The Pentatonic Lick Factory

UPDATE - added a PDF that shows a bunch of examples

You can never have too many pentatonic licks. Ever.

But, in the real world what usually happens is first you learn the little box shapes, okay cool, then maybe some of the other shapes, the ones that start on notes other than the root, and then.....it kinda tapers off.

What can happen after a while is you just keep playing the same box-shape licks over and over. And over and over and over. Or maybe you find another pattern that fits under your fingers, but you only have one or two familiar patterns you default back to or they are the ones that fit under everybody's fingers. I mean, I certainly have never done that. Of course not. Never. Okay, I totally have.

Then the question becomes - Well, how do I make/invent/discover/create new material anyway? If only there were some repeatable, step-wise process one could use to generate new licks and phrases for use in solos. Oh what a great world it would be...

Of course there is.

And I am going to show y'all one.

The Lick Factory
This is a method that is a mixture of a bunch of different techniques from different people I have read over the years - Hal Galper, Jerry Bergoniz, Gary Campbell, even Paul Gilbert if you can believe that. It takes a little from each of them and combines ideas they have discusses in their many different books into a recipe for making new licks that I think is fast and easy.

Now before anyone pipes up and says "hey man, I just, you know, play what I feel man, I don't want to like sound all mechanical, man".

Well, you are right, you probably don't sound mechanical, but I am willing to bet you sound THE SAME. In other words, you either play a lick you already know over and over and over and over, or you play a bunch of licks that we have all heard from the standard list of pentatonic licks...over and over and over. Now, there is nothing wrong with that, sometimes. But when that is all you got, that ain't so good.

And before you pipe up again, if you think that guys don't sit down and work stuff out in a structured methodical way, well, you are wrong. They do. All the time. It might feel a little weird if you have not done it, but after a while you can do it without having to sit down and do it, in other words you can think about it and play it almost at the same time. And the trick is, you work it up and then you have it fluid and natural sounding so it doesn't SOUND like you worked it up, or that it is a pattern-y thing. You have to turn it into something that doesn't sound like you practiced it.

Keep that in mind, the goal here is not to just generate stuff, its to get familiar with HOW you generate stuff so you can use this same process to get any kind of new stuff you like. Just like anything else, not every piece of stuff you make will sound great. No problem, make some more stuff. Don't like that? Make some more. If you can get good at making stuff, instead of just learning a lick without understanding it, you will always be able to create new material.

You know the give-a-man-a-fish, teach-a-man-to-fish thing? Well, get your fishing pole out, we are gonna go fishing.

The Factory Floor
For our example we are gonna use the good ol' familiar A minor Pentatonic scale, but this will work with any scale you want. ANY. I just used an A Minor Pentatonic because it has a lot of uses, and just about everyone knows it. If you need a refresher, go read this post about Pentatonics.

Quickly though, in A Minor Pentatonic we have - an A, C, D, E, and a G. Ta-da, A Minor Pentatonic. And the notes are labeled as Root (A), the Third (or "flat third" or "minor third") (C), Fourth (D) Fifth (E) the Seventh (or flat seventh of minor seventh sometimes) is G.
A Minor Pentatonic
bass lick tempo 120 4/4 | A a2 c | d e | g a

So now we want to come up with a line, something that we can play when we see an A Minor chord or anytime we have a place where we could use A Minor. What to do.

Since we are going to make a line in A minor, we are going to use the notes in that A Minor Pentatonic scale to draw from. Seems kinda obvious.

So lets pick, oh, lets start with just 3 notes. Any three notes from A Minor Pentatonic.

Lets even narrow it down more and say "Any three notes EXCEPT the Root". So no "A", and that leaves us with the notes C D E G remaining.

Lets pick the notes C D E, the third, the fourth and the fifth of the scale. Just because. I am feeling all alphabetical today. But this will work with ANY three notes you want from the scale. You will see.

Well, enter The Bergonzifying Transmogrifier. You knew that was gonna happen, right?

Go over to the Transmogrifier and enter in those three notes, plus one rest, like this.


And here is what you get:


All we are going to care about is the last six combinations there at the end, the ones that start with the 8th note rest. These guys -


Okay, now we have our scale, and now we have some little three note cells as raw material.

Now what?

Now we mate them into an unholy union of lick making depravity!! muwhahahahaahahaha.

Lets pick this phrase that we generated as a sample victim:



What we are going to do is tack this lick to the first note of the scale, or the note "A". As has been discussed before there is a concept of strong beats and weak beats, and when you have a strong note like a chord tone (so the root, the third or the seventh) you want those to happen on the strong down beats of the measure, so on the beats "1 2 3 4" not on the "ands".

So when we make this phrase lets put the A (Root) on a Very Strong Beat, the down beat of a measure. Then to make our little cell fit, back it up from there. So when we stick these two together we get:

Phrase + Root
bass lick tempo 120 4/4 r2 r8 c d e | A a- r r4 r2 |

That means the start of the cell (where the lick starts) is on the "and" of beat 3 from previous measure, which gives it a little rhythmic kick. To see how and why, check out "Forward Motion" by Hal Galper where he lays it all out and explains why starting phrases there is better.

Even though (in this case) that first note is a chord tone it doesn't have to be, it could be any other note. So it is okay that the phrase starts with a chord tone a "weak" beat like this, because we are going to put the chord tones on all the strong down beats that occur after it.

Now we have our first little cell of a lick. Now here is where we transform it.

Now take that same lick, and move it to "C", the next note in the scale, but keep the relationships between the notes same, in other words transpose the entire thing up to "C"


When the lick ended on "A", the first note in the cell was the note right after "A" in the scale (C) then it was the 4th (D) and then the 5th (E), so now just pretend "C" is the root and do the same thing, so the note after C is D, the next one from C is E and the next one would be would be G.

So you end up with this phrase when you land on "C".
Phrase + Third
bass lick tempo 120 4/4 r2 r8 d e g | A c- r r4 r2 |

Since our original little phrase has three notes (not counting the rest in it), look what happens if you put the note "C" on beat 3 of the measure you just started with the "A" - you have just enough room ( 3 eighth notes) to put the "C" version of our little cell in between them and then the "C" lands on a strong beat, beat 3.

Root & Third
bass lick tempo 120 4/4 r2 r8 c d e | A a- d e g c- r8 r4 |

You see where this is going...now move the cell to the next notes in the scale, to the D, then to the E then to G and then end back on A. And for the last cell, make the "A" you land on a longer note, like a half note.

So when you put the entire thing together you get:
Full Lick
bass lick tempo 120 4/4 r2 r8 c d e | A a- d e g c- e g a | d- g a c e- a c d | g- c d e a-2 |


Ta-da. Lick Number 1. Run it up in two octaves also if you want. And descending as well. I put the cell going up, and then jumped down to the scale note, but you could jump up to the scale note as well, like this:

Full Lick Jump Up
bass lick tempo 120 4/4 r2 r8 c d e | A a d- e g c e- g a | d g- a c e a- c d | g c- d e a2 |

Now we only used one 3 note phrase, C D E. We could have used, E D C in that order. Or G C D or any of the other possible combinations. Try it with the next one from the list that was generated and make one of your own.

Lets look at what our options are for creating variations using this technique:
  1. Use other 3 note cells - There are 4 groups of three note cells (that do not include the root) in a pentatonic scale. So besides C,E,G, there is also E,D,G and E,D,C, and D,C,G. And then within each of those there are six orders of the notes you can use. Sound familiar?
    1. C D E (the one we did)
    2. C E D
    3. D C E
    4. D E C
    5. E C D
    6. E D C

    You can plug any three notes plus a rest into the Transmogrifier and get all the permutations, but for three notes it is pretty easy to do it by hand. So as far as 3 note cells goes, that leaves us with 4 X 6 = 24 other variations inside just one pentatonic scale.
  2. Start on a note other than the root. Instead of starting the lick on "A" start the lick on "C" and go up from C to C. Do it for all the other notes. That gives us 5 more - 24 X 5 = 120 phrases.
  3. Don't play the scale in order. We went A,C,D,E,G right up the scale, but you could go A D G C E or A E C G D or...well, if you figure out the permutations there are another 120 different versions if you rearrange the all notes in a pentatonic scale. For example, here is the same lick we made, just putting the notes of the scale in the order that Jerry Bergonzi uses in one of his books - R, 4, 7, 3 5. So A, D, G, C, E. Same deal, the cell goes in between each scale note, just the scale notes are in a different order. You use the same cell for the same scale notes, just the order is different.

    Full Lick Bergonzi Order
    bass lick tempo 120 4/4 r2 r8 c d e | A a- e g a d a c d | g d e g c g a c | e c d e a2 |

    That means 120 X 120 possible combinations or, 14,400 different ways you can make phrases with this technique.

Now some will sound weird and won't work, but hey, if only 1% of them sound good to you, that is still hmmm how many is that? 753 or something, no wait, its about 140 cool new licks you found that probably no one else has stumbled across, or at least doesn't know cold like you do.

And it doesn't stop there. You can do 4 note cells, or 5 note cells. You can add notes not in the scale. You can change the rhythms of the scale notes. It never ends.

The thing I like about this is that you can sit down and in about ten minutes come up with a phrase to try that day. It's fast and contained and easy to do. Keep a notebook. Make one a day for a month. Bet you find at least 2 or 3 cool ones. Find a scale order you like, R 5 4 3 7 or try a bunch of different ones, you don't have to do it in scale order. If you are wondering what the other choices are for scale notes put C D E G into the Transmogrifier and then just add an "A" to the front and try some of those orders for the notes of the scales.

So there you go, a way to make as many licks as your little fingers could ever play.

The Pentatonic Lick Factory Recipe.
  1. Pick a Pentatonic Scale - major, minor, whatever
  2. Pick any 3 note cell from that scale that does not include the root
  3. Put the root of the Pentatonic scale on beat 1 (as an eighth note)
  4. Put the first 3 note cell in front of the Root. The first note of the cell should be on the "and" of 3 the measure before the root
  5. Transpose the cell through the rest of the notes of the Pentatonic scale. The scale notes should come down on 1 and 3 of every bar, with the cells filling in the spaces between the scale notes
  6. End on the root again an octave higher with a half note.
Update: Here is a pdf that shows all the examples of the C,D,E group applied to A Minor Pentatonic.

All six different phrases using the notes C,D and E.

Each phrase starts on every note of the scale and as an extra bonus, there is also the order that Mr. Bergonizi is so fond of in each group as well.

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