Rhythm may be the glue that holds the musical parts together, but lead riffs are the spice that makes it interesting. Well placed and played riffs can make a song, while poorly thought-out ones can ruin it. Riffs are single notes based on scales within the key of the song, (unless you play jazz, in which case…anything goes….). Ideally, they should be placed between musical phrases, at the end of vocal lines, and as a break in the middle of a song, or as intros and endings. With a very few exceptions, you don’t want to play riffs over someones vocals, or another players riffs.
In the video above, brother Mark Brennan, teacher at Jamplay, (once you start playing guitar, from then on, for the rest of your life, all other guitar players in the whole world, past, present, and future, are your brothers and sisters….) is going to show you how you can astound your friends with some easy Pentatonic riffs that sound great. Mark has been playing for over 50 years, and teaching guitar for over 30 years. He has a B.A. in Music, and also studied Music Composition. He currently plays in the popular Pink Floyd tribute band, Wish You Were Here, so he’s not just a desk weenie. He is one of us, out in the tenches on the weekends, so you should listen to him. He knows what he is talking about….
It may be helpful, before we start, to understand exactly what a pentatonic scale is, and what it is not. The word Pentatonic comes from two Latin words; penta, meaning, “five”, and tonus, meaning, “sound”, or, “tone”. So, right off the bat, you should be able to figure out that it means, "5 tones". This means that a Pentatonic Scale only has 5 notes, instead of the more well known Hepatonic (hepa means 7) Scale, with 7 notes
This is the standard, "Do-Ra-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti" Scale that most people are familiar with. The Pentatonic Scale is, "Do-Ra-Mi-So-La". Pentatonic Scales have a darker, more intense sound. Most of the time, the Pentatonic Scale will be in a minor key, because minor intervals compliment the style perfectly. Pentatonic Scales are used extensively in Blues, and a lot in Jazz, the folk music of Asia, Celtic, Scotland and Ireland, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and even in Bluegrass, and Classical Music. Chopin’s Piano Etude in Gb was written entirely in the Pentatonic Scale
Other popular songs done in pentatonic Scales are the bass and lead runs in Low Rider (War), the lead and bass runs in My Girl (Four Tops), the lead riff in Wish You Were Here (Pink Floyd), the lead and bass in Sunshine Of Your Love (Cream/Eric Clapton), the lead in Iron Man (Black Sabbath), the lead in Honky Tonk Woman (The Rolling Stones/Keith Richards), the lead in Roadhouse Blues (The Doors), the lead in Heartbreaker (Led Zeppelin), the lead runs in Country Boy (Bill Monroe/Ricky Scaggs), Scarborough Fair (Traditional English Folk), Drunken Sailor (Irish Rovers), and many more….
It would be a good idea for you to pull these up on YouTube, or Spotify, and listen to them before going on to the lesson. You will better understand what Mark is talking about when you get an ear for what a Pentatonic Scale is supposed to sound like.
Furthermore, be sure to download my free guitar scales ebook.
Mark is showing the Open Position scale, low on the neck. There are several advantages to playing here, instead of higher up on the neck. Open strings have a more ringing, “jangly” sound than fretted notes, and this is desirable on a lot of songs. Playing on open strings means your fingers have less work to do, and your changes can be a lot faster. Open strings take full advantage of the sound qualities of your guitar and equipment. Playing riffs on open strings makes it easier to switch from playing chords, or embellishing the chords with quick riffs at the end of phrases. And lastly, they are easier to learn. To change keys, all you have to do is just move up the neck. The fingerings will be the same except for the open string notes. And, you can always use a capo…….
Before you start, make sure your guitar is in-tune, and to pitch (A=440 hz). When Mark is talking about a “box” shape, what that means is that all of your notes will either be on open strings, or on the 2nd and 3rd frets. If you looked at a fingering diagram, and connected the dots, it would make sort of a box-shape. This means you wont have to move up and down the neck, and your hand remains relatively stationary over those two frets. It makes it almost impossible to get lost.
When Mark talks about Power Chords, what he is referring to is the root note, played with the 5th interval, in a two-note chord, that can be easily moved up and down the fretboard. Power Chords are a modern invention linked to the use of distortion. When using distortion, normal 3-note chords generate a lot of extra, conflicting harmonics that do not sound so good, which is why you seldom see rock guitarists playing straight chords. The root and 5th notes work with the distortion to create complimentary harmonics that make it sound like a full chord, with out the unpleasant clashing harmonics. You can check this out for yourself if you have an electric guitar and distortion. With the distortion on, play a normal G chord and listen to the cacophony it creates. Then, play just the G and D notes on the first two strings, and hear the difference. You get a nice, clean-sounding chord.
When Mark talks about Palm-Muting the strings, he is referring to a technique where you lightly (very lightly) place the edge of your strumming hand, or the edge of your palm over the strings right at the bridge. This ‘deadens’ the sound slightly. Open strings (and even some fretted notes) played with distortion have enough sustain to keep on going, until they actually create new harmonics at higher frequencies. This is also called “feedback”. It makes a high-pitched squealing sound. For a description, think, “a cat in a centrifuge”. This is fine if you are doing it on-purpose, but not if it happens just because you didn’t learn how to Palm-Mute, so practice this technique a lot. It comes in handy in a lot of other playing situations besides just playing with distortion.
Learning pentatonic scales, and practicing them until you get silky smooth with them, can make you the hit of your next jam session or Open Mic. Remember, there is really no such thing as, "Too much practice"