Pentatonic Scales

As an alternative to modes, pentatonic scales are very commonly used for soloing.  The definition is often somewhat overcomplicated, pentatonic basically means ‘five tones’ so these are 5 note scales.

A lot of the time, this is the first thing you learn as a guitarist. It is a classic example of how patterns could limit your playing – many guitarists often learn the minor pentatonic scale early on without really understanding what it is and then get ‘stuck’ at the first pattern and either don’t learn the others or don’t progress beyond this first pattern.

So here’s the bit that doesn’t usually get explained very well. And also why I’ve left these until after the discussion of theory and modes.

The major and minor pentatonics in a given Key contain exactly the same notes but they have a different tonal centre and different intervals which gives them their unique sounds.

They are used very widely in blues, jazz, rock, metal, country – for instance B B King and Jimi Hendrix used them extensively.  The five notes used tend to be those which fit best over most chords so the advantage of pentatonic scales is that it’s easier to get a good sound as the notes that can be a bit awkward are omitted.  You tend to get a lot of 4th and 5th intervals.  There are also fewer notes to remember which is never a bad thing.

The major pentatonic scale uses the following notes from the major scale : 1 2 3 5 6 and has the intervals of T T T+S T (then T+S to return to C an octave higher).

For the key of C : C D E F G A B C   C major pentatonic is C D E G A
The minor pentatonic uses the following notes from the major scale : 1 b3 4 5 b7  and has the intervals of T+S T T T+S (then T to return to A an octave higher).  It is basically the natural minor scale from the same key with the 2nd and 6th notes removed   A minor pentatonic is A C D E G

Not only are there 5 scale tones but 5 positions as well with the added bonus that the major and minor pentatonic scales are easily interchangeable.  We can use the same patterns for both major and minor pentatonic scales – the difference is basically starting on the appropriate root note of the major or minor scale.  The diagrams have been annotated to show the root notes for each type of scale.  Of course once you get familiar with these patterns you can (and probably should) work them out for all Keys. The five positions are as follows – on the diagrams the open circles are the minor root note and the squares are the major root :

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Hopefully you can see straight away how these scales overlap to cover the fretboard.  There are loads of ways you can put these together.  One example for the minor scale is to use a combination of the 1st and 2nd position as shown below.  It may only be a small number of notes but can be very useful for soloing, especially if you use a lot of expression through vibrato, bending etc.  I’m thinking of B B King as I write this.  Often only the minor pentatonic will be used for blues and rock, the major pentatonic has more of a country sound.

Another option is to play one pattern ascending and the next descending as shown below:
1st ascending / 2nd descending (audio here)
3rd ascending / 4th  desecending (audio here)

or a repeating pattern can be useful to help learn the patterns (audio here)PentatonicTAB3-page-0

Although it is fairly routine to use a minor pentatonic over the 6th degree of a major chord (i.e. same starting note as the natural minor) you can also use it over the 3rd and 7th scale degrees.  This will work over extended chords such as maj7 or maj9 chords.  So for instance over a Cmaj7 chord, the usual choice would be Am pentatonic (6th degree) but you can instead use Bm pentatonic (7th degree) or Em pentatonic (3rd degree).This is shown on the example below which has 6 bars of a Cmaj7 chord, the first two bars are Am pentatonic, the second two are Em pentatonic and the last two are Bm pentatonic.  They are different patterns but you should be able to hear the subtle difference in tone between these (audio here).PentatonicTAB4-page-0Similarly it is fairly routine to use a minor pentatonic over the root of a minor chord but it can also be used over the 2nd and 5th scale degrees.  So for instance over a Cmin7 chord, the usual choice would be Cm pentatonic (root) but you can instead use Dm pentatonic (2nd degree) or Gm pentatonic (5th degree).

As always, the best way to learn these is to experiment, and have fun

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