The pentatonic scale
The pentatonic scale is the world’s most useful scale. It works with over everything in every style of music in existence. Almost every type of musician in the world all uses the scale either at some point in their lives or incorporates it into their playing.
If I was told to play only one scale for the rest of my life, it would be the pentatonic scale that would serve me best.
So what is the pentatonic scale?
To answer that we first need to know what a scale is.
A scale is a series of notes and each note becomes an interval (distance between notes). Notes in a full scale are either a tone/ whole-step (two notes up/ down) or a semitone/ half-step (one note up/ down).
For example: a major scale is a seven-note scale that is arranged as follows: Tone, Tone, Semitone, Tone, Tone, Tone, Semitone.
The minor scale is arranged as Tone, Semitone, Tone, Tone, Semitone, Tone, Tone.
“Penta” in the word ‘pentatonic' is greek that translates to ‘five’.
Meaning that it’s a five note scale.
What makes the pentatonic scale work more universal compared to other scales is that it targets and uses five specific notes of a full seven-note scale that can be used over any major or minor progression.
One way you could look at this is that it’s a simplified version of the major and minor scale because we’re tackling five specific notes that still gives us that major/ minor quality.
When you’re playing a solo using a full scale, for example, chances are that there are notes in the scale that sound like they are wrong notes.
If you’d played one of those notes at the wrong time you could cause unwanted tension, even to a beginners ear that could make them think that they did something wrong.
That’s why pentatonic scales are the most used because you can never go wrong.
Any note of the scale you hit at any moment in any order is difficult to sound bad with.
Now that we know what a pentatonic scale is, the next question is now how to make them.
First off we need to be aware that there are two types of pentatonic scales, there’s the major pentatonic and there’s the minor pentatonic.
Starting with the major we first take a major scale and target five notes from the scale to give us the major pentatonic formula. In this case, we’ll use the C major scale. C major consists of seven notes: C, D, E, F, G, A, B and back to C.
We then give each note an interval number, so C is our 1 or root, D our 2nd, E our major 3rd, F a perfect 4th, G a perfect 5th, A is our 6th and B our major 7th. Finally, we take five notes from the C major scale to give us the pentatonic formula, which are C (root), D (2nd), E (major 3rd), G (perfect 5th) and A (6th).
So the intervals that make a major pentatonic scale are 1,2,3,5 and 6.
To make a minor pentatonic scale we do the same method we used for major but we are going to target different intervals or steps.
We’ll be using the A natural minor scale because it uses the notes as C major scale but starts on the note A or the 6th step.
The full A minor scale would be as follows: A (root), B (2nd), C (minor/ flat 3rd), D (perfect 4th), E (perfect 5th), F (minor/ flat 6th) and G (minor/ flat 7th).
Knowing this we can now create our minor pentatonic scale, which are A (root), C (minor/ flat 3rd), D (Perfect 4th), E (Perfect 5th), and lastly G (minor/ flat 7th).
So the intervals to make our minor pentatonic scale are 1, b3, 4, 5 and b7.
Finally we now come to the question on how to use the pentatonic scales.
Because we’re playing with 5 notes from a major/ minor scale, pentatonics are excellent for improvisation.
If the band or backing track is playing/ jamming to a chord progression that is diatonically major (chords from the major scale), we can use the major pentatonic scale, or could use the minor pentatonic if the progression is diatonically minor (chords from the natural minor).
The five positions of the minor pentatonic scale
Position 1 – In A Minor:
The pentatonic scale in the first position with the root notes located on string group 1,4 & 6 is the MOST used scale in the world of guitar playing.
It is a really easy position and most beginner electric guitar students use this scale exclusively.
I would personally recommend learning and mastering ALL the positions, however, this is an easy starting point.
Position 2 – In A Minor:
The second position of the minor pentatonic is incidentally the first position of the major pentatonic. It is a much-loved position used a lot by blues and rock players!
It is ideal for blues bends, vibratos and legatos especially on string group 123.
Simply a wonderful position – perfect for exploration!
Position 3 – In A Minor:
The third position is an underutilised position. Most players stick primarily to position 1, 2 and 4. It is absolutely worth exploring. It is especially useful and offers some great opportunities on the bass strings! (String group 456)
Of course, you can also find plenty of good licks and lines on strings 123 and all string groups!
Position 4 – In A Minor:
This position is the second most used pentatonic position and is akin to position 1!
It is pretty easy to use and to get your head around.
It is great for bends and for playing really cool blues licks!
Position 5 – In A Minor:
Ah… the most underutilised position of the pentatonic scale!
It is a real shame, as it really offers some incredible hidden gems in terms of licks and lines.
It is definitely worth exploring and will make your solos and guitar improvisations SO much richer and deeper!
Go ahead – spend the time and make position 5 part of your guitar repertoire for improvisation!
Tags: Guitar improvisation