Hi! Today we are going to cover pentatonic patterns and jumpstart your guitar soloing along the way!
What Is a Pentatonic Scale?
Pentatonic scales have five notes in them (“penta” meaning five, like a pentagon). While there are lots of other scales you can learn too, pentatonic scales are incredibly popular because they’re practical, versatile, easy to memorize, and work for most musical genres. If you’re looking for bang-for-your-buck when practicing, pentatonic scales are an excellent choice.
We’re going to look at the two main types of pentatonic scales: major (which sounds bright) and minor (which sounds dark). We’ll also have two playing positions for each scale – one with the lowest note (aka “root note”) on the 6th string, and one with the root note on the 5th string. With these four scale shapes, we’ll be able to cover most musical situations, in all keys, all over the fretboard!
Minor Pentatonic Scale
We’ll start with the minor pentatonic scale, since it’s the most popular one for guitarists. Here’s the first shape to learn:
G minor pentatonic scale, root-6 position.
Just in case you’ve never seen anything like this, let’s discuss how this type of scale diagram works. It shows you a birds’ eye view of the fretboard, with the 6th string (big E) at the bottom of the diagram, and the 1st string (little E) up the top. The idea is to play each dot in order, starting on the 6th string and working your way up, reading left to right. In tab, it would look like this:
G minor pentatonic scale (root-6 position), in tab.
So, what do all the colors mean? The red note is the ‘root’ – it’s the starting note and the one that gives the scale its name. In this case, it’s a G note, which is why it’s called the “G” minor pentatonic scale. But, the shape itself is completely movable: if we started on a different note like A on fret 5, we’d be playing the A minor pentatonic scale.
What about the black notes? These are called ‘chord tones’, and together they make a G minor chord. If you already know your root-6 minor barre chord you might already recognize the shape! This is helpful to know for a couple of reasons. Firstly, you’ll see that the minor pentatonic scale is just a few notes added to your minor barre chord, which makes it faster to learn. Secondly, as you play through the scale or start to improvise, you’ll find these chord tones sound nice and stable – if you’re soloing, these are the strong notes to rest on. When you add in those blue notes, you get the full minor pentatonic scale.
So, you’re at a jam, and your friend says “let’s play in G minor!”. Your job is to improvise using the minor pentatonic scale in that key. You find the root note G on the 6th string fret 3, and start playing the root-6 minor pentatonic shape. In this scenario you already know the notes on the 6th string really well, and if your friend was jamming in Am or Em you’d also be able to find those notes instead… 😉 You spend extra time on the chord tones, since those are the most stable-sounding notes. Sounds awesome!
But what if we want to move around the fretboard a bit, and break out of that one scale shape? That’s where the root-5 shape comes in:
G minor pentatonic scale, root-5 position.
Notice that the root note in red is on the 5th string – in this case on fret 10, since that’s the note G. If we played the shape starting on e.g. fret 7 of the 5th string (which is E), we’d be playing the E minor pentatonic scale (root-5 shape). As before, the black notes show you the chord tones, which you may already recognize if you know your root-5 minor barre chord. The blue notes make up the rest of the scale shape. Most people trip up a bit on the B-string where there’s a kink in the shape, so pay extra attention there.
So, back to our jam in G minor – we’re rocking out with the root-6 position down on fret 3, and to really amp things up we move up to the root-5 position on fret 10. Sounds extra-awesome, and of course it’s lots of fun moving around the fretboard like that!
As you can see, to make the most of your minor pentatonic shapes you really need to know your root notes on the 6th string and 5th string, so you know where to play the shapes. We’d recommend learning the notes on those strings really well, especially for common keys you’ll come across at jams, like A, C, D, E, and G.
Major Pentatonic Scale
Ok, so we’ve covered the minor pentatonic scale, which is great for all those dark-sounding minor keys. But what if your friend starts jamming in G major? That’s what the major pentatonic scale is for. Let’s have a look at the root-6 shape:
G major pentatonic scale, root-6 position.
As before, we’ve got the root note on the 6th string, in this case on fret 3 (G). The black notes show you the chord tones, which you may recognize as the root-6 major barre chord shape (if you only know one barre chord, it’s probably this one). The blue notes fill in the rest of the major pentatonic shape. As before, if you start on a different root note like A on fret 5, you’ll be playing the major pentatonic scale in that key.
It’s similar to the minor pentatonic in that it has two notes per string, but you’ll notice the major shapes work best starting with the middle finger. It sounds brighter as well, although it’s really versatile too, and can sound like anything from major blues to Japanese or Celtic, depending on how it’s played.
So, your friend says “let’s jam in G major!”, and you start cranking out beautiful melodies using the G major pentatonic scale, root-6 position. Then, you get inspired to jump to the root-5 position, like this:
G major pentatonic scale, root-5 position.
As before, we’ve got the root note in red (in this case G on the 5th string, fret 10), and the stable-sounding chord tones in black, forming the root-5 major barre chord shape. The blue notes fill out the rest of the scale.
Now you can jump around the fretboard with two pentatonic shapes for major and minor songs. And, because you’ve been dutifully learning your root notes on the 6th and 5th strings, you can do it in any key!
Major and Minor
In some styles like blues, you can even shift between the major and minor pentatonic scales, for a great sound that blurs the line between dark and bright. A splendid example of this technique can be heard on the iconic solo for AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long”, as well as many solos from masters like Eric Clapton and B.B. King It’s worth practicing this too, e.g. playing a lick in G minor pentatonic, then G major pentatonic, and so on.
The pentatonic scale is an invaluable tool for guitar players. Make sure to practice all these scales ascending and descending before diving in the deep end of improvisation, though! There’s a great guitar scale trainer in the Yousician app that you can use to aid you in the process. Think of that practice time as Daniel San’s “Wax On, Wax Off” exercise: muscle memory will free you to focus on the sound of what you are playing and how it relates to what’s happening in the background, which will, in turn, yield better note-choice decisions when soloing. That is what we are looking for. You know those times a guitar player plays a note and they just make that guitar face while they hold the note? Yep. That’s the feeling of landing on a satisfying note, and knowing what you’re doing… And it’s all worth it!
To your success!