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What's the Big Deal About Pentatonic Scales?

Monday, May 16, 2011
First of all, let's define "Pentatonic Scale" before we get started on why it's such a great thing.  The term "pentatonic" just means "5 tones" or "5 notes".  So any scale with only 5 notes could be called a pentatonic scale, but when comes to guitar players, there are really only two particular scales that earn the name:

Major Pentatonic and Minor Pentatonic Scale

[caption id="attachment_1043" align="aligncenter" width="479" caption="Image from Gibson's Learn & Master Guitar Lesson Book"]Five pentatonic scales for guitar[/caption]

I'll use the simple number system to give you the low-down.  If you count the tonic of any key as "1" and then count right up the major scale, you'll count to seven before reaching the next octave up. For instance, in the key of C, C=1, D=2, E=3, F=4, G=5, A=6, and B=7. The Major Pentatonic scale would be these numbers:1, 2, 3, 5, 6
When you play this scale it sounds sort of country in flavor.  And like the full major scale, it sounds light and positive.

The Minor Pentatonic scale would be these numbers:1, flat3, 4, 5, flat7
Play that scale and you get a whole different feel.  This is the scale used for almost all blues and rock soloing on guitar.


Great question.  Glad you asked.
The pentatonic scale is all about limiting choices so you can focus on the most "solid" notes in a particular key.
What you've done when you learn and burn the pentatonic scales is take 12 notes and filtered out the 7 weakest notes... the notes that "don't sound right" for that key.
"Are you saying that I should NEVER play any of those 'non-pentatonic' notes when I solo?" NO,  I am not.  BUT... the pentatonic scale (especially the minor) establishes a good, solid, easy to default to, home-base for your fingers and your mind when soloing. Go to the lesson section of a site like Gibson.com sometime and find a video lesson on "pentatonic scales" and you can see this demonstrated easily.


tab for pentatonic scale on guitar

Once you've learned the minor pentatonic scale in a key, you'll find that just noodling around on those 5 notes over almost any minor progression in that key just sounds like you know what you're doing.  The "clunkers" have been eliminated.

Try this at home:  Learn and memorize the minor pentatonic scale in a comfortable key.  Then get your friend to play the progression in that key,

4min--2min--3min--4min OR 2min--3min--4--2min

You can also try something a little more bluesy by playing the minor pentatonic over some major progressions.  (You only have to watch out for that flat3... just avoid it or bend it up to the 3 and you'll love how this sounds.)  Try playing over this progression,1-4-5-1  or maybe 5-4-1-5. Strangely enough, you will often be able to use both minor and major pentatonic scales over the same progression.  It is fairly common to use both in the same solo and get away with it.

Your mission, should you decide to accept it, will be to learn and memorize the minor and major pentatonic scales in every key up and down the fretboard.  (The best part is... you fingers do the same thing no matter what key you're in...they're just in another position up or down neck.) Will this be all you need to know to play great solos?  NO.  But it is the perfect foundation from which to build WHILE GETTING SOME MUSICAL GRATIFICATION!  So good luck and good playing.

After learning the simple minor pentatonic scale, you'll find that you can add one "Blue" note to make up what is commonly called the "Blues Scale".  You'll get that by adding the flat5 between the 4 and 5 of the minor pentatonic. But that's another article.
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