Over time, our many conversations about improvising and soloing have included an emphatic recommendation to learn the minor pentatonic scale. Last night our drummer and stand-in instructor, Highway RickEy, shared a powerful practice technique that he has developed over the years.
The first step is to thoroughly learn and internalize the minor pentatonic scale in 2nd position, one octave only, starting with the 2 draw. RickEy demonstrated with D harp, in the key of A.
A great way to do this is in rhythm with a metronome or backing track in 4/4 time. For starters, stay in time and go up and down the scale until it is second nature to play the notes and the tones are immediately recognizable to your ears.
Now comes the really fun part… grab an A harp. Using 1st position, you get the same tones if you play the pentatonic scale in the top octave, using last four holes (7 – 10). Take full advantage of your practice with the D harp and actively listen for each of the five tones in the scale. (Bonus – get this right and you sound like James Cotton!)
I think you know where this is going… yes, grab the G harp and repeat the process. This time you are in 3rd position and have nearly three full octaves to work with. The middle octave is a great place to start because it will give you the same notes that you practiced on the D harp.
Notice how this starts small and builds as your skills grow and your ear becomes more adept at recognizing the scale tones. One way to “pyramid” the practice possibilities, in order of easiest to hardest, would be as follows:
- Minor pentatonic scale in 2nd position, one octave, D harp (key of A)
- Same as above, using a timing device to play in rhythm
- Same as above, extending above and below the octave to get the “extra notes” (more on this later)
- Repeat the process in 1st position, with the A harp (key of A). (Find a place to practice away from other people, cats, dogs etc.)
- Repeat the process in 3rd position with the G harp (key of A)
This just refers to the contiguous notes above or below the full octave(s) that allow you to extend your scale practice… but they don’t comprise a full octave. Note – for the advanced players, when you run out of notes, so to speak, you can skip back to the adjacent full octave and play the “missing” note(s).
Now it's time to practice your counting as well. Set your metronome to 4/4 timing and grab a harp. At this point you can work with just six notes (the scale plus the tonic) or you can add the “extra notes for a different number. Here’s the catch – always start and end on the root or tonic as you play over 4 beat measures. Since the math won’t always work you will have to “make it work” by pausing, playing a longer note, repeating notes or syncopating (advanced).
Finish this step with all three harps and multiple grooves and you’re ready to go on tour.
It's All About The Ear
Yes, the whole point is to be able to hear the scale in all of these exercises. That’s the key to mastering the scale and turbocharging your improvisation with it. However, you have to start somewhere so here is your official YMM blackboard reference chart. Who knows… if we ask him nicely, maybe RickEy will publish a digital one in the future!?!
Hat tip to Al Taylor for this terrific report!
- For those registered for the 8 o'clock Performance class, this eight week session will end with a multi-track recording session. This is your chance to get a tune worked out and well-recorded with the band, so spend time this session polishing something towards your demo disc! Remember you are definitely free to partner with others in the room if you need accompaniment, horn lines, or vocals.
- Al Taylor and Grant Kessler, B1 Blues Crew