“Without music, life would be a mistake.” - Friedrich Nietzsche
Almost everyone in the UK likes music. You can hear a song and be reminded of a time, a place, a smell, a person.
What if you could create new memories and experiences by learning how to play the guitar?
C major scale, barre chords, rhythm, etc. There’s a lot to learn about one when you start playing the guitar. Whether you want to play blues guitar, rock guitar, or jazz guitar, it's important that you learn more guitar theory as it'll help you with creating chord progressions, playing an arpeggio, and writing guitar licks and riffs.
So shall we have a look at the pentatonic scale?
What Is the Pentatonic Scale?
It’s the scale that every guitarist should know if they want to improvise or play solos. A pentatonic is a scale that includes five notes. After all, “penta” means five and “tonic” means notes.
Of course, if this was all that was required, any five notes could constitute a pentatonic scale.
Let’s talk about the pentatonic scale. There are two types of pentatonic scale: the major pentatonic scale and the minor pentatonic scale.
However, those who play guitar regularly refer to the minor pentatonic as the pentatonic scale. However, this is not the same as other minor scales, either.
There are three main advantages to the minor and major pentatonic scales:
- They’re easy to learn.
- They’re easy to play.
- There are plenty of situations where they can be used.
Whether you’re playing pop, reggae, blues, metal, folk, etc., the pentatonic scale can be found almost everywhere. It’s the Swiss army knife of scales and every guitar player should learn to play it.
How Can You Work on Scales on the Guitar?
First of all, make sure that your left hand is in the right position with your thumb behind the neck and your fingers curled towards the six strings.
Even though it’s tempting to try and play the pentatonic scale with your fingers flat, don’t do it. This is the best way to pick up bad habits and stunt your progress further down the road.
Don’t barre the strings on a pentatonic scale either as it’ll cost you in terms of precision. You need to move your fingers and hand for each note.
It’s recommended that you use a plectrum and play using a back and forth motion. This is also a great way to work on using a pick and learn how to play more quickly with it.
To work on your scales, you’ll need to read scale diagrams and reproduce them by playing from the lowest notes to the highest notes and then coming back down again.
Don’t try and play the five positions at once. Take your time and go through them one by one. Master one before you move onto the next. While you're working on a given position, make sure that you don’t forget the previous one!
The goal is to know all the different positions. You’re not learning one to replace another.
Don’t forget to use a metronome as you work. Bit by bit, increase the tempo and start playing the scale a little faster.
Once you’ve learnt a pentatonic scale, remember where the tonics are since this will help you when it comes to improvising.
Learn more about other scales on the guitar.
The Minor Pentatonic Scale
The minor pentatonic scale is the most important scale when it comes to rock guitar playing. It’s sometimes referred to as the rock scale or the solo scale.
It includes five notes and a minor third, which means that there’s an interval of three semitones between the tonic (the first note) and the third.
The pentatonic minor scale has the following structure:
- I to III: Three semitones.
- III to IV: A tone.
- IV to V: A tone.
- V to VII: Three semitones.
- VII to I: A tone.
You’ll notice that there are the I, III, IV, V, and VII degrees. The II and VI degrees aren’t part of the pentatonic scale. Here are two simple ways to remember the intervals of the scale:
- 1.5T - 1T - 1T - 1.5T - 1T
- 3 - 2 - 2 - 3 - 2
The second method is the number of frets between each note. Don’t hesitate to try this out on your guitar by starting from any given note. There are plenty of ways to play the pentatonic scale. However, there are 5 scale diagrams or positions that you can use for making your life much easier.
The First Two Positions of the Pentatonic Minor Scale
The first position of the pentatonic minor scale is the simplest. Let’s start with A. The fingering isn’t that complicated.
- The index finger will play the 5th fret.
- The ring finger will play the 7th fret.
- The pinky will play the 8th fret.
The second position of the pentatonic scale is a little harder to memorise but there are several possible fingerings. The simplest fingering is the following.
- Low E string: index finger on the 8th fret, ring finger on the 10th fret.
- A string: index finger moves to the 7th fret, pinky on the 10th fret.
- D string: same as the A string.
- G string: index finger on the 7th fret, ring finger on the 9th fret.
- B string: index finger moves to the 8th fret, ring finger on the 10th fret.
- High E string: same as the B string.
Advice for Fingering and Playing Scales
Don’t lift your fingers too far from the fretboard, this will help you improve the speed of your playing. It’s better to stay close to the strings so that you don’t lose any time.
Force yourself to do this from the second you start learning. If you don’t, it’ll be harder to teach yourself to do it once bad habits have been formed.
Furthermore, it’s much easier to move your fingers when they’re close to the fretboard. It’s better to start off slowly at first while keeping your fingers close to the neck than trying to go quickly. Similarly, don’t lift off from the previous note until the next finger is down. This is a good way to avoid gaps between the two notes.
When you have to play a note on a new string, leave your finger on the last note and don’t remove it until you absolutely have to. This is useful when going from the high notes to the low notes.
To learn the pentatonic minor scale, it’s recommended that you go step by step:
- Play the right notes with the right fingers.
- Play using a back and forth motion on your right hand.
- Play the scale according to a certain rhythm.
The Major Pentatonic Scale
The major pentatonic scale is just a minor pentatonic scale that starts on the third. The scale diagram for the first position of the major pentatonic is the same as the second position of the pentatonic minor. It’s a major scale because there are two full tones between the tonic and the third.
A pentatonic major is little more than a diatonic major scale but without the semitones.
The pentatonic minor scale has the following structure:
- I to II: A tone.
- II to III: A tone.
- III to IV: Three semitones.
- V to VI: A tone.
- VI to I: Three semitones.
In the pentatonic major scale, the I, II, III, V, and VI degrees are used. The IV and VII degrees are absent from this scale. The structures of the pentatonic major and pentatonic minor scales are very similar and are only three semitones apart.
Here are two simple ways to remember the intervals of the scale:
- 1T - 1T - 1.5T - 1T - 1.5T
- 2 - 2 - 3 - 2 - 3
The second of these two methods is the intervals in the scale in terms of frets. For example, the A major pentatonic scale is the following: C D E G A C
You’ll notice that there are two notes between the C (tonic) and the E (the third), something which is characteristic of a major scale.
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You should also work on the chromatic scale to warm up.
How to Work on the Major Pentatonic Scale?
If you’re a beginner, don’t worry too much about the theory and just go straight onto the practice. Of course, the theory is important if you want to improvise and compose music.
The major pentatonic scale has five positions which you can play anywhere on the neck. The major scale and the pentatonic major scale are very similar. This is normal, the major scale is the foundation of all other scales. In fact, all other scales are variations of the major scale.
Working on all of them together can help you to memorise them and to better understand them. This is a great way to work on your musical ear, your dexterity, your improvisation, and transitioning from one scale to another.
The pentatonic major scale is less common than the pentatonic minor scale but it’s just as interesting.
The fingering for the pentatonic minor scale is exactly the same as those for the pentatonic major scale. You just have to pay attention when you’re playing and know whether you’re playing a major or a minor scale. With a bit of practice, you should be able to master these scales in very little time!
If you're still struggling, you should consider getting a beginner guitar lesson with a private tutor. On Superprof, a lot of tutors offer a free guitar lesson for the first hour. This is a great opportunity to talk to the tutor, find out how they can help you, and work out exactly what you want to learn to do on the guitar.
Beginners can focus on a simple guitar chord progression or simple melodies while intermediate and expert players can choose to focus on some blues licks, guitar solos from their favourite songs, or more demanding techniques.