Improvising With the Pentatonic Scale

Improvising really isn’t as difficult as you might think. I know many of you have probably been trained in the school of “play what’s on the page, dummy – and don’t deviate!” but that really doesn’t do anything for you when it comes time to improvise or create a solo. You’ll find I maintain a fairly strong emphasis throughout my guitar lessons on how to develop your own skills improvising with the guitar.

The pentatonic scale is, in my opinion, the most important of all the guitar scales for improvising, because once you get the pattern down, you literally can’t go wrong.

This lesson should give you a bit more of a feel for how to get started improvising with the pentatonic scale.

Watch the lesson on Youtube.

Leave a Reply 42 comments

Mike Bromley - November 17, 2009 Reply

If A Major is the 1 chord, you cannot play the flatted 3rd note (C)of the Minor pentatonic scale.

Jonathan Boettcher - November 25, 2009 Reply

Hi Mike, took me a while to think about this one.

You’re right, from a technical standpoint. The flatted 3rd doesn’t go with the A.

That said, if you compare the A Major chord (as barred at the 5th fret) to the Am Pentatonic scale, there is only one note that doesn’t work – the C# you mentioned. The C# is on the G string, and takes a backseat to all the A’s and E’s that are happening in there.

So technically, it shouldn’t work, though if you play it and listen to it, it does work. Funny thing about the ear. The ear hears a strong A and E sound, and says “ok, C works fine with those” and it just works…

I was playing Pride and Joy the other day and realized that this is what happens in this song too… Chords are in E, yet you solo in E Pentatonic.

Just one of those things you can’t be a stickler on…

    Skip Kanosky - November 10, 2010 Reply

    Thanks, I like it! To warm up I use the”Vontage”
    commercial run

Pop Berkley - December 2, 2009 Reply

Thanks for the lessons on the Pentatonic Scales, and the short lesson on tieing it together. Where I get lost is what some call “boxes”.
If I am on track, there are five boxes for each key. Each box starts
at a different position on the neck. Also, each box has different patterns.
It would be great if you could cover this in a straight forward way and then do the same thing you just did, tie the chording to the solos using different boxes.
I think I get it, but some clarity is needed so I can practice the right stuff and not develop bad habits.

    Jonathan Boettcher - December 2, 2009 Reply

    Hi Pop, that’s an excellent question. Boxes are a good way of looking at the fretboard – but yeah, they can be confusing if not explained properly. I’ll add that to the list.


      scottiefm - July 15, 2010 Reply

      Jonathan..These guys are right.. I’ve been playing for years and now getting more serious. The Am pentatonic is the greatest but where do we go from here? please take it slow and show us other boxes and when to play them… can”t wait

joe - December 5, 2009 Reply

hi what is a box i have never heard of would be great if you could cover this thank for the lessons.

    Jonathan Boettcher - December 5, 2009 Reply

    Hey Joe – very simply boxes refer to a scale pattern at a certain place on the fretboard. The box might cover 4 frets, and the pattern within that box would show you the scale at that place on the fretboard.

    You can play a scale at numerous places on the fretboard, but the patterns are slightly different in each place, hence the ‘boxes’.

    That’s a great lesson idea though – I’ve definitely added it to the list of upcoming ones. Cheers.

joe - December 9, 2009 Reply


Justin - January 4, 2010 Reply

I think the reason the flatted 3rd works is probably because it would be like a passing/climbing/descending note.

Jim V - February 14, 2010 Reply

Jonathan, you rock. Thanks for the great tip!

ChaliQ - February 28, 2010 Reply

Thanks for the tip. It does get sort of too repetetive unless you want to play for speed. But if it’s your own style you are trying to evolve,then this would be a way to start instead of copying everyone elses licks.

Jonathan Boettcher - February 28, 2010 Reply

Well, repeating scales isn’t only for speed, it’s also for accuracy, and even slow players need accuracy…

    billy - April 19, 2011 Reply

    Hi Jonathan. I like the picture of your dog what is it(breed)

      Jonathan Boettcher - April 19, 2011 Reply

      Haha, he’s 100% mutt! I’m not actually sure… I think some kind of mixture of Golden Lab, Bull Mastiff, Rottweiler, and possibly German Shepherd…

Howard - March 12, 2010 Reply

Here’s another question. I noticed in the video, when you played the A and D chords, you stayed in the Am box, but when you went to the E chord you moved to the Bm box? And why is it a minor scale, when your playing over a major chord? And can I play the penotonic scale in Am and the A major scale with it?

Howard - March 12, 2010 Reply

And I’ve been thinking about the 1 4 5 when playing. It helps a lot keeping track of where I am note wise. Thanks… Money well spent!!

Jonathan Boettcher - March 12, 2010 Reply

Hi Howard, good catch 😉

Yeah, I changed positions at that point, though not into the Bm box – that was actually a touch of A minor diatonic, or C major diatonic.

The theory gets a bit more complex at that point; but it sounds good.

Another way of looking at it is for that one bar, I was playing out of an E major pattern (5th string, 7th fret) which of course works with the E chord I was playing. Again, probably more complicated theory than I intended for this particular lesson 😉 Stay tuned… we’ll get into some of that stuff a bit later on.

jerry palladino - May 1, 2010 Reply

Great lesson. I miss the bricks though.

