Pentatonic Improvisation with the Greats

Guitar has come to be known as the lead instrument of modern music, leaving the rest of the band tragically overlooked, but so it goes.  Great lead guitarists are some of our most celebrated cultural heroes, players like Jerry Garcia, Eric Clapton, and Eddie Van Halen (to list a few of the well known older guys) are iconic and probably more recognizable to most people than a lot of other important historical figures.  So how do they make their instruments talk like they do?  How do players like Jerry and Clapton say so much with so little flash and speed? (both of them can move plenty fast, listen to Cream or the Dead in the 60s) Pentatonic scales are the best place for a beginning guitar player to find their improvisational footing, mainly because they are so hard to foul up and so easy to remember.

Language is an abstract thing.  Sounds make up words, which represent physical things or ideas.  These abstractions can cause powerful emotional reactions, we learn this as kids when we start to tease and call people nasty names (and more tangibly when we ourselves are called nasty names), or even just shouting for our parents’ attention.  We also learn the cathartic value of a good swear word.  The stubbed toe seems to hurt less with a good “darn it!” (keeping it in kid speak, adults have a much broader palette of colorful vulgarities).

Music is the same way, except the meanings attached are very primal.  Think about Bach’s Toccata Fugue of great fame: it’s been intimidating people for centuries with its dark grandiosity.  Never a word to it, but it has said things to people.

The legendary Captain Beefheart told one of his guitarists to think of his guitar as a conjuring stick, a conduit through which he would channel the spirit world, not something he commanded and played.  Charlie Parker (not a guitarist, but he makes a good point here) said you need to “learn all the changes, then forget them”.  You don’t thumb through a mental dictionary and grammar book while constructing a sentence, you simply have the thought then speak.

Study your pentatonic positions and play them until you can find them blindfolded and drunk (don’t worry if you’re not fast yet), then put on a record or a jam track and do some conjuring, just don’t think about it too much.  Like a Zen archer, just let the music make itself and you’ll be amazed at what comes out of your axe.  The quick success with pentatonic scales will inspire you to expand your vocabulary further and see what else you have to say.

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