Pentatonic Riffage

There's really no limit to what you can do with the pentatonic scale, and the absolutely coolest thing about it is that as long as you're playing in the right key, you literally can't go wrong with the pentatonic scale. Any single note you grab from there will work over top of whatever you're soloing on top of.

A fun exercise you can do to convince yourself of this fact is to strum a couple of chords, then pick at random a note from the pentatonic scale, then play the next 2 or 3 notes in the scale, then strum another chord.

You literally can't go wrong. It's awesome!

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46 Responses to “Pentatonic Riffage”

  1. tom November 16, 2009 at 2:32 pm #

    Hi Jonathan, Just wanted to let you know I think your lessons are great. You have a very pleasant personality. If you have any teaching video lessons for sale I would be interrested. Keep the lessons coming. Tom

    • Jonathan November 16, 2009 at 2:56 pm #

      Aw shucks - thanks Tom! LOL

      Actually, I am working on a little something that should be out shortly. Stay tuned!

  2. Alex November 22, 2009 at 12:37 am #

    That's some way good stuff, just what I needed. Keep up the good work, Thank's a MIL Alex

  3. carl February 10, 2010 at 12:36 pm #

    really good and interesting lessons thankyou very much

  4. Wayne March 26, 2010 at 5:05 pm #

    Johnathan, thanks for all the tips. They have helped my playing alot. Though my brain is a little ahead of my abilities to play some of those bits. But that, along with the I-IV-V and Scale lessons, they have opened up a whole new world to my learning of music and playing guitar. I get a alot from the lessons and you're not just in it for the money. I hope to see a lesson on how to play certain songs in the future. ( Night Moves" maybe.) Can't seem to get that intro. C ya.

  5. DON March 26, 2010 at 7:54 pm #

    good back to basics lesson,but always sounds good.thanks,don

  6. Jonathan March 27, 2010 at 7:53 pm #

    Thanks Wayne - I'll add that song to the list of requests! Cheers.

  7. Don E April 28, 2010 at 7:29 pm #

    Very good basic lesson Jonathan, this should help a lot of beginning guitarists.

  8. Jim May 6, 2010 at 8:14 am #

    The scale to play that goes with the chords is the pentatonic scale for the major key, - or the pentatonic of each chord? Say we're doing a I, V, IV sequence - pentatonic of I or pentatonic of I following I, pentatonic of V following V, etc.?

  9. Jonathan May 6, 2010 at 8:20 am #

    Hi Jim, you can stick in the same scale across all the chords... so you can use the pentatonic minor for the I position even when the rest of the band is playing the IV and V chord.

  10. David May 6, 2010 at 4:01 pm #

    Funny how you know stuff but see someone else use it differently. I play blues in that key and use the same scale so it was easy to pick up what you were doing. just from a different angle. Thanks. really like your tips and the fact that you said you were not perfect, so few of are, are including me. Thanks again and keep it up.

  11. jerry palladino May 6, 2010 at 6:06 pm #

    That was a great tip. I already knew about using the notes that way, but I didn't realize I was playing a scale. Now I know what I'm doing. I also didn't know about using your index finger on the nut but that sure helped with the E minor blues scale.
    What's the difference between the minor blues scale and the pentatonic scale?

  12. Jonathan May 6, 2010 at 6:11 pm #

    Hi Jerry - a lot of guys call the pentatonic minor scale the blues scale - but really they're the same thing... with the exception that some people also add a chromatic passing note in between the 4 and the 5, which they then call the 'blue' note.

  13. darren June 10, 2010 at 5:01 pm #

    hi Jonathan just wondering what key this progresion is in because you started on the B chord but played the Em pentatonic scale the reson i ask this is I do somthig similar but I lpay A C D as root on fith bar chords and then play Am pentatonic scale at the fith fret and it seems to sound ok this is an area that I find confusing I have been playing for 12 years now and I feel like Im none the wiser can you help me with this?

  14. Jonathan Boettcher June 11, 2010 at 8:29 am #

    Hi Darren,

    Technically A, C and D (if they're all major) don't belong in the same key together. If you're playing an Am instead of A major, then you'd be in the key of G... in which case you'd use the Em scale (which is the relative minor of G).

    The progression I'm playing here is B, A then E. These are the three major chords in the key of E (I cover this in more detail in my Unlocking I IV V lesson). In the lesson I used the E minor pentatonic, which is kind of a cheater move... technically it should be the C#m pentatonic.

