Shifting Pentatonics On Guitar

How To Create New Sounds With a Scale You Already Know

The Minor Pentatonic scale shown in the picture below is probably the most used and abused pattern in the history of lead guitar:

Minor Pentatonic First Position

Today I want to show you an easy way to introduce new feelings using this same exact pattern.

Suppose you have to play for some bars over a A minor chord.

The A Minor Pentatonic scale would be the perfect candidate for this job, but after a while, it will become boring!

What should you do to keep the audience awake? Just shift this pattern along the neck. Keep reading to learn how!

Playing Over a Minor Chord: Shift The Pentatonic For New Sounds

Let's stick with our A minor chord, that is composed of the note:

ACE

Shift 2 frets up: B minor pentatonic

The first thing to try is to shift the A minor pentatonic 2 frets up, to get a B minor pentatonic. The notes in this last scale are:

BDEF#A

B Minor Pentatonic First Position

You'll notice that this scale introduces a new palette of feeling; you could use this shifting here and there to create new colours in your playing.

Shift 7 frets up: E minor pentatonic

Another cool jump is to move the A minor pentatonic up by 7 frets: you'll get an E minor pentatonic that have the notes:

EGABD

E Minor Pentatonic First Position

Again, another spectrum of new sounds!

Example

Listen to this example in which the three scales are played over an A minor chord (click here for the pdf guitar tab)

Shifted pentatonic over a minor chord

Why This Trick Works Well?

The Minor Pentatonic Scale lacks of the 2nd and the 6th , that frequently cause dissonant effect with the backing harmony. The E Minor Pentatonic, as well as the B minor pentatonic, do not have notes that clash with the notes in the A minor chord; however, they both don't have the minor third of the A minor chord (C), so using them introduce a vague feeling, something similar to suspended chords.

This trick works also with a minor seventh chord; for example, a A minor seventh chord is composed of:

ACEG

The minor 7th, (G) do not clash with any note in the B minor pentatonic, and it's even present in the E minor pentatonic!

General Rule For Playing Over a Minor Chord

Of course this method hold true for all the keys.

If we would have to play over a E minor chord, we could use the E minor pentatonic, the F# minor pentatonic (2 frets up) or the B minor pentatonic (7 frets up).

So, generalizing the concept, over a minor chord (or a minor seventh chord) you can use:

  • The minor pentatonic on the same root (A minor -> A minor pentatonic)
  • The minor pentatonic 2 half-steps (2 frets) up (A minor -> B minor pentatonic)
  • The minor pentatonic 7 half-steps (7 frets) up (A minor -> E minor pentatonic)

Shifted Pentatonics For a Major Chord

Of course we can also shift pentatonic over major chords.

Let's take a C major chord:

CEG

C Major Pentatonic over a C Major Chord

This is the classic choice. All the notes in the C major chord belong to this scale, and the absence of the 4th (F) and the 7th (B) avoids any possible clash.

CDEGAC

C Major Pentatonic

7 Frets Up. G Major Pentatonic Over a C Major Chord

We can get interesting effects if we shift the pattern 7 half-steps up, or 5 half-steps down (from C to G):

GABDEG

Note: the 3rd of the G Major Pentatonic scale (B) is the maj7 of C, then this scale works great also on C Major 7 chords.

G Major Pentatonic

Things to try: playing Over a Dominant Chords

Like many things in music theory, rules are there only to show you the way; it's up to you to learn and break them them experimenting with new things.

It should be clear now that the nutshell of shifting pentatonic is to use known patterns in neck position that do not clash too much with the underlying harmony;

Don't feel yourself trapped in any particular shape or pattern; you can change a note or two based on your ear judgment.

Here are some interesting shifting that you can try over a dominant chord

Notes in a C7 chord

CEGBb

  • Minor Pentatonic shifted 3 half-steps down (C7 -> A Minor Pentatonic)
  • Minor Pentatonic shifted 7 half-steps up (C7 -> G Minor Pentatonic)
  • Minor Pentatonic shifted 2 half-steps up (C7 -> D Minor Pentatonic)
  • Minor Pentatonic shited 5 half-steps up (C7 -> F Minor Pentatonic)
  • Minor Pentatonic shifted 2 half-steps down (C7 -> Bb minor pentatonic)

Use our scale finder tool to see the patterns for these scales.

Note: some of these scales introduce an 11th interval (F in case of tonic C), that has an unstable sound; it's good for creating tension and movement, or for playing over a 7sus4 chord.

Shifted Pentatonics: conclusion

Our experiments in moving pentatonic patterns up and down that neck have come to an end. Of course, there's more to learn: other types of scales, chords, intervals.

But now you should have solid fundamentals to experiment by yourself, maybe with the help of FaChords interactive guitar tools. To stay updated, enter your email here.

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