret, but at the 8th and where the fingers naturally sit here gives you a different feel as you start to play.

Change position, or change the chord shapes you plan your scales around and use trial and error.

It will come.


My advice would be: singing before playing(aka 'follow your ears'). So: play a chord and try to sing the broken chord (A7 -> A C# E G) and play this on your instrument, from the root note to the heighest note you can reach in a position, then back to the lowest note in that position and back to the root. Listen, sing and play. Then, try to listen where the 'gaps' are in the broken chord. In other words, the second, fourth, and sixth in this example. Now sing the whole scale (in the case of the A7 chord it will be likely if you'll end up with the myxolydian scale) and play in one position in the same way as the broken chord: root to highest, back to lowest, back to root. Don't forget to sing! This will get you aquired to the sound of the scale.

Next take the D7 chord and do the same in the same position as you did all the A7 stuff. That way you won't end up playing in patterns, like you most likely do with the pentatonic scales (don't we all?).

Third: play a sequence like |A7 |% |D7 |% | and record that on a computer or whatever. Try to make the recording a few minutes long. Next, sing an improvisation over this recording (when possible record this as well) and repeat a couple of times. After this, try to play some improvisation and again do this in one position (try to stay away from patterns, but follow your ears). It's also a good idea to sing and play at the same time, like George Benson, in order to get your ears and fingers 'in sync' with each other.

This approach is of course usable for any sequence of chords. You can try to play some fairly easy jazz standards.

I hope this is written clear enough for you, as I'm (obviously) not a native English speaker/writer. Feel free to ask me to clear things up if needed. Good luck!


David that's a great question. Understanding how to use your pentatonic scale, in major and minor keys, is crucial. Ultimately it all comes down to major and minor key, except when learning the modes and playing in jazz scenarios.

If you like that jazz sound then the modes are for you. If you like popular music like blues, rock, country and that sort of thing, you're gonna better off learning your pentatonic scales in major and minor scales, and learning how each one of those would work for the song.


I had the same problem, I for the longest time only knew the pentatonic scales and would usually resort to them to play any sort of lead.

Even when I started learning about modes I would still just use the good ol' pentatonic scales.. thats because that is what I conditioned myself to play. You know them so well that they just flow through your fingers when playing. The cool thing about modes, there is 7 of them and they contain the 5 pentatonic scales. The 7 modes on a guitar all link together and they can be real fun when you learn to control them how you do with your knowledge of the pentatonic. My advice for you is to just play around with the modes 1 at a time, get it to the point where you can go up and down each scale just as fast a the pentatonic. Once you know them well enough try connecting them in different ways.

But don't throw away the pentatonic, they are very good and the root of a lot of classic rock and blues.

Good luck!


Learn which of the modal scale shapes contain the pentatonic shapes you know. This way you can still use the pentatonic shapes as a foundation or home base while having access to the diatonic notes if you feel like adding them.

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