Investigating the minor pentatonic (part 2)

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Now let’s break down the short tune I gave as an example last time.  Let’s see/listen how it works in creating a sense of the tune centering around E.  Then we’ll look at tensions present in the minor pentatonic, when the minor pentatonic is used as the only source of notes for the music. (We could of course use non-scale notes, but we’ll skip that for now, as such chromatic notes are there for occasional ear-candy.  Overused, they would distort the sound flavour.

A tension is a note that raises the expectations of the listener to hear that note replaced (to resolve that tension) by a note the listener feels should be next. Often there may be another scale note interspersed before the note the listener expects next.  Then we’ll look at a few examples of chords with tensions found in the minor pentatonic.  Then we’ll look at the note choice, and rhythmic placement and duration of notes, in the tune, and finish off with some practice ideas.

The idea is to take on board some ways of drawing attention to notes, be they the essential notes for creating the sense of key (for E minor pentatonic, these are the notes of the Em chord), or tensions, to build expectations of (some of) these essential notes reappearing.  Then just try stuff out, explore, and see what sounds good to you.

Here is the example tune again followed by its audio.




Does this tune centre around the note E?

A simple test here is to play each of the notes of E minor pentatonic in turn, against the above audio of the tune. For example, play a bass e note, in a “chugging” rhythm across the whole tune. Repeat, using a bass g note. Then bass a. Then bass b. Then bass d. What do you reckon? For me, E is the only note that works across the tune. For sure, when it comes to bars 5 – 9, the note A works very well there.

Tensions present in the minor pentatonic

There are two tensions native to the minor pentatonic,  that we can take advantage of when minor pentatonic is the only source of notes for the music we’re creating (typically a riff and power chords and sus chords).

The b7:

This creates the most tension against the tonic note (also known as key note as we are creating music in a minor key centred around the tonic, E). Play the open bass e note (1) and let it ring. At the same time, play this b7 (d) at the 5th fret on the A string. Listen. Can you hear it’s pulling towards the 1 at fret 7 on the A string? When it lasts a long time, this makes the listener want to hear the b7, resolve to the nearby 1. Slide the note up to that 7th fret. Repeat, but this time slide the b7 down to fret 2 (label 5) on the A string. This resolution is weaker. Want to stir him/her up some more. Hold the b7 even longer, or follow it by an unexpected note of the scale (b3 or 4).

The 4:

This creates less tension against the key note. Play the open bass e note (1) and let it ring. At the same time, play this 4 (a) at the 2nd fret on the G string. Then pull off to play the b3 (open g). Repeat, but slide up to the 4th fret (the note b, which would be labelled 5). Both of these resolutions are quite weak. They are felt more when they appear, as in this example, over an octave above



Chords with tension

There are three basic chords that create tension.  From the least tense to the most tense, we have:

However, if you look at the scale shape, you can imaging many shapes in there for you to try, a mix of these tensions and tonic triad notes,  on two or more strings, adjacent of not.  Experiment.



D sus4

D sus4


Drawing attention to E as the tonic note

Now lets check out the riff in bars 1 -2 (which repeats in bar 3 – 4). What makes E stand out?

Essentially, the riff is doing very little, with chords, mainly hitting E (1), and uses the minor triad (Em) as an arpeggio, as the only appearance of the tonic chord notes. Both tensions appear together (4 and b7), the b7 once in bar 1, and both appear twice in bar 2, building the energy in that part of the riff.

Things to notice for drawing attention to tonic triad notes in bar 1:

Tension in bar 1:

Things to notice for drawing attention to tonic triad notes in bar 2:

Tension in bar 2:

Bars 3 and 4 are repeats of bars 1 and 2.


Things to notice for drawing attention to tonic triad notes in bar 5:

Tension in bar 5:

Bar 6 is the same as bar 5, except that the third beat only has the  rearranged (inverted) D sus4 chord followed by silence, so the tension lasts, as is reduced when bar 7 comes along (the same as bar 5, with its less tense A power chord).

Bars 7 and 8 are repeats of bars 5 and 6.  Bar 9 is a repeat of bar 5.

Bar 10 builds the tension more, with both the b7 and 4 present, with the D sus4 chord played an octave higher so it stands out even more, followed by A sus 2, and then a D power chord.

Bar 11 holds the tension starting with the D sus4, followed by a thick voicing of a D sus2, to resolve back to the riff in E (the tonic).

Practice suggestions

Explore the two tensions

Use the 5th string, while occasionally hitting a long lasting tonic on the open 6th string, so you can it influencing what you play on the 5th string.  On the 5th string, experiment by choosing one of the following, and sliding to one of the others, and from there to another and so on.  Don’t rush the slides.  Really listen to the overall effect.

Spend several minutes doing this, using different dynamics.  Add vibrato if you feel like it.  Where two notes are close enough to each other (for example, fret 10 and 12), try bending up.  Or pre-bending, then releasing.  Or both.

There’s no right or wrong here.  Just enjoy it.

Next time

Don’t rush making use of today’s info.  Spend time.  Howe can you apply emphasis in different ways, especially rhythmically.  Next, we’ll explore double stops in the minor pentatonic.  Have fun until then!!

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