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Guitar Pentatonic Scales

Updated on December 26, 2022
Jon Green profile image

For many years I taught guitar and music theory in college. A little theory goes a long way!

Easy Guitar scales

Am (A minor) is a great key for guitar players, and many of the best guitar songs use this key. Partly that is due to the position on the neck, right in the middle, in a comfortable range.

Let's assume you know the common pentatonic scale, shown in the last chord grid on the first line. This scale starts in fret 5, and it's a box pattern that ends in fret 8. The tonic note, or home note, is A, which is fret 5 on both strings 1 and 6. The sixth string is the thickest string. Now this is essential info for playing lead guitar or doing rhythm guitar fills, but there is one disadvantage:

  • The pattern is fairly regular, but not completely, meaning
  • The three - fret intervals are harder for beginners

Scales and chords Am

First scale pattern

The scale pattern shown should be much easier to learn and also easier to play. Start with G on fret 3 with your first finger, then fret 5 (A) with your little finger. This fingering is just my preference.

  • The 3 to 5 on the next string, again with first finger to little finger
  • Slide to fret 7 using little finger
  • For string 4, first finger, little finger
  • For string 3, the same, but again use your little finger to change position up the fretboard
  • As this scale pattern is just a series of symmetrical two-fret moves, you should find it easy to master, but keep the speed down for now.
  • Next, two forms of an Am chord are shown
  • The Am7 is a half barre, with thumb over the neck for the low note (A, fret 5)
  • Try playing the scale pattern over these chords.

Diagram 3

This diagram shows diad or 2 - note chords that fit with this scale, each pair of notes is circled. These are nice if you slide between them. If you're lucky, they will sound a bit like Jimi Hendrix. If not, they will sound a bit Chinese - reason, Chinese music features a lot of pentatonic scales!

  • Final pair of diads can be used after the first pair from the previous diagram
  • If you look back to the first diagram, scale pattern, you can see this shape contained within the scale pattern, like part of a D chord shape.
  • Last three diagrams - more useful shapes, these are thirds harmony, reminiscent of Rhiannon by Fleetwood Mac.

Other applications

Although these examples are in the key of Am, they will also work in the key of C, the relative major key. For most practical purposes, Am and C are the same key.

There is one real difference: often songs in Am will include an E7 chord instead of Em. This provides a stronger resolution to the tonic chord (Am)

When you play the scale against an E7 chord, change any G notes to G sharp instead, to fit with the chord.

Another very common and useful progression is Bm7 b5, E7, Am. Again, you can change the G note to G sharp over the E7 chord, then revert to normal pentatonic Am scale.

  • Chords in C would comprise: C Dm Em F G Am Bm7b5
  • So you could play a chord progression like Am, F, G
  • C, Am, F, G
  • Any other combination of those chords
  • All these chords fit with Am pentatonic scales
  • You could also mix in C major scale patterns, but it's more difficult
  • When you are confident with playing the first diagram Am pentatonic scale, you could put in some passing notes - try 5,6,7 on strings 5 and 4 for instance.
  • The 2 - note chords or diads can be played anywhere where the same note is on two adjacent strings, just experiment with this idea.

Other keys

  • All other keys work in the same way on guitar -
  • If you move all the scale patterns, diads, and chords up 2 frets you are now playing in Bm, or D.
  • Up 2 more frets and you are playing in the key of C sharp minor, or E.
  • Recap: guitar is very handy, as you only have to learn one pattern, which can be moved up and down the neck for all the different keys. As opposed to the piano keyboard, where the pattern is much harder to implement.

Practice hints

Practice is always better when it doesn't seem like practice! So you'll find that jamming along to backing tracks is a fun way to make progress. Rhiannon, Stairway To Heaven (last part) and Dylan version of All Along The Watchtower are all in this key, Bob Marley's No Woman No Cry, and Stand By Me are two more good examples.

Also Bill Withers' Ain't No Sunshine, which is almost perfect for jamming along. (Chords are Am, Em, G, Dm)

Another practice hint is to sing the lines you are playing, which will really help in memorising them and should also improve your phrasing to a more vocal quality.


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