Improvisation: Feeling Your Way Through the Pentatonic Scales

My first instrument was reed fife, a five holed, side-blown flute. It only played a pentatonic scale, but it had amazing flexibility and it allowed me to do something that I had never done before: speak without words. It was at a Dickensian themed Christmas fair in the city where my grandparents lived. The pipe was made and sold to me by an old head who to me, at the tender age of 8, looked very much like some great sage from one of my beloved fantasies.

He showed me how to find my pulse then told me to play to that, just make sound. I went home and improvised until my eyelids fell from exhaustion and so came to know the musician’s high.

Music is like a language, only even more abstract and visceral. Sounds can provoke very raw emotion in people, as exhibited by different behaviors at different sorts of concerts. These musical sounds are also an excellent way to channel the emotions you experience for which you might not be able to find words, or for which words would be burdensome and weigh down the feeling.

And since you can’t really hit a sour note in a five note scale, there is no better way to test your voice and start improvising than by learning a few pentatonic scale positions on your guitar. At the bottom of the article I’ve put a few positions of the A minor pentatonic. If you don’t feel minor today, find a major pentatonic, they’re all over the web. Run through it until your fingers know it, then clear your head and let the instrument talk. Let the sounds flow up from your gut like in an automatic writing exercise and the tonal gravity will bring you back home when it’s time. You will find that the less you try to find ideas, the more the ideas will find you.

E|—————————–5—8
B|————————-5—8
G|——————–5—7
D|—————-5—7
A|———–5—7
E|——-5—8

E|——————————-8—10
B|—————————-8—10
G|———————-7—6
D|—————-7—10
A|———-7—10
E|—-8—10

E|———————————10—12
B|————————– 10—13
G|———————–9—12
D|—————-10—12
A|———-10—12
E|—-10—12

These are the first three positions of the minor pentatonic scale. The emphasized notes are the tonic note of A. You can see the points where the positions overlap, so after you’ve gotten these down can try creating runs that incorporate all of them with smooth transitions.

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