Once you’ve mastered the basic guitar chords, you might want to tackle some scales. The pentatonic is a good scale to start with. It’s easy to play, easy to memorize and sounds good in an astonishing variety of musical situations. Here’s how to play it:
The diagram above shows the F# minor pentatonic scale. Your index finger is on F# on both E strings. To play any of the other minor pentatonic scales, you just slide the box up or down the fretboard, planting your index on the appropriate E string note. To play G minor pentatonic, put your index on the third fret. To play A minor, put it on the fifth fret.
Major and minor pentatonics
By learning the minor pentatonic box, you get another scale for free: the major pentatonic. Play A minor pentatonic, by putting your index finger on the fifth fret. With the bass note A, this will sound like the key of A minor. No big surprise there. But now play the same scale over the bass note C. All of a sudden, you’re in the key of C major. This is because the A minor pentatonic scale (A, C, D, E, G) contains the same notes as the C major pentatonic scale (C, D, E, G, A.) This hints at the deeper underlying relationship between C major and A minor.
So here’s the rule:
- For the minor pentatonic, put your index on the desired root on the E string.
- For the major pentatonic, put your pinkie on the desired root on the E string.
Let’s say you’re playing in C. For the minor pentatonic, you put your index on the eighth fret. For the major pentatonic, put your pinkie on the eighth fret, so your index is on the fifth fret. Which one should you use? Try them both and use your ears.
Here’s a comparison of the C minor and C major pentatonic scales, as seen on the chromatic circle and the circle of fifths. Minor is above, major is below. Click through to see them in music notation, hear them and get more background.
Real-life examples: “Summertime” by the Gershwins is almost entirely comprised of the minor pentatonic. “Amazing Grace” uses the major pentatonic.
A little music theory
The word pentatonic comes from Greek, meaning “five tones” — the pentatonic scales have five notes in them. Traditional western scales have seven notes in them.
The major pentatonic scale is the same as the major scale minus the fourth and seventh notes. So you can get C major pentatonic by starting with the C major scale — C, D, E, F, G, A, B — and removing F and B. If you write the major scale on the circle of fifths, the notes in the pentatonic are conveniently grouped together.
F and B make up a tritone, and they give the C major scale its tension and dissonance. Removing the tritone means there are no wrong notes in C major pentatonic. Everything you play will sound good. That’s nice for beginners. But it also means there’s no risk, and therefore not as much drama.
To get C minor pentatonic, start with C natural minor — C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb — and remove the second and sixth notes, D and Ab. Again, you’re removing the tritone, making the remaining notes safe but reducing the potential for drama.
You can add one note to the minor pentatonic to get the wonderfully versatile blues scale.
The piano connection
The E flat minor/G flat major pentatonic scale is a special case on the piano, because it coincides with the black keys. To sound like a piano genius, just play the black keys over E flat or G flat.
The piano helps you visualize an interesting fact from music theory — if you take the twelve possible pitches in Western tuning and subtract the G flat major pentatonic scale, you’re left with the C major scale, the white keys on the piano. Any major scale can be built by subtracting the major pentatonic whose root is a tritone away. Hmmmm.
Some advanced pentatonic wizardry
The bad news when you’re learning guitar is that there are a zillion scales. The good news is that there’s a lot of overlap between them. By shifting your regular old pentatonic box around the fretboard, you have access to a wide variety of lively and exotic new sounds.
Here’s what happens when you play all twelve possible minor pentatonic scales over a C root. There’s no need to memorize this list. The practical takeaway is that you should try the different pentatonics against different bass notes.
- C minor pentatonic: C blues, natural minor, Dorian and Phrygian modes.
- Db minor pentatonic: Nothing useful.
- D minor pentatonic: C sus, major or 7th. Also C Dorian mode.
- Eb minor pentatonic: C7 altered scale. Resolve to D or D minor afterwards.
- E minor pentatonic: C major seventh. Lovely.
- F minor pentatonic: C natural minor or Phrygian mode.
- Gb minor pentatonic: Nothing useful.
- G minor pentatonic: C7sus, from Mixolydian mode. Also C natural minor.
- Ab minor pentatonic: Nothing useful.
- A minor pentatonic: C major pentatonic.
- Bb minor pentatonic: C Phrygian mode. Flamenco time!
- B minor pentatonic: C Lydian mode. Awesome.
If you don’t have a bassist handy, you can experiment by playing the pentatonics on the D, G, B and high E strings, while letting the open A string ring underneath.
When I was learning my scales, it was super useful to know that if I shifted the pentatonic box down one fret from the key, I got this weird and beautiful Lydian sound. It was only later that I parsed out the music theoretical meaning. As always, use your ears and have fun.