Eric Clapton, the Pentatonic Scale, and your Transferable Career Skills

Eric Clapton is one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll guitarists of all time and an icon of musical career reinvention. In 1963, he joined the Yardbirds in which his blues-influenced style and commanding technique began to attract attention. Clapton left the Yardbirds in 1965 and joined John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers where his guitar playing soon became the group’s principal drawing card on the London club scene.

Continuously reinventing his musical career, Clapton formed a new band in 1966 with bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker called Cream, a sophisticated, high-volume fusion of rock and blues featuring improvisational solos. Clapton’s high energy and the emotional intensity of his playing on such songs as “Crossroads” and “White Room” set the standard for the rock guitar solo.

In 1969 Clapton and Baker formed the group Blind Faith with keyboardist-vocalist Steve Winwood and bassist Rick Grech and although the group broke up after recording only one album it established Clapton as a capable vocalist on his first solo album in 1970. His legacy continued as singer, songwriter, and lead guitarist with Derek and the Dominos and his 1974 album 461 Ocean Boulevard (1974) which included his hit remake of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff.” Over the next 20 years Clapton produced a string of albums, notably Slowhand (1977) and Unplugged (1992), the latter which featured the hit “Tears in Heaven” written after the death of his son. At the 1993 Grammy Awards ceremony, “Tears in Heaven” won for both song and record of the year and Unplugged was named album of the year.

Clapton also explored his musical influences with a pair of Grammy-winning collaborations: Riding with the King (2000) with blues legend B.B. King and The Road to Escondido (2006) with roots guitarist J.J. Cale. The critical and commercial success of these albums solidified his stature as one of the world’s greatest rock musicians. Clapton was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Yardbirds in 1992, as a member of Cream in 1993, and as a solo artist in 2000.

Transferable business skills, also known as “portable skills,” are qualities that can be transferred from one job to another. They are the hiring “stuff” that employers look for in filling open positions and that Applicant Tracking Software (ATS) uses to match candidates. Transferable skills can include abilities like communication, dependability, teamwork, organization, adaptability, leadership, and technology and are the “secret sauce” of career reinvention. Clapton’s transferable skills that enabled him to successfully traverse multiple musical styles can be singularly cataloged under “pentatonic scale.” Let me explain by a brief digression into musical theory:

The prefix, “penta,” meaning five, indicates that there are five notes in the pentatonic scale. In the key of A minor, the notes within the minor pentatonic scale are A, C, D, E, and G. The first note is referred to as the tonic or root of the scale. The scale is a single pattern that works anywhere on the fretboard. For example, you can play the scale in A placing your index finger on the fifth fret of the top guitar string. Move it to the 3rd fret and you’re in G.

Using the same pattern or shape of notes, a musician can create colors by simply moving it’s location based on whether the accompanying chord is a Major or minor one. For example, if you’re playing the scale on top of an A Major chord instead of a minor one, move the scale 3 frets so your pinky is now playing the tonic on the 5th fret instead of the index finger:

A minor chord: 1st finger/5th fret —} pinky/8th fret

A Major chord: 1st finger/2nd fret —} pinky/5th fret

Because all the notes are all consonant, the pentatonic scale sounds good over nearly everything and the scale is easy to transpose into any key. The beauty of this scale is how easy it is to play it once you know the general pattern. If you begin the sequence on the sixth string, you’ll get two full octaves, and then four notes ending on the tonic on the first string. But where things start to get interesting is when you begin the scale by selecting the tonic on different strings. And then the potential of the pentatonic scale further explodes when you start improvising and taking the scale notes out of their original scale pattern and add note bends and pedal effects. That’s where Eric Clapton shines:

“I Ain’t Got You” – The Yardbirds: Clapton uses a start-and-stop style using the G minor pentatonic switching from the third position to playing the same note pattern or “box” in a higher octave on the 12th and 15th fret adding tension and drama.

“Telephone Blues” – Eric Clapton & John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers: Clapton plays classic blues rock riffs within the pentatonic scale but adds overdrive, bends, and short, biting licks.

“White Room” – Cream: The track has a crazy, psychedelic rock guitar solo within pentatonic parameters but Clapton’s use of a wah-wah pedal takes it to a higher level.

Though it’s commonly used in modern music, the pentatonic scale can be heard in early Gregorian chants, traditional Native American, African, and South Asian music and later on through today in jazz, gospel, and bluegrass, folk music, and modern blues and rock. The pentatonic scale is the perfect musical seasoning. It works well with almost everything, including dominant seventh chords, minor or major scales, church modes, and more.

For guitar genius Eric Clapton, the pentatonic scale is his core transferable and improvisational foundation. He can create amazing guitar solos within that simple scale of notes. For business professionals, transferable skills are the movable pieces of career reinvention success. The top 5 transferable skills you have are your own pentatonic scale which you can apply in different business settings to convey value, create change, and generate results. Transferable skills are the keywords contained in every job posting, such as communication, multitasking, teamwork, creativity, critical thinking and leadership, that Applicant Tracking Software (ATS) programs look for the highest candidate matches to. They are vitally important from the job search phase all the way across to the performance phase and represent the abilities that enable you to do your job well, whatever that job may be. Just as Eric Clapton experienced success across musical genres by creating powerful guitar solos within the pentatonic scale, your own transferable business skills are the foundation of all the professional success you will experience in this and other careers you may pursue over the years.


Garrison Leykam’s career includes being a producer, recording engineer, and A&R executive for music industry giant London Records, president of his own indie record label, and producer of legendary jazz pianist Erroll Garner. He’s worked in various capacities with The Rolling Stones, John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers including Eric Clapton, The Moody Blues, Al Green, and David Bowie. He is a graduate of the Institute of Audio research. He has appeared as a singer-songwriter at the legendary CBGB’s in NYC and Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe, one of the world’s preeminent listening rooms.


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