Like any instrument, learning scales on guitar is crucial and one of the fundamental skills that every guitar player should be familiar with. They will help you with many things, including write music and improvising.
The major and minor scales have been used in formal music for centuries and they are a good place to start. However, when playing somewhat informal styles like rock, the major and minor scales may sound a little too rigid and not flow as good.
That’s where pentatonic scales come in. If you’re like most modern guitar players, you’re probably interested in playing rock, metal, blues, or even jazz; all of these styles use pentatonic scales extensively.
Therefore, it’s important you understand the concept of them as well as how to play them. That’s what this article will get into, so you should be a pro at pentatonic scales after reading this.
Overview of Pentatonic Scales
If you aren’t super comfortable with scales yet, we’d recommend you check out this article first. Once you have a little bit of a basic idea about scales, this article will make a lot more sense.
Scales have been used in guitar playing for centuries and they are an essential skill you’ll need to learn. Pentatonic scales are some of the most popular scales for guitars for a variety of reasons that we’ll get into later. Just like every other scale, there are major and minor variations and you can play them in any key.
Pentatonic scales are based on the major and minor scales and are actually quite similar.
Penta means 5, and pentatonic scales all have 5 notes within each octave. This is in contrast to all of the major and minor scales, which each have 7 notes. Therefore, there are two notes that are left out from the major and minor scales.
So, you’re probably asking, which two notes from the major and minor scales are left out in the pentatonic scales? Here’s how to construct these scales using major and minor scales.
Constructing Major Pentatonic Scales
As we mentioned already, every major scale has 7 notes in it, while the pentatonic has 5. So, can you just pick any two notes from the major scale to ignore? No, there is actually a pattern to it.
A major pentatonic scale contains the 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6 notes of a major scale. In other words, it doesn’t include the 4 or 7 notes of a major scale. For example, let’s use the C major scale, which is C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. Using this pattern, the C pentatonic scale is C, D, E, G, A, so the notes that are ignored are F and B.
It is that simple and it works with any major scale. Now that you have an idea about how to build major pentatonic scales, let’s talk about the minor ones, which are a little bit different but just as easy to do.
Constructing Minor Pentatonic Scales
Just like major scales, all minor scales also have 7 notes in them. Minor pentatonic scales have 5 notes in them, but which notes aren’t included is different.
A minor pentatonic scale is the 1, 3, 4, 5, and 7 notes of the natural minor scale, so the 2 and 6 notes aren’t played. Here’s one more example: The E minor scale consists of E, F#, G, A, B, C, and D. So, guess what the E minor pentatonic scale will consist of. If you guessed E, G, A, B, and D then you are correct!
As you can see, it’s pretty simple to build these scales just by following this basic pattern. So, now you know how to build these scales. But, why are these particular notes removed and are they just randomly decided?
Why Are These Notes Removed?
While removing the 4th and 7th notes from a major scale and the 2nd and 6th notes of a minor scale may seem random, there is actually a sound and logical musical reason for doing so.
Removing both of these pairs of notes removes half steps between notes. So, in a pentatonic scale, all notes will be separated by a whole step. If you aren’t familiar with half and whole steps in music, check out this article here.
The biggest advantage of removing all the half steps is that all the notes in the scale will now sound great over any chord in a progression.
This is the main reason why pentatonic scales are so easy to solo and play. If a rhythm guitar is backing you with a chord progression in a particular key, there will be some notes on the major scale that may not sound great over some of these chords, especially some sharps and flats. A pentatonic scale eliminates this problem so every note will sound good over the chords. This is why it is so widely used and especially in popular music.
It can be a little hard to firmly understand just by reading, so we strongly recommend you hear it for yourself. Find a recording or have a friend play a simple chord progression in any key you want. Improvise with the major scale and then the pentatonic. You should find that there are some notes of the major scale that simply won’t sound as good.
Sounding good over all chords in a progression is the main reason why pentatonic scales are used so commonly in many styles of music. There are also some other great reasons which we’ll get into next.
Why Use Pentatonic Scales?
Another big reason why pentatonic scales are so widely used has to do with simplicity. First, it is pretty obvious that five notes are less than seven, which makes them easier to learn and play.
Pentatonic scales are probably the easiest to learn and the most practical in modern and classical music. That’s why they are a perfect scale for every beginner to learn first. Not only are they easy to grasp, but they are also used the most in many styles of music.
Now, using these scales is one thing, but you should really try to memorize these scales to the best of your ability. Here are some great reasons why.
Why You Should Memorize the Pentatonic Scales
If you were going to memorize one set of scales for guitar, pentatonic scales would be your best choice. One thing that can lead to some beginning players getting confused and frustrated with is just how many guitar scales there are out there.
Some with weird names and difficult positions; it can all be a lot and can be somewhat confusing. With so many options, many newbies have no idea which ones are important to memorize and be familiar with.
Also, learning scales aren’t the most fun thing to do as it involves a lot of music theory and time practicing the same scale over and over again. That’s not why people pick up playing guitar. Most are eager to start playing their favorite songs and soloing right away; not spend months learning boring scales that they probably won’t use much again.
You really don’t need to memorize all of these scales, and just by learning the pentatonic scales you should have a firm grasp on the concept of scales and learning new ones will be much easier. As we’ve also said, they are also the most commonly used and anytime you need to solo, they are a good choice. It’s really just some basic guitar knowledge that you should have and that you can use whenever it’s called upon.
