So you want to learn how to play pentatonic scales on the guitar…
Assuming you now know some chords, strumming patterns and can play some songs, you’ve decided your ready to start learning how to play pentatonic scales…
Here’s how I teach students who are learning pentatonic scales on guitar:
Let me just say before we dig into this, I realize that there is a lot of information on how to play pentatonic scales on guitar. Here is my method, not the only method, or necessarily the best method, but it’s how I teach the pentatonic scale to my students most of the time!
What is a pentatonic scale?
Pentatonic means a 5 note scale. Penta is a Greek prefix meaning 5, i.e. Pentagon – a 5 sided geometric shape; and tonic meaning tone or note.
Sources: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pentatonic, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pentatonic_scale, https://www.dictionary.com/browse/penta-.
Although, there is a lot of different types of pentatonic scales someone can use and create, in modern popular music i.e. Rock, Metal, Country, Bluegrass, etc. there are two primary types – Major and Minor Pentatonic.
There is also the Blues Scale which is a derivative of the Pentatonic scale. For our purposes, we’re just going to discuss the Major and the Minor Pentatonic scales.
How to Create a Pentatonic Scale:
FYI: The formula for the major pentatonic scale is 1, 2, 3, 4, 6 – for example, in C major that would be C, D, E, G, A.
The formula for the minor pentatonic scale is 1, b3, 4, 5, b7 – for example, in C minor that would be C, Eb, F, G, Bb.
C major pentatonic and C minor pentatonic are referred to as parallel scales because they both use C as their tonic.
However, if you compare two scales that are use the same notes just rearranged, they are called relative scales.
In the key of C major, the relative minor pentatonic scale would be A minor pentatonic.
To better understand this look at the notes of the C major pentatonic scale: C D E G A.
Now let’s look at the notes within A minor pentatonic: A C D E G. Do you see the same notes contained within both? They are the same notes, just rearranged.
For an example in another key: In the key of G major, the notes of the G major pentatonic would be G A B D E, and the E minor Pentatonic notes would be E G A B D. Again, the same notes just rearranged…
How to learn and practice the Pentatonic Scale:
Since there are 5 notes in the pentatonic scale, there are 5 positions or boxes of the pentatonic scale. I typically start with the C major Pentatonic Scale in the Open Position:
If you look closely, you can see at least one chord shape or form within the scale form.
Here look again at the scale fingering:
Did you notice anything else about it?! Yes, if your really paying attention, you’ll see that its the same scale but I also showed you the position of the root note for the C chord (the black triangles, which in this case is the C note). And look it how you can also start to see the C major chord within this diagram!
Here’s a C major chord to compare it to:
Therefore, It’s called the C Form!
If you look again at the same scale form (just scroll up if you have to, I showed it to you twice), you also notice another chord… maybe…
How about this chord? Look at the scale form again, and you see that I used the black trianges for the C major chord root notes, and the black dots for the A minor root notes. (The root is the same thing as the name of the chord usually. For exampe the C chord contains the C root notes twice in the chord form.)
What this means, in practical terms, is that when you are improvising over these chords you can use these scales, and it will sound great!
Next, let’s relate this same idea to the E minor/ G major Pentatonic scale:
Again, please note that I notated this scale by showing the E (as black dots) as the root for E minor Pentatonic. However, you want to also look at the black triangles (those are the root notes for the G chord). Here let’s look at the diagram:
This is called the G form.
Again notice they are the same fingering, just with different roots, the G note. Also, notice that within both shapes you should also be able to visualize both the E minor (7) and the G major chords within.
I want to also point out the difference between the C major pentatonic and the G major pentatonic… really it’s only one note… C major is C, D, E, G, A; and G major is G, A, B, D, E. Notice that in the C major scale you have a C note, and in the G major you have a B note, everything else is the same. Keep that in mind for later! It will makes more sense… later on…
So before we go on, lets look at the C major scale using the G form.
The G form (revisited)
Ok, so now that we have that as a foundation, let’s continue exploring the rest of the pentatonic scale patterns/ fingerings.
Before we do, let’s explore another related foundational concept, the CAGED method…
The Linking Patterns of the Pentatonic Scale
Below are what I consider to be the two linking patterns between the C chord form and the G chord form.
The A form:
The D form:
Here again I designated the major root with a black triangle, and the minor root with the black circle! The A form and the D form of the pentatonic scale are based on the A form and the D form chord shapes. Also, notice that most of these examples are based on the C major scale, just illustrating different forms or positions of the same scale.
Here is are the A and the D chords to help better illustrate those chord/ scale forms:
Last but not least is the E form!
The E Form
Here again I designated the major root with a black triangle, and the minor root with the black circle! This is the E scale form based on the E chord form. Here is an E chord to help you visualize how to align the scale with the chord.
Now let’s put them together based on their intended order: