Guitar Scales: Pentatonic
Pentatonic just means "5 notes", and although this scale pattern might seem to contain every note there is, it just uses the same 5 notes, arranged in 5 patterns along the length of the fretboard. I have colour-coded each of the 5 patterns to make them easier to learn, that's why the same note is sometimes shown twice in a single fret. In the diagram below, the guitar headstock is at the far left, shown by the thick line - fret numbers are given too.
To play fairly good lead guitar in country, ballad, rock and blues styles, this scale is really all you need. You can add extra notes to make it sound more like blues, but basically this will get you by.
Learn the first 3 shapes at least (red,green and blue) as they are the most useful.
The red shape is quite easy, due to the symmetry, the green shape is the most widely used in rock and country styles.
- Pentatonic scales are easier to use than standard major and minor scales - they use mostly the same notes as major and minor scales, but with 2 notes removed - the 2 notes that can cause you problems when soloing over chords (which are the 4th and 7th in a major scale)
- There are major pentatonic scales and minor pentatonic scales, but you can use the same scale pattern for both types, just at different fret positions.
Pentatonic scales - guitar fretboard diagram
Applying the scale patterns
The first 2 diagrams are for Am pentatonic - the root note (A) is at fret 5 on both the 1st and the 6th strings, and this is your main point of reference. Now if you play an Am chord, you can hear how it fits the chord - or have a friend play Am for you.
This scale will fit any song in the key of Am or the key of C. For instance, over all the chords of a C harmonised scale in the table below.
Chords in the key of C
Next 2 pictures (shown in red)
Assuming you have learned the pattern fairly well, you just move everything up 2 frets to change to the key of Bm, or D. All the chords in the key of D are listed in the table below, all the notes in Bm pentatonic will fit.
Move up another 2 frets, and you can play in C♯minor or E. Again, there is a list of the chords in the key of E in the table.
By now, I'm sure you're getting the idea - the relationship between all chords and scales is the same for all the different keys, and you can just move the template up and down the guitar neck, you don't have to learn different stuff for each key.
Although just the red pattern is shown here - for clarity as much as laziness! - the whole series of 5 patterns remains the same. And it stays the same for all the different keys, which is a bonus.
Chords in the key of D
Chords in the key of E
Pentatonic scales tips
When you understand the patterns OK, try sliding between notes that are 2 frets apart, hammering on in any 2-fret interval, etc. This is a map of where the notes are, but you don't want to play them in this rigid order for the best and most musical effect.
Now here is a very useful application of pentatonic scales:
- If you shift the scale pattern down 3 frets, you get a major pentatonic pattern.
- Moving the Am pattern down 3 Frets gives you A major pentatonic
- You are now in the key of A major, using chords like A, D, E7
- If you do this move in reverse, use it to change from E to Em for example by shifting up 3 frets. This is very useful in blues playing.
More on pentatonic scales
I think it's true to say this scale is the most commonly used in music all over the world, certainly in folk music styles, even in Balinese and Japanese music.
Why is it easier to use this scale for improvising?
- Compared to a standard major scale, the relative minor pentatonic uses two notes less.
- These are the very two notes that can tend to clash with chords from the harmonised scale.
- An approach that I find very useful is to concentrate on the pentatonic scale pattern, and be aware of where the missing two notes could be to change to a full major scale. That way you can just add them in when needed.