Breaking “out of the box” in the blues

Many guitarists have trouble breaking out of the “pentatonic box.”  I probably spent the first 10 years of my guitar existence playing exclusively in the pentatonic box.  But I also have to add that the pentatonic box (what’s sometimes called the “minor pentatonic,” and what is referred to as the “G-shape pentatonic” on my website) is an essential element of blues (and rock) guitar.

One would be hard-pressed to find a blues or blues-influenced guitarist who doesn’t play “in the box” at least some of the time (if not 50% of the time or more).  And there are plenty of guitarists who barely ever step out of the box and have been very influential (Eric Clapton and Dickey Betts come to mind).  The point being that there’s nothing wrong with the box.  But I do feel that sticking too closely to the box can sound one-dimensional after a while, and I am hoping that this portion of the primer can help you find some new ways to get through a blues tune.

Interesting observation for the Dead & Phish heads:  Trey Anastasio plays in the box a lot, especially in rock songs like “Chalkdust Torture” and “Character Zero.”  Jerry Garcia, on the other hand, hardly ever played in the box at all.  Even when he played a straight-ahead rock song like Chuck Berry’s “Around And Around,” he approached it differently than most rock players would.  That’s part of what made him such a unique player.  He simply didn’t approach the guitar in any kind of conventional way (at least not conventional for a rock guitarist–if you check out some jazz & bluegrass, you’ll get a little more of an insight into where Jerry came from).

Add the thirds of each of the I, IV, and V chords to the minor pentatonic scale

If you’ve gone through the HCG Music Theory Primer, or if you have some working knowledge of music theory, you know that the 3rd is a very important note within a chord.  Some would say it’s the most important.  It’s the note that determines whether a chord is major or minor.  If you’re in the key of A, the I, IV, and V chords are A, D, and E.  The thirds of those chords, respectively, are C#, F#, and G#.

Interestingly, the A minor pentatonic scale doesn’t contain the thirds of ANY of those chords.  So, by playing exclusively within the minor pentatonic, you are missing out on what is arguably the most important note of each of the chords.  Perhaps this is part of the reason why pentatonic improvisation can sound a little flat after a while.

By the way, the A major pentatonic scale, on the other hand, does contain a C# and an F#, so mixing the major pentatonic in with the minor pentatonic can be a good way to add a little more flavor to your blues playing.  This idea is explored thoroughly in lesson #3 of this primer.

I’ll show you what I mean in the key of A:  First of all, the chords in a basic 12-bar blues progression A would be A, D, and E (or A7, D7, and E7).  The 3rds of those chords, respectively, are C#, F#, and G#.  And the notes in an A minor pentatonic scale are  A, C, D, E, G.  Honestly I find it strange that the minor pentatonic works at all in the blues, considering that this is the case.  But that’s the blues for you–it flies in the face of most conventional music theory.

To keep things familiar, let’s start with the standard pentatonic box, the “G shape” pentatonic, placed in the 5th position in the key of A to make the A minor pentatonic scale.  The thirds of the chords are shown as they sit in relation to the scale:

Minor pentatonic plus 3rds of the I,IV, and V chords

Don’t interpret this diagram as a scale in and of itself.  It is instructive, though, to see that the 3rds sit practically everywhere BUT within the pentatonic scale itself.  Again I have to wonder, why does the minor pentatonic scale even work in the blues?  Even the name “minor” pentatonic makes it seem weird that you would use this scale over non-minor chords, right?  What, are we nuts?  I dunno, but it works.

You have to keep in mind, too, that each of these 3rds really only works over its own chord.  The C# (the 3rd of the I chord) is not going to sound right over the IV chord.  The G# (the 3rd of the V chord) won’t sound right over the I chord, etc.  Therefore you have to remain conscious at all times of which chord you are playing over.  I realize this is something that many guitarists have trouble with, and I think the blues is the perfect place to begin to learn this skill because the progression is so innately familiar to most of us.

Using CAGED to get out of the box by following the I, IV, and V chords

So let’s break this down a little further and take a look at how we can approach each chord in the 12-bar blues.  One “trick” that I use is to consider the minor pentatonic scale as my “home base,” but then I use the CAGED system to locate the notes that are specific to the I, IV, and V chords. From there, it’s almost just a matter of connecting the dots, landing on the right notes as the chords change.

3a-d2 3a-d3 3a-d4