Today we’re going to cover pentatonic scale patterns and jumpstart your guitar soloing along the way. If pentatonic scales and scale patterns seem threatening, don’t worry. We’ll guide you through everything you need to know when beginning to explore the world of major and minor scales, and scale patterns in general. Let’s jump right into the business and start with the pentatonic pattern.
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, 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. Especially if you are still only beginning to learn scales, you’ve come to the right place.
We’re going to look at the two main types of pentatonic scales: major and minor. If major and minor scales don’t ring a bell, you can think of major scales as bright sounding and minor scales as sounding 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 and all over the guitar fretboard.
Minor Pentatonic Scale Pattern
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 image of a G minor pentatonic scale, let’s discuss how this type of scale diagram works. It shows you a bird’s eye view of the fretboard, with the 6th string (big E) at the bottom of the diagram, and the 1st string (little E) up 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. If not, we recommend learning more about barre chords in our other handy article.
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.
Let’s say you’re jamming 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, right?
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 fret 7 of the 5th string (which is E) for example, 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. 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 and using the pentatonic scale patterns you have spent a lot of time learning.
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 Pattern
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 a major scale, such as 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 great example of this technique of switching between major and minor pentatonic scales 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, for example by playing a lick in G minor pentatonic scale, then moving on to G major pentatonic scale, and so on. Try experimenting like this with different pentatonic scale patterns or switch between a major and minor pentatonic scale in the same key. You might come up with something that sounds great and really impresses others at those jam sessions.
How to Play the Pentatonic Scale
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’re playing and how it relates to what’s happening in the background. This in turn will yield better note choice decisions when soloing. That’s exactly what we’re 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. It’s all worth it.