    • Mike February 24, 2011 at 9:53 am #

      Thanks for the reply. I was expecting the relative C# pentatonic scale. I was lost until you answered here.

      Is there a way to know what scales you can "cheat" substitute with? ie. E minor for C# minor

      • Jonathan February 24, 2011 at 9:58 am #

        Hmm... yeah I should clarify that a bit better I suppose.

        With A C D, depending on the emphasis that goes to each chord, you could probably get away with using the A minor pentatonic scale. The reason for this is the C is flatted (should be C# in the key of A), so you've now got a minor third from the A (which is the C), and the D which is the IV.

        So the progression is I, bIII, IV

        In the pentatonic minor scale, you've got that flatted third already... and because this chord is likely the one that is defining the progression, you need to make sure that whatever you're soloing in accomodates that.

  15. Joker June 19, 2010 at 8:31 am #

    Hi Jonathan, I find your teachings very helpful and understanding are much better now. The only bad thing about your video clips shown are the irritating pausing throughout the video. That's breaking my spirit and make me loose interes in what you try to bring forward.

  16. Jonathan Boettcher June 19, 2010 at 9:10 am #

    Hey Joker, I would recommend letting the entire video load before you start watching it. My guess is the pauses are due to the speed of your internet connection, and if you let the whole thing load first, then it shouldn't have any interruptions when you play. Cheers.

  17. Jesse James July 18, 2010 at 8:18 pm #

    I really like the riffs and so forth, but I just can't get anything going like others do. It is just like there is a mental block when it comes to these scales and ect. As far as chords, whether open or barre they are no problem.
    Any ideas in overcoming a mental block with this. When I try to do them it is like I am up against a brick wall for some reason and become tense.
    I try to do them with the video, but one thing I do know is that I have to see it before doing it. This is not a neg, but sometimes when I see your fingers go in the riffs I can't see where they are landing in the frets. If I could see them, I think it would come after practice. I am finding that with this no coming through I just want to say the heck with it, but I am too stubborn to give it up. Any Ideas for this?

    • Jonathan Boettcher July 19, 2010 at 12:55 pm #

      Hi Jesse - yeah in this video it isn't very clear, but in more recent videos you'll see things zoomed in much closer...

  18. Todd October 31, 2010 at 4:52 pm #

    I always pick up a few things even if it's the simplest riff

  19. Terry Stanfield November 5, 2010 at 10:52 am #

    Great lesson. It is amazing how that little scale can make a person sound really good. Great lesson

  20. grgster November 11, 2010 at 4:38 pm #

    Thanks Jonathan!Have the cords down just alittle slow on the licks! I'll get it i just need more doodling

  21. Tony November 22, 2010 at 3:37 pm #

    This is the kind of thing that is severly lacking from other sites. We all want to sound "cool", Johnathan give me more. I think theory is important, practice, form ,etc. I just want to play, I will learn all other aspects in time. Thank you, Thank you!

  22. ozzy April 27, 2011 at 1:34 pm #

    Hey Johnathan, just wanted to letcha know that you're right on target with the lessons as to where I am with the guitar. Thanks alot,man for making these lessons easy to understand. I feel like if I stick with you and your lessons I'll be soloing in no time. Thanks again for all that you do for those of us who really loves the guitar but maybe need a little extra push to gain the proper understanding. Have a great day.

  23. Roana May 24, 2011 at 10:43 pm #

    Awesome. They say when the student is ready the teacher will appear.Thank you.

  24. Tom Furer September 7, 2011 at 3:28 pm #

    Seems there's tons of blues lessons out there, and that's ok,I like playing blues, but how about some lessons on Rock guitar, like 50 popular rock riffs and how to use them in a solo. Not the shredding stuff, or Metal, just classic rock stuff from the 60s and 70s. There's a lost art there, those two decades produced a ton of stuff that influenced us guitarists forever.

  25. John September 7, 2011 at 9:05 pm #

    Enjoying your lessons.A lot of things are starting to make sense..... Like the way you break things down , eazy to follow and understand. Playing is the hard part. Keep up the good work..

  26. Tom Lee March 28, 2012 at 8:37 am #

    As always, good stuff. Can't wait to get home and try some of the licks myself. BTW just ordered the bar chord DVD as well as the 145 DVD and I am hoping those will allow me more creativity with my music. Thanks.