Jonathan Boettcher - May 3, 2010 Reply

Hey Jerry – this was my one experiment with a black background… I didn’t like it as much either, so I think in the next lesson you’ll see the bricks will be back.. 🙂

Teeder - May 5, 2010 Reply

Hi Johnathon: the pentatonic scale does work for much of the soloing but give me some advice on resolving to something other that the diatonic when in the 4 and 5 chord…

Jonathan Boettcher - May 6, 2010 Reply

Hi Teeder, the best and safest thing I can recommend is if you’re in the 4 or the 5 chord and soloing around… resolve on relevant root note, ie the 4 or the 5 note.

Resolving on the root note of the chord the band is playing on will work everytime. If you want to get more creative, go for a close relation of the root note, perhaps a fifth or a third.

frank - May 23, 2010 Reply

Hi Jonathan.
I really enjoy the lessons you put things in simple terms that I can understand. looking forward to the next lessons.
Thanks Frank.

scottiefm - July 15, 2010 Reply

the BEST starting point for soloing is this pentatonic scale it will serve you well! This is used in almost all blues songs..check it out and play along with BB king, johnny johnson and lots others. Know it like your MOM and gain confidence in your soloing very quickly.. Tell us more!

Gordon Vaughan - November 16, 2010 Reply

Hi! I got the Pentatonic Scale alright, but the next one, “Improvising with….” My screen was blank until the comments.
Is this because I am using a Mac?

    Jonathan Boettcher - November 16, 2010 Reply

    Hi Gordon, no, the site works fine on a Mac (I use one too) – I would recommend refreshing the page. Cheers.

gordy - March 4, 2011 Reply

have not played my guitar for 3 years then all of a sudden I came across this link – am now playing every day and these lessons are sooooo cool thanks Im actually sounding better with my playing

    Jonathan Boettcher - March 4, 2011 Reply

    Hey Gordy – that’s the kind of thing I love hearing – keep on playing! 🙂

randy mccumber - May 5, 2011 Reply

hi jonathon….have beenm playing along with you and am making pretty good progress for a novice. looking at the comments i am confused. when you say flatted 3rd or 5th are you talking about the 3rd and fifth notes of the chord?…what am i missing here?

    Jonathan Boettcher - May 6, 2011 Reply

    Hi Randy, the numbers all relate to the scale positions – you can learn more at A chord is typically comprised of the I, III and V notes (for a major chord) of the scale that is associated with that chord. For instance, an A major chord is A, C# and E. The C# is the III (3rd) in this case, and if you flat it, you’re going to get an A minor chord.

    Not sure that really explains it super well… but hope it helps?

Robert Cummiskey - April 13, 2012 Reply


Am I getting this correct…do the pentonatonic on the root (A) then the same scale, that is the D pentonic for the D and then E (pentontic) for the -4-5?, Robert

    Jonathan Boettcher - April 16, 2012 Reply

    Hi Robert, You CAN do that if you want to… however you don’t have to. Far simpler to simply remain in the A pentatonic minor through all the changes. Give it a shot, you’ll find it works nice.

Mike Rangihika - June 19, 2012 Reply

Kia ora Jonathan,

Very informative the 6mth dead line I gave myself to learn how to play lead guitar blues or otherwise is gonna be achieveable thanks to you.
Also to learn scales
Cheers   Mike  R

SMAK2 - December 28, 2012 Reply

DO YOU HAVE A CORD CHART FOR THOSE 3 ???? chi - May 21, 2014 Reply

I think I just learned something about playing scales.Thanks and keep on rocking

Mike S - August 3, 2014 Reply

Jonathan, I really like the short ,to the point lessons. They are easy to understand and even at 62 I can understand them. IT GIVEs ME JUST ENough to practice and feel I have accomplished something become the next lessons arrives. Keep up the good work.

Jerry Palladino - August 8, 2014 Reply

If I’m soloing over a E A and B, can I use the major pentatonic if I’m playing over each cord? I know the major works over the E chord, but will A major Pent. work over the A chord and B major pent. work over the B chord?

    Jonathan Boettcher - August 8, 2014 Reply

    Hi Jerry, yes, you can change to new patterns with each chord change if you wish. It’s more work, and not always strictly required, but it can add quite a lot in some songs. Go for it!

Sue - March 27, 2015 Reply

Looking forward to I IV V, just ordered it Wednesday. thanks for this. Are you playing bar chords for the A, D and ?

    Jonathan Boettcher - April 1, 2015 Reply

    Yes – the A is 577655, the D is x57775 and the E is x79997.

Sr. Kay Kay - May 24, 2015 Reply

Thanks Jonathan I enjoy the lessons and will apply them. Hope to be able to get the Jam Tracks with Birthday money, since I don’t play in a band and only practice with records

Randy - July 20, 2015 Reply

Just what the doctor ordered!
Thanks Jonathan I believe this answers my current ‘Big Question’ on playing scales / chords together . . .
And yes I believe that where the C# is not suppose to belong in the scale it has the good sound of being added as a chromatic passing note which apparently, according to the ear, works and sounds great. And at the same time is shedding more light on that subject / lesson on chromatic passing notes as well.

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