This will be a fun lesson. Pentatonic scales are easy to learn, easy to play, and they sound like rock ‘n’ roll. If you want to start improvising or creating solos on guitar, chances are you’ll want to learn at least one or two pentatonic scale shapes. Most blues guitar parts are based around the pentatonic minor scale, or a close variation of it.
The best part about pentatonic scales is that if you know the major scale, you already know how to play the pentatonic major scale and the pentatonic minor scale. (If you don’t, don’t worry. I’ll teach you here, or you can read about major scales.)
First things first: penta means “five.” Think of a pentagon, a five-sided shape. A pentatonic scale has five notes in it before starting over an octave higher. Remember that a major scale has seven notes, so we would expect the pentatonic scale would be easier. In fact, we would expect to be able to find the pentatonic scale by taking a major scale and removing two notes. And amazingly, enough, we can do just that! Finally, something about music theory that makes logical sense!
The pentatonic scales might as well be custom made for guitar soloing. Basically, there are a couple of notes in the major scale that sound good when played over all chords in the major key. They may sound good over some chords, but not others. Rather than trying to remember when to use them, musicians, in their practicality, decided to just remove them. Simple as that. What was left over was the pentatonic.
There are two commonly used pentatonic scales: the pentatonic major and the pentatonic minor. In rock music, the pentatonic minor is used more frequently, so I’ll present that one first. It’s good to learn them both, and in fact, if you know one you know the other, as I’ll explain.
The pentatonic minor scale
If you only learn one scale pattern on guitar ever, learn the pentatonic minor box pattern. It’s easy, fun to play, and sounds cool. I’ll start with an illustration of the pattern, then explain some more of the theory.
Here is how to play an A pentatonic minor scale in the classic “box pattern.”
What you’re looking at is a representation of the guitar fretboard, with the bridge to the left, and the low E string on the bottom. The horizontal lines are the strings, and the vertical lines are the frets. The dots with letters in them represent notes to be played. So, for example, the lowest note in the scale is on the sixth string, at the fifth fret. Next, the sixth string, eighth fret, then the fifth string, fifth fret, and so on.
Here’s the same pattern written out in tablature.
There are five established patterns for the pentatonic minor, depending on where you start on the fretboard, but this is by far the most common, and the one you should learn first. I’ve listed the rest in the reference section at the end, and they are useful to learn as well. You can also use my Scalerator application to tweak where exactly on the fretboard you want to play the scale.
One nice thing about these patterns is that they are moveable. If you started the above pattern on the eighth fret instead of the fifth fret, you’d have a C pentatonic minor scale. If you start at the open position, you’d have an E pentatonic minor.
- See how to play a C pentatonic minor scale using the Scalerator.
- See how to play an E pentatonic minor scale using the Scalerator.
The A pentatonic minor scale is exactly like the A natural minor scale, but with two notes removed. These are the notes that on occasion can sound dissonant over the chords in the key of A minor. Here are the notes, for comparison:
|A natural minor||A||B||C||D||E||F||G|
|A pentatonic minor||A||C||D||E||G|
As you can see, there is no B and no F, but other than that it’s the same. Here is the pattern of intervals in the pentatonic minor scale. (Review intervals)
This pattern holds no matter what key you’re in.
When to play it
Blues, blues, blues, and anything based on blues. This scale sounds awesome over a standard twelve-bar blues progression. If it’s blues in A, you can play A pentatonic minor and you’ll never go wrong.
Rock is based on blues, so pretty much the same thing applies. A lot of country songs are, too. On the other hand, the more ballady, folky stuff works better with the pentatonic major scale, which I will present next. If you’re not sure which to go with, try them both, and use whichever sounds better. Like everything in music, play what sounds good is all that matters.
The pentatonic major scale
To get the pentatonic major scale, we can start with a major scale and remove the fourth and seventh notes. So here’s how it goes in the key of C.
|C pentatonic major||C||D||E||G||A|
No B and no F.
If you’re clever, or even just observant, you will notice that those are the same notes as the A pentatonic minor I talked about above. This is another example of the concept of relative major and relative minor keys, which I discussed in my natural minor scale lesson. Essentially, if you want to play a C pentatonic major scale but you don’t know how, you can just play the A pentatonic minor, but just finish on the C instead of the A. Easy as pie.
In fact, that works for any key. To play a pentatonic major scale, you can always just play the pentatonic minor scale three frets to the left (that is, lowered by a minor third). And vice versa.
So you already know one pentatonic major pattern. Here’s another one. This is C pentatonic major. As you may have guessed, this shape can also be used to play an A pentatonic minor.
And here it is in tablature.
And here is the pattern of intervals in the pentatonic major scale.
|whole-step||whole-step||minor third||whole step||minor third|
When to play it
Notes from the pentatonic major can be happily played over any song in a major key. While the pentatonic minor is used for a bluesy sound, over an electric rhythm section, pentatonic major is used more often over strummy, ballady songs. There are really no rules, though, other than play what sounds good, of course. If you can’t decide between major and minor, try them both!
A pentatonic minor scale, position 3
(Note: Position 1 is above. Position 2 is the same as the C pentatonic major, presented above)
(Note also: Any of these A pentatonic minor shapes also represent C pentatonic major.)
A pentatonic minor scale, position 4
A pentatonic minor scale, position 5