If you’re a beginner, you may have heard somebody talking about the pentatonic scales. The minor pentatonic scale is the bread and butter of any rock guitarist’s repertoire – and because it’s easy to learn, it’s also perfect for getting your hands dirty as the very first scale you’ll learn.
Guitar scales have a bad reputation around them – while they are certainly crucial to any musician’s ability to improvise and compose awesome melodies, guitarists often think of them as box shapes. Hours of practicing scales can also take lots of effort, but we don’t think it has to be boring.
In this short post, we talk all about the pentatonic minor scales, including the theory involved (you’ll need it), basic shapes to glide around the fretboard, and how to actually use it in a song. We’ve also shared some insights as to how you can break out of the boxes and approach the guitar fretboard as an artist, so stick around to the end to find out more!
Before We Get Started – What Does A Scale Even Mean!
In music, there are a bunch of notes- 12 of them to be precise. These are the notes you will find in a piano, and these are the same notes you will find in a violin, so if you know them once you can spam them again and again.
The thing is- not every note (out of the 12 notes) sounds good with another note. Scales are basically just a bunch of notes that sound good together. Think of it like a group of friends – there may be hundreds of students in a University but only some of them will form a close group. Just like how students have several close-knit groups, there are also many scales in music.
The reason why you’ll need to learn scales is that a particular scale sounds and feels a certain way. The Phrygian scale sounds exotic and something out of an Egyptian documentary, the minor scale sounds sad, the major scale sounds happy, Dorian sounds bluesy, and Lydian sounds magical! How you perceive the scale sounds does vary but there’s no denying that learning the scales offers a huge boost to your vocabulary.
What Is The Pentatonic Scale?
The pentatonic scale is a 5 note scale that is used by the majority of beginners and guitar virtuosos alike. Before we learn anything about the pentatonic scales, let me just tell you that there are two of these you need to know- the pentatonic minor and pentatonic major scales.
Like I said earlier, the minor scale sounds a bit sad and the major scale sounds like a happier cousin. The minor pentatonic scale has dug its way deep into rock music and is the most widely used scale in any musician’s toolbox. We recommend picking one and learning to recognize the sound first, before learning the other scale.
Minor Pentatonic Scale
If you’re in the key of C and you want to play the C minor pentatonic scale, this is what it would look like:
Notes of C Minor scale: C D Eb F G Ab Bb
Notes of C Minor pentatonic scale: C Eb F G Bb
You can see that the minor pentatonic is just the minor scale without the second and sixth degrees. The beauty of the pentatonic scale is that you can get many different scales and modes by just adding a note or two to the five notes in the scale. Master the pentatonic minor scale properly, and you can easily play rock solos after some practice!
Major Pentatonic Scale
The major pentatonic scale is the happier, calmer version of the minor pentatonic scale, and you can find it in many Chinese movie soundtracks and children’s songs. That’s not to say it cannot be used widely- sure you can.
Notes of C Major scale: C D E F G A B
Notes of C Major pentatonic scale: C D E G A
Tips For Learning The Pentatonic Scales
Most beginners start off with the A minor pentatonic as it’s pretty much the same notes as the C major pentatonic. Before you learn about these scales, you need to know what you can play a certain scale with. If a scale is called pentatonic major, you can play that with the corresponding major key. If it’s called pentatonic minor, you play that with the minor key.
For example, if you are playing in the key of C major (chords like C major, A minor, F major, G major), you play C major pentatonic (or A minor pentatonic, these two are what’s called relative scales), and if you’re playing in the key of, say, F minor, you play F minor pentatonic.
- To find a piece of background music to play over, just search A minor backing track on youtube. Alternatively, you can create your own progressions with an app like Chordbot.
- Start with the pentatonic minor scale shape. Play up and down the scale, try to play some melodies, and practice hearing how the scale sounds over the chords.
- Try to vary your rhythms – use quarter notes, eighth notes, triplets, and sixteenth note variations.
- Go all the way up in an ascending pattern, then all the way back. Doing the ascending and descending drills will also help improve your dexterity on the instrument.
- Bonus tip – use a metronome! Every good musician can keep time, and if you aren’t playing with a metronome, you have more chances of messing up when playing with others.
How To Play Pentatonic Minor Scale – 5 Positions
These scale patterns can seem very intimidating, and just like learning your intervals properly – it’s crucial that you internalize these shapes so you can use them while improvising. These ‘box’ shapes will get you up and running if you have never heard about scales till today.
Pentatonic Scale Position 1
With your index finger on the root of A (fifth fret sixth string), play the C (eighth fret sixth string) with your pinkie, then the D (fifth fret fifth string) with your index finger, then the E (seventh fret fifth string) with your ring finger, and so on.
Just follow the box shape and make sure that you’re trying to play a fret with a certain finger – you would play the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth frets with your index, middle, ring, and pinkie fingers respectively. This is to help you build speed later on when you want to learn the 3 note-per-string scale patterns.
Pentatonic Scale Position 2
Play the eighth fret on the sixth string with your middle finger followed by the tenth fret on the sixth string with your pinkie finger, then the seventh fret on the fifth string with your index finger, and play the rest of the notes in the scale similarly. Also, take a look at where the roots for the scale are located – those are the colored notes in our diagrams.
Pentatonic Scale Position 3
The third position of A minor pentatonic starts on the tenth fret. This is probably the trickiest of the box shapes for you – just keep practicing on the top 3 strings and you’ll get it quickly.
Pentatonic Scale Position 4
Starting on the E note on the sixth string twelfth fret, the fourth position is the sweet spot. It’s just within reach and feels super nice to slide into when you’re trying to play an awesome solo on an electric.
Pentatonic Scale Position 5
This is the final shape for the minor pentatonic scale- though we have shown you how you would play this up on the fifteenth fret, you can also play this scale down starting at the 3rd fret.
Once you’ve practiced every single one of these shapes, you can also begin to see a pattern throughout the neck. Just pull up your favorite background in the key of A and rock out to this extended scale shape:
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the formula for the pentatonic minor scale?
The formula for pentatonic minor is: 1 b3 4 5 b7. For example, if the D major scale has the notes D E F# G A B C#, D pentatonic minor would be D F G A C.
What can you do with the minor pentatonic scale?
You will find minor pentatonic scales being used in rock songs and the most popular songs. You can also add a few notes to the minor pentatonic scale to turn it into the blues scale or the aeolian scale.
What are the types of pentatonic scales?
Penta just means five, and as long as you’ve got five notes on a scale, you can call it pentatonic. But the ones that are most commonly used are the pentatonic major and pentatonic minor. Both of these scales have five notes and are derived from the major and minor scales respectively.
Hopefully, now you have a very good idea of how to learn minor pentatonic scales on the guitar and are ready to improvise your own parts. It does take lots of time and practice, so we recommend taking your time with it. Also, you won’t memorize the above shapes straight away – approach a single position, try playing something within it, and think of the shapes more as a reference rather than trying to memorize all 5 of these in a day.
Once you master the pentatonic scale, you can try to incorporate more notes into your playing and get into advanced things like major/minor scales and modes to add variety to your playing.
Learning things like intervals, scales and learning to read EQ charts can really help a lot in the long term.