The Improviser’s Dilemma Series: Permutations Of The Pentatonic Scale Using String Skipping

Linear Makeover: “why not try a perm(utation)?”

The first article in Brandon’s series “The Improviser’s Dilemma


It’s a very common occurrence for guitar players to find themselves at a standstill with their current level of playing, whether it be linear, chordal or otherwise. You might find yourself unable to move forward because of a self-made belief that you need to learn more music theory or that the knowledge you currently have is boring and old. A good way to get around this feeling is by looking at the bits and bobs you do have and reimagining them through permutation and restrictive practices. At the end of the day, music is meant to feel good and enrich the creative parts of your being and the following examples can help you get back on track to a healthy and loving relationship with your instrument.

Improvising With The Pentatonic Scale

The pentatonic scale is an essential foundation to most, if not all, guitar players when they want to start improvising. After learning a few pentatonic shapes and boxes, most guitarists are thrilled with the idea of using them in a jam, whether it be jazzy, bluesy etc.

Fig. A A minor pentatonic scale

Figure A is a simple pentatonic box in the key of A minor, ascending then descending. After your fingers gain the necessary muscle memory to ascend and descend this shape, you might start experimenting with adding some bends, slides and other guitar-centric techniques for expressive embellishment purposes. But then what? What happens after you’ve resigned to the idea that pentatonic scales just aren’t doing it for you anymore? After you’ve exhausted yourself with pentatonics for a while, you might be thinking “this isn’t very interesting” or “man, my pentatonic scales sound boring” and, as the great B.B King said, “the thrill is gone.”

One thing you can do to make the pentatonic scale feel fresh is changing the way you would sequence it through permutation. Read on for a fresh perspective towards approaching your pentatonic scale!

Permutation Of The Pentatonic Scale Using String Skipping

A cool way to spice up your pentatonic shapes is by using string skipping. You can access sounds that are more angular through larger intervallic leaps made through this technique. Figure B is a simple example of this, playing the 6th and 4th string ( E+D), 5th and 3rd (A+G) 4th and 2nd (D+B) and 3rd and 1st (G+E). Doing these exercises ascending and descending can help to solidify this new way of playing pentatonics: 

String Skipping Ideas For Pentatonic Scales
Fig. B Example of string skipping through the pentatonic scale. Parts that use frets 5 and 8 (minor 3rd interval) are highlighted with blue, those which use 5 and 7 (Major 2nd interval) are highlighted yellow.

After you’ve familiarised yourself with this idea, you can start experimenting with the string skipping and coming up with your own patterns. Each string has their own fragment of the scale. The E strings and B play the wider intervallic fragments (minor 3rd), playing from the 5th fret to the 8th and vice versa. The remaining strings A, D, G play between the 5th and 7th frets (Major 2nd interval). You can easily think about these different parts as two different types of cells that make up the scale as a whole, as colour highlighted in Figure B.

Figure C shows an example you can mix up the string skipping exercise by playing a mix of ascending and descending intervals on different strings:

Example string skipping pentatonic
Fig. C  Example pentatonic scale using string skipping permutations

Now it’s time to hit the practice room and come up with some of your own string skipping permutations! In the next chapter of The Improviser’s Dilemma, we’ll show you how to make a simple 3 or 4 note line into endless linear materials for you to freshen up your improvisation vocabulary. Happy playing!

Thanks for reading. If you are interested in improving your improvisation, or your guitar playing in general, we’d love to help! Why not book a no obligation, free trial guitar lesson and see what our guitar lessons are like?