Welcome to my guide to blues guitar scales. In my earlier article, I covered the reasons why you should learn the pentatonic blues guitar scale, and offered a few tips on how to get the most from your practice sessions.
As a follow up to that initial article, I’ve decided to describe how to play the pentatonic scale in the key of E in all five positions on the neck. I’ve chosen the key of E partly because it is a common key to use when playing guitar, but also because the root note for the scale in position 1 coincides with the lowest note on the guitar (E). Subsequent positions therefore work their way up the neck rather neatly.
The first position starts with the root note of the scale so this first pattern begins with an open 6th string (E). Position 1 is the first position you should learn. Many great solos are based around this pattern. You play it as follows.
Blues Guitar Scale – Position 1
If you’re new to this form of notation (known as guitar tablature, or tab), the bottom line represents the 6th (thickest) string and the top line the 1st (thinnest) string. The numbers indicate which fret to hold the string down on when plucking. A “0″ (zero) indicates that the string be played open (without holding any frets).
Position 1 is a great place to hang out. I very often use this pattern as a “home” spot on the fretboard when playing lead because there are many great licks you can play within this pattern.
You can also add in the odd extra note to spice things up a bit. One thing in particular that sounds great is to bend the 3rd string up one whole step (or 2 frets) whilst at the same time bending the 2nd string up a half step. You achieve this by holding the 2 strings down with the flat end portion of your index finger and twisting counter-clockwise so that the 3rd string bends more than the 2nd. Mess around with this until you get it right.
Make sure you are bending to the correct notes (this is very important). You can check by playing each string the appropriate number of frets above the position where you’ll be bending to compare. With all bending, it is extremely important that you know where you are bending to i.e. which note you are trying to hit. All too often you’ll hear inexperienced players simply bending the note to any old place – this can sound terrible. You need to bend to the correct note – every time. This comes with practice.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of exactly how to play this position, I should warn you that this is probably the most awkward position to play across the neck. But before you throw your hands up in exasperation and skip on to the next position just bear in mind that, once you’ve nailed this position, the remaining 3 will be easy (or at least easier than this one). So, here we go!
Position 2 starts with the second note of the pentatonic scale, which is a G. This note is played on the third fret of the 6th string.
You play it as follows.
Blues Guitar Scale – Position 2
Now there is a bit of controversy in guitar circles about the correct fingering of this position. Some folk insist that you must play the scale using the fingering I use in the demo video, which is fine and it does have the advantage of allowing you to really race across the neck if you’re playing a really fast lick. However, it’s a bit awkward and counter-intuitive to play the pattern in this way because you end up using your weaker fingers most of the time. It’s much more comfortable to use your stronger fingers (e.g. first and third fingers) predominantly and this can also allow for easier string bending etc, which usually makes for better, more interesting soloing. By the way, my fingering in the video starts with my second finger (2) and then pinky (4), then 1, 4, 1, 4, 1, 3, 2, 4, 2, 4. Depending on what I’m playing, I sometimes play this whole pattern using just my first and third fingers.
Pattern 3 is one of my favourite patterns for playing blues solos – lots of possibilities and variations with this one.
While you practice these different patterns in the different positions on the neck, you might find yourself speeding up for certain sections because you feel more comfortable. The reverse will almost certainly be true also because you will find it more difficult to make your fingers comply with your wishes when playing scales with your weaker fingers. This is perfectly normal, but you need to be aware of it and you must also take steps to eradicate these variations in speed from your practice because, if they become engrained, you’ll find you are stick with them and when you need to play them in an even tempo during a song, it won’t sound so good.
So what’s the solution? It’s actually very simple – use a metronome to keep time as you practice. This will keep your tempo consistent so that you’ll eventually play at an even speed quite naturally and without even thinking about it.
Blues Guitar Scale – Position 3
Now, you’ll notice from the video above that the fingering used for this position is much easier. The first 6 notes across the neck are all played with the first and third (index and ring) fingers, which are your strongest and most comfortable fingers to use. This usually comes as a huge relief for beginners because all of a sudden they can play half of one of this pattern without breaking a sweat. The rest of the pattern is pretty easy too and just requires the deployment of the pinky once or twice, although depending on where you are on the neck, it can be just as easy to use the first and third fingers all the way across.
I often use this one in conjunction with pattern 1 because there are many licks which transition between the 2 positions.
Little and often is the secret to mastering any given guitar technique. Learning any skill requires patience, but there are things you can do to speed up the learning process. You learn best when you are fresh, so if you are struggling to nail a particular element of these scales just take a break. You could even come back to it tomorrow or the next day. I often find that my subconscious mind works away at a particular problem in the background as I go about my daily business so that when I return to practice again I am able to play the piece that was giving me such trouble the previous day. That said, you won’t get anywhere if you spend more time relying on your subconscious than you do actually practicing, After all, it takes 10,000 hours of practice of any skill before you truly master it. So, when you’re practicing something new, try giving it 10 minutes a day, but do it every single day. You’ll soon reap the rewards – it’s all about applying yourself consistently. If you pick up the guitar once a week and cram in a mammoth 3hr practice session, you probably won’t achieve as good a result as if you played for just 15 minutes per session but practiced every day.
Blues Guitar Scale – Position 4
Here you could use the following fingering – 1, 4, 1, 4, 1, 3, 1, 3, 2, 4, 1, 4. This is my preferred fingering and the one I demonstrate in the video.
Nearly at the end now, just one more pattern to go.
Now, once you’ve learned the pattern for this position you might think that’s all you need to know. However, this is where the hard work really starts. Knowing the scales and how to play them in the different positions up and down the fretboard is equivalent to knowing the letters of the alphabet. You still need to learn how to put the letters together to make the words (I think of licks as the words) and then stick them all together in a sensible way to construct sentences, paragraphs and books. OK, so I’m starting to stretch the metaphor a little here but you get the drift.
I recommend that you learn to play these scales in all the positions I have shown you for the key of E and then make sure you know how to play them in the other keys. Once you’ve got that sorted you should then learn how to link the various different patterns together so that you think of them less as 5 separate patterns that you play across the neck and more as just sections of a whole, which you can piece together in any way that fits the mood of the piece you’re playing. If you can achieve this then your improvisation and composing will get much better and you’ll impress your friends and family with the new found level of competence you have achieved.
Blues Guitar Scales – Position 5
I love this pattern because you can really whizz across the neck so it’s excellent for fast runs and any blistering solos you want to slip into your lead parts to impress your audience. The fingering I usually use is either as per the video, which starts with the 2nd finger followed by 4, 2, 4, 1, 4, 1, 4, 2, 4, 2, 4. Or alternatively I sometimes just use my first and third fingers all the way across. It really depends on the lick or riff I’m playing as to which I choose. It’s best to remain flexible on these matters.
So there you have all five positions of the minor pentatonic blues guitar scale for the key of E. Go back and study each of the patterns in this guide, practice hard and you will achieve the results you deserve.