Blues: Mixing Major and Minor

A simple way to bring in some different sounds in the blues

    Video:

  • Jimmy Page's use of major and minor pentatonics

  • Here’s the simplest way to look at this trick. I’ll do it in the key of E, the same key as the Jimmy Page solo we just listened to. Start with the E minor pentatonic scale in the 12th position–you probably know this one already. That’s the scale position for a ton of classic blues/rock licks a la Clapton, Hendrix, etc. A lot of people call it the “pentatonic box” because of the symmetrical shape it forms on the neck.

    Em pentatonic scale (12th pos.)

          A01-A03

     

    Take this same exact scale fingering and move it down three frets, to the 9th position. Now you are playing the E major pentatonic scale. Notice how much brighter it sounds. Almost country-ish, if you want it to. It’s also hard not to sound like Dickey Betts from the Allman Brothers when you use this scale.

    The E major pentatonic scale (9th pos.)

          A02-04

    Finding the Root Notes

    If you’ve used the minor pentatonic scale a lot, you might also notice that a lot of the licks you’re used to playing don’t work as well in the major pentatonic fingering. Let’s take a look at why this is true, and how to manage it.

    Going back up to the minor pentatonic fingering in the 12th position for a minute, let’s take a look at where the root notes fall. We’re in the key of E, so our root note is E. Of course there’s a root note right at the bottom of the scale on the 6th string, 12th fret. And then as always you have the same note two octaves higher on the 1st string, 12th fret. There’s another E in between those, on the 4th string, 14th fret.

    E minor pentatonic (roots marked)

    Below is the tab for the minor pentatonic licks in the examples above.

    Blues-D05-


    Now let’s drop back down to the major pentatonic fingering, in the 9th position. Notice, now, that the root notes–the E notes–fall in a different place within the fingering. The 12th fret E notes (1st & 6th strings) are now under your pinky, and the other E is on the 3rd string 9th fret, under your index finger. This of course has an impact on how your licks are arranged, if you’re trying to end your licks on a root note.

    E major pentatonic (roots marked)

    Both of the major pentatonic licks in the above also ended on root notes. Here’s the tab:

    Blues licks in the major pentatonic

    Generally speaking, it’s going to sound good if your licks end on a root note. You definitely will not ALWAYS want to end your licks on the root–it’d get rather predictable if every lick you played landed on the root. But if you’re just learning to do this, landing on the root is a good way to really get the sound of the scale in your head. The root functions as “home” and all the other notes have a gravitational pull toward the root. So when you move around a scale, and then finally return home, it sounds good.


    Pentatonic extensions: the “Power House”

    Now let’s go a step further with these pentatonic scales. For starters let’s go back to the minor pentatonic in the 12th position. Just above this fingering is another cluster of notes, in the 15th position, that’s also very useful for a ton of great rock and blues licks. Let’s call this the “pentatonic extension”. Sometimes I also call this the “power house” because of the “house” shape it makes on the fretboard. If the “pentatonic box” described above accounts for 50% of all blues licks ever played, this “house” probably accounts for another 30-40%.

    E minor pentatonic scale w/

    A lot of the time I’ll get into this position by sliding up on the third string with my middle finger, from the 14th fret up to the 16th, which then sets me up perfectly to play off of this shape, with my index finger on the 15th fret.

          A05

    Here’s the tab for the above lick:

    Blues lick using

    OK, now let’s drop down to the major pentatonic fingering, back in the 9th position. The same “pentatonic extension” that we just discussed also works off of this fingering. If you jump up to the extension, you land in the 12th position–where it also happens to overlap with the minor pentatonic fingering.

    Major pentatonic

    Here’s a lick that incorporates the major pentatonic “power house”:

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    And here’s the tab for this lick:

    Major pentatonic lick w/


    Major/Minor overlap

    Now let’s look at the 12th position a little more closely. Because the “minor pentatonic box” is so familiar to most of us, we are going to use that as our framework. But now we are going to look at the notes from the major pentatonic that fall in this same position, in addition to the box. The root notes (E) and the 5th (B) occur in both scales. But the major pentatonic does bring in a few notes that are not in the minor pentatonic. The diagram below shows where those notes fall on the upper strings (major pent. notes are marked in orange).

    Overlap of major & minor pentatonics

     

    There are a thousand great licks based on a combination of these two scales in this position. One very famous one that immediately comes to my mind is the intro to Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” The original is in the key of Bb, but for the sake of consistency, let’s move it to the key of E. Here’s the audio

          A07-JohnnyB

    And here’s the tab:

    The Johnny B. Goode intro in E (tab)

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