If this memorization stuff has you starting to worry, don’t. Remember, what’s a great advantage that we talked about for pentatonic scales? They are simple and easy to learn and memorizing truly comes down to learning some basic patterns. Here’s the easy way to learn these scales and be able to play them in any key.
Patterns of Pentatonic Scales
We talked about building these scales in terms of what notes they are based on the major and minor scales. While this is helpful in terms of understanding the concept of these scales, it’s not as effective in actually learning to play them. You can do it this way, but there is a simpler alternative.
Let’s be honest, a lot of guitar players, and you may be included, aren’t great with memorizing the notes on the strings. Guitarists are unique in that and we have easier things to use when it comes to reading music instead of notes on a musical staff: tabs and chord charts.
Therefore, if someone asks you to play an A major pentatonic scale, you probably aren’t going to play it quickly by thinking which notes it is comprised of. Especially if you want to play it in multiple positions down the neck. Thankfully, we have 5 general patterns that we can use in memorizing the pentatonic scales.
These five general patterns for both major and minor pentatonic scales can be used for constructing these scales no matter which pentatonic scale you are trying to play. We won’t list all of these patterns and positions but look at them here to get a sense for what they look like.
These patterns cover down the neck of the guitar, so they will teach you how to play each pentatonic scale in several octaves, which is extremely beneficial.
These are general patterns for the pentatonic scales, so how do you change them based on what key you want to play them in? The most important concept you’ll have to understand is the root notes. You’ll notice that in each scale pattern, there are notes that are highlighted and denoted as root notes.
These root notes are important for pentatonic scales because that is the note that will change based on whatever key you’ll be playing in. So, a root note of an E major pentatonic scale will be an E. Wherever the scale pattern lists a root note, you play the closest E on the string. That’s the only note you change on the scale, and there are only 2-3 root notes in each pattern, so you’ll find that each pentatonic scale is actually quite similar.
These patterns are by far the fastest way to learn and memorize these patterns, so let’s talk a little bit about ways you can practice and better memorize pentatonic scales.
How to Start Practicing and Learning
If you’ve made it this far in the article, then you should have a firm musical grasp of pentatonic scales. However, like really any skill on guitar, you are going to be much better at it by practicing it yourself than reading about it.
The best thing that you can do to help you memorize and learn these scales is to memorize the five scale patterns down the entire neck that we talked about. But, that’s quite a bit easier said than done.
Start by picking one pentatonic scale to memorize down the neck; common ones include A or E minor. Practice first by looking at the five different patterns and then making each root note whatever scale you are playing.
Practice playing the scale in each pattern, both forward and backward. This is really the best way to ingrain this in your mind as it reinforces muscle memory, which is so important with many aspects of guitar playing. Once you get confident, start doing each pattern in a row down the entire neck. Once you’ve felt comfortable with this specific scale, then try learning a pentatonic scale in a different key.
You don’t need to memorize every single pentatonic scale, but consider learning 2-3, like E minor, A minor and C major, which are some of the most commonly used. Once you learn 2-3 and if you keep in mind which notes are the root notes, you should have the pattern down and be able to learn other pentatonic scales much easier.
Memorizing these scales is truly an invaluable skill for guitar playing that will help you in your future. If you are ever asked to play a specific pentatonic scale, it will definitely come in handy.
Another important thing is that you don’t lose this skill that you worked hard for. It is said that you forget what you don’t use or practice regularly, and that is definitely true with scales. Many guitar players use scales as a good warm-up before every time they play.
Once you get good enough at these scales, it shouldn’t take you more than a couple of minutes to go down the entire neck with a specific pentatonic scale, and it is an effective warm-up that will definitely help you remember these scales.
Once you start to become more familiar and comfortable with playing the pentatonic scales, you can start using them to improvise and solo with your guitar.
Using Them to Improvise
In general, all scales are used most commonly on the guitar to improvise while soloing.
Some of the best rock, blues, and jazz guitarists like B.B. King, Eddie Van Halen, and Jimi Hendrix all used pentatonic scales extensively when soloing.
Although it may seem like it, they aren’t just playing random notes at a fast pace. When performing a solo, it’s important to understand what key you are playing in. If you’re still confused on how to determine what key you are in, read this article.
When you know what key you are in, you can play the corresponding scale. For example, if you are in the key of E, an E pentatonic scale would work beautifully. You use the notes from the scale to improvise, and you can switch between different octaves.
This method is the same for any scale you may use, but the pentatonic scales happen to be the most common in popular music due to their simplicity and the fact that they sound great over any chord in a progression. Their simplicity allows experts to play them at extreme speeds with precision.
There’s a lot to improvising besides just knowing the notes of a scale, such as using techniques like hammer ons and offs and others. For a better understanding of practicing improvising and how to do so, make sure you check out this article.
Once again, improvising a skill that takes a lot of practice. Get a friend or find a recording to play a chord progression in a specific key and improvise with a pentatonic scale. Play the entire neck as much as possible and it’s really something you just have to practice to get good at.
Hopefully, this article answered any questions you may have had about pentatonic scales. You should now know that they are the most widely used scales in many styles of music, and they are also easy to learn with some basic patterns. If you are still unsure about any of the components of pentatonic scales, be sure to leave a question down below and we’d be happy to answer it. Have fun learning these vital scales for your guitar!