Soon after you start learning the guitar, you’ll come across the term ‘Pentatonic’. It’s one of those things guitarists spend a lot of time working on and talking about. The word literally means five tones, so it won’t surprise you to find out that pentatonic scale (both major and minor) consist of five notes.
For the major pentatonic scale, these notes are the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th notes of the major scale. For example, the C major pentatonic scale is C D E G and A (missing out F and B from the standard major) as shown below:
For the minor pentatonic scale, these notes are the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 7th notes of the natural minor scale (i.e. without the raised 7th of the harmonic minor). For example, the A minor pentatonic scale is A C D E and G (missing out C and F) as shown below:
What is the Major Pentatonic Scale Good For?
As I said, guitarists love pentatonic scales. The main reason for this is that, if you are looking to improvise a solo (or just a short fill) during a piece, the notes of the pentatonic scale in the key the piece is written in will sound good.
Don’t believe me? Give it a go! Get someone to play the chord of C major and try improvising over it using the notes C D E G and A. For a bit of an edgier, blusier sound, try improvising over it with the C minor pentatonic notes: C, Eb, F, G and Bb. (NB. the C blues scale is very similar to the minor pentatonic, adding only the note between F and G: F#)
The reason pentatonic scales work so well for improvisation is that the two dissonant notes (the 3rd and 7th) are removed. These two notes are dissonant because they are only a semitone distant from the 4th and root notes.
As a little exercise, listen to any guitar solo, whether it’s blues, metal, rock, country or whatever, and pay attention to how much of it is made up of pentatonic scale notes. There will be a lot!
The Major Pentatonic Patterns
To help with your progress in learning the guitar, here are the 5 major pentatonic scale patterns for you to memorise. Try them out in different keys.
- The key is set by the root note, shown in blue.
- The red numbers show the other notes in the major pentatonic scale.
- The grey numbers are notes in the scale, but outside complete octaves.
- The numbers suggest which fingers to use – which frets you use depend on which key you are in (e.g. to play pattern 1 in G, the lowest note is fret 3 on the low-E string).
The Minor Pentatonic Patterns
You will note that the minor patterns are almost identical to the major ones – the only difference is that the root note has shifted down one place (e.g. C to A). This is because major scales and natural minor scales contain exactly the same notes, except that they also start on a different note. C major, for example, contains the same notes as A natural minor as shown below:
Both remove the dissonant E and B to form their pentatonic scales.
Here then are the minor pentatonic patterns. Colour / numbers as for the major ones above.
This post is probably long enough now, but if you have any questions or comments, feel free to do so below.