  27. Markus Wayne May 4, 2012 at 4:44 pm #

    hey jonathan,
    Do you know why your videos are playing slugish when I watch them?
    no other videos from other sites are doing this and it makes them hard to watch.
    I can't tell if I want to get the course or not. any help will be a big help
    thanks a lot.        markus wayne  [email protected]

    • Jonathan Boettcher May 4, 2012 at 4:47 pm #

       Hi Markus, I don't know why that might be; the videos are hosted by Youtube. In case you do have problems, I've put a link to the video page on Youtube under each one - you could try that, perhaps you get better results directly through their site.

  28. Alden March 6, 2013 at 6:58 pm #

    thanks a lot Jonathan, nice riffs and playing!
    Are all 3 chords in Major? B - A - E?   5th 4th and 1st?
    So are you using the Em pentatonic scale? 🙂

  29. [email protected] chi May 26, 2014 at 12:05 am #

    very good.scales are important to know.

  30. Farley Fox October 3, 2014 at 6:08 am #

    I really like your teaching method. Very procedure oriented and concise. As the old saying goes: Give a man a fish and feed him once. Teach a man how to fish and feed him for a lifetime.

  31. gerry saddler November 29, 2014 at 5:58 am #

    Hi Jonathan:
    Your lessons are always encouraging and puts hope in the life of guitar hopefulls.
    Thanks for all your lessons. I wanted to contact you as I won your new guitar rhythm CD set and wanted to give you my address for shipping.
    Please send me a note to advise me as to what I need to do? I would like your CD set since my computer is ancient.
    Thanks so much for everything...
    God bless,
    Gerry Saddler

  32. Sue April 1, 2015 at 3:06 pm #

    This sounds like fun. Being a beginner, it will sound like a dirge, but I'll keep trying. Still on part one of unlocking I IV V.

  33. Sue April 6, 2015 at 12:51 pm # that B barred on 2nd fret with one finger on the A and D string on the 4th?

  34. Chuck May 16, 2015 at 10:53 am #


    It would have helped if you could show which fingers go on which frets. Maybe include tabs. Break it down better. Showing the pentatonic scale before. For a beginner it is hard to see someone play and figure how to play the chords etc. Just ordered your I IV V course. I hope it helps.

  35. Chuck May 16, 2015 at 11:02 am #


    Excuse the stupid question? But. What is the difference between a lick and a riff?
    Kind Regards,


    • Jonathan Boettcher May 19, 2015 at 1:33 pm #

      Hi Chuck - there's not a lick of difference between a lick and a riff 🙂

      Some guys use different terms - you'll also hear the term "fill" used sometimes as well. They all mean more or less the same thing: a short musical phrase (often just one bar) that you can use as a bit of a building block.

  36. Randy July 27, 2015 at 10:58 pm #

    As I am understanding from 'Unlocking I IV V' the E-A-B in the E minor pentatonic scale are the I IV V and are minor. (In the G major scale they are also minor).
    I am confused as to why or how then are we playing the E-A-B as major chords rather than minor?
    Is it just preference by ear?
    If I am correct neither the G major nor its relevant minor E have E-A-B major in them.
    Which I IV V chords would we play over the G major scale major or minor? Thx

    • Randy July 27, 2015 at 11:18 pm #

      Ok, well I just read through the thread above and I believe that I got my answer 🙂
      I guess that kinda goes back to 'what sounds good to the ear' and possibly a chromatic type of 'Passing Chord' if you will . . 🙂
      I'll say it is great to see that we are not just limited to to the chords in the key.
      I look forward to more on this subject. Thanks Jonathan.

      • Jonathan Boettcher July 28, 2015 at 6:20 am #

        Hi Randy, there is indeed theory behind this particular situation; it is more than just "what sounds good to the ear" although theory is basically just our way of codifying what sounds good to the ear.

        This is quite common in the blues, especially when 7th chords are involved, because they're fence sitting chords and can sound either major or minor in a progression.

        If you'd like to wrap your head around this better, my friend Colin Daniel has done a very good series on this subject inside the Riff Ninja Guitar School (which you can access using the 3 day free trial). The series is called "The Big Question" - I recommend checking it out, even if you don't become a member there, I think it will answer a lot of questions for you.

      • Randy July 28, 2015 at 7:03 am #

        Hey Jonathan yes after the last post I was still meditating on the subject and yes I do remember you saying several times that if it sounds good there is definitely some theory behind it. I am beginning to understand the flatted thirds, 6th's, 7th;s in the scale that make up the minor scale . . . I am still just trying to pull it all together . . . Thanks for all the help!

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