Guitar Pentatonic Scales: An Introduction

guitar pentatonic scaleGuitar players love guitar solos. If you’ve ever listened to a song on the radio or streaming over the internet and heard a really cool sounding guitar solo, chances are that covers maybe 75% of the reason why you picked up the guitar in the first place. There’s just something about the sound of string bends, and hammer ons, and the bluesy tones that come out when a few well-placed minor tones are played over a major key. Playing songs is a lot of fun, but the guitar solo is often where the real fun lies. Beginning guitar players would benefit from this beginning guitar course from Marc Seal.

Guitar Pentatonic Scales

When guitar players play guitar solos, they are often using a very specific type of scale in order to produce a solo. Though not always, in many of the guitar solos you love the most, the guitar player is probably using a guitar pentatonic scale. Pentatonic scales are five-note scales, which is where the “penta,” meaning five, prefix comes from. Pentatonic scales come in major and minor musical flavors, and the convenient thing about them is that they make a really easy-to-memorize box pattern on the guitar. Once you learn the box pattern, you can improvise with the notes in the box pattern over a chord progression using single-note runs, double stops, string bends, hammer-ons, pull-offs, and string skips. You can learn more about playing lead guitar in this course.

Music Theory Basics: The Chromatic Scale

To learn the major and minor pentatonic scales, you’ll need some quick music theory basics. The letters below represent all the notes in music. Outlined in this way, this is called the chromatic scale. Notice that some of the notes are known by two letter names.

C     C♯/D♭     D     D♯/E♭     E     F     F♯/G♭     G     G♯/A♭     A     A♯/B♭     B     C

You can check out this course for some more information on the basics of music theory.

The Major Scale

You’ll use the chromatic scale to build a major scale, which will be the basis of any other scale you want to build. The major scale contains 8 notes. The distance between two notes is called an interval, and the major scale is built from a specific pattern of intervals. A half step is the distance from one note to the next. For example, from C to D♭ above is a half step. A whole step is the distance between two notes. The distance between C and D above is a whole step. The pattern of a major scale looks like the following, made up of half steps and whole steps.

Whole step – Whole step – Half step – Whole step – Whole step – Whole step – Half step

You can start on any note in the chromatic scale and build any major scale. For now, you’ll focus on building the C major scale, which looks like this:

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

C

D

E

F

G

A

B

C

The numbers above the note names are the scale degrees of the major scale. The scale degrees and the pattern of half steps and whole steps are important to know in developing the pentatonic scales.

The Major Pentatonic Scale

The major pentatonic scale uses the following scale degrees from the major scale: 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6. A C major pentatonic scale looks like this:

1

2

3

5

6

C

D

E

G

A

Here’s what the major pentatonic scale box pattern looks like on the guitar:

cpentatonicmajorscale

Though it is helpful to learn how to build any major scale and the major pentatonic scale from it, the major pentatonic box pattern can be moved up and down the guitar neck to switch to different keys. For example, if you wanted to play an A major pentatonic scale, you would move the root note, which is the second note in the pattern on the 6th string, to the 5th fret. By playing the box pattern in this new position, you’ll be playing an A major pentatonic scale. The major pentatonic scale has a bright happy sound to it and can be used to improvise over chord progressions in major keys. Try playing the C major pentatonic scale over a chord progression in C major.

The Minor Pentatonic Scale

The minor pentatonic scale is the scale you’ll hear most often when you hear a guitar solo. To build the minor pentatonic scaled, you’ll first need to know how to build the natural minor scale. You build the natural minor scale by taking the major scale and flattening the following scale degrees: 3, 6, and 7. If you take the C major scale above and flatten the 3rd, 6th, and 7th scale degrees, you’ll have a C natural minor scale. It looks like this:

1

2

♭3

4

5

♭6

♭7

8

C

D

E♭

F

G

A♭

B♭

C

The minor pentatonic scale uses the following minor scale degrees: 1, ♭3, 4, 5, and ♭7. The C minor pentatonic scale looks like this:

1

♭3

4

5

♭7

C

E♭

F

G

B♭

Here’s what the minor pentatonic scale box pattern looks like on the guitar:

cpentatonicminorscale

As with the major pentatonic scale, you can move the minor pentatonic box pattern up and down the fretboard and play any minor pentatonic scale by simply changing the root note of the scale.

Though it is a minor pentatonic scale, guitar players often play it over both major and minor chord progressions. It fits most naturally with minor progressions, but when played over a major chord progression, the flatted notes add a nice bluesy sound that fits nicely in the midst of a guitar solo. You’ll need to practice improvising over a major progression with the minor pentatonic scale to learn what notes sound good and which don’t over the chords in the progression.

Now that you know how to play the two most common guitar pentatonic scales, you’re ready to start improvising. It’s a great idea to records some chord progressions onto a digital recorder and practice improvising over the playback. You can learn more about developing your guitar soloing chops in this course.