If guitarists have a hammer, it’s the Pentatonic Scale. A go-to tool that works in a variety of situations and can get you out of any musical corners you’ve painted yourself into. It’s simple to learn and extremely versatile.
Not only that, but knowing your pentatonic scale makes it easier to learn larger, more complex scales later.
The word “pentatonic” simply means “five tone”. There are only five notes in this scale, as opposed to seven in a normal western scale. It has its origins in Asian and African musics and you can hear that if it’s played very straight. But with some phrasing and ornamentation tricks it quickly becomes useful in rock music… or jazz… or blues… or pop… or country… See where we’re going here?
There are two kinds of pentatonics, major and minor. You’ll probably find yourself using the minor more at the beginning. But let’s start with the major so you have a better understanding of how they work.
The quickest way to get into a scale is with a neck chart. So here’s what the major pentatonic scale for guitar looks like. There are, of course, other positions to play it in, but start with one. Once you’re comfortable with it, you can move on to other positions on the neck.
We can have a little formula for the scale based on the numbering system of a regular major scale. Your major pentatonic is: 1 2 3 5 6 1.
So, in the key of C major that would be: C D E G A C. The key of G major would be G A B D E G. Simple, right? Plus, that neck pattern is moveable to any fret you need, making it simple to play in any key.
Now let’s talk about relative keys for a second. For any set of notes, we can have a major and minor scale that contain exactly the same notes, but start in different places. For instance, a full C major scale is: C D E F G A B C. The relative minor is A minor: A B C D E F G A B C. Notice that both scales contain exactly the same notes, but start in a different place.
Quick rule of thumb? The 6th note of the major scale is the root of the relative minor. So if you’re in D major, B minor. If you’re in G major, E minor. Obviously, if you’re starting from the minor, you’d count backwards from the sixth degree to find the one. A minor, count backwards starting from six, gets you to C major. D minor, counting backwards from six, gets you F major.
Let’s take out C major pentatonic: C D E G A C.
We know that A minor is the relative minor, so we start there: A C D E G A
And that gives you A pentatonic minor. Simple!
That means you can use exactly the same neck pattern you used for C major, but use the A as home base (called the “Tonic” or “Tonal Center”).
Now there is a more common pattern for the minor pentatonic that looks like this:
The formula here is: 1 b3 4 5 b7
You’ll spend plenty of time with that basic box pattern over your years as a guitarist. Since we know how to find the relative major and minor patterns, you know that these two scales are exactly the same notes. So you really now have TWO patterns for each of your scales.
The easiest way to use these is to just match the root of your scale to the key or chord you’re playing it over. Start with that.
When you get comfortable with them try doing some different stuff with them. They’re very versatile scales. Trying playing the scale a half or whole step lower or higher than your key. Maybe try it three or four frets on either side of your key. Some of these will sound better than others. And it may feel like you’re “breaking the rules”. But I assure you, there’s a theoretical explanation for all of them. And who cares about those anyway? If it sounds good to you, it’s valid to play.
Leave me a comment below if you have any questions!
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