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Pentatonic Scales

The Basics

Pentatonic scales are the staple of rock guitar. They are also widely used in jazz, blues, country and bluegrass music. This fact makes pentatonic scales a very important part of learning to play.

So, what are pentatonic scales?

Technically speaking, any scale composed of five notes can be called a pentatonic scale (penta = five and tonic = notes). In the real world, however, learning only two different pentatonic scales will cover 99.9% of the playing situations that you will encounter. These two scales are referred to as the MAJOR PENTATONIC and the MINOR PENTATONIC.

The major pentatonic is built from these intervals:

R – 2 – 3 – 5 – 6

In the key of C, that would be:

C – D – E – G – A

This scale works very well over chord progressions that are based primarily on major chords. Try it over I-IV-V-I, V-IV-I-V or I-iv-IV-V-I. (Check out the Chord Scale lesson if you have no idea what those Roman numerals mean.)

The minor pentatonic is built from these intervals:

R – b3 – 4 – 5 – b7

In the key of C, that would give us:

C – Eb – F – G – Bb

This scale works well for chord progressions based on minor chords. Try it over iv-ii-iii-iv or ii-iii-IV-ii.

You can also use minor pentatonic over certain major chord progressions if you want a “bluesy” sound. Try it over I-IV-V-I or V-IV-I-V. Be careful with the b3 when you try it this way. The b3 can sound horribly out of place over a major chord. One way to avoid this is to play the b3, bend, slide or hammer into the 3 and then land on the root. That is a classic blues lick. (Check out the Intervals lesson if you are unclear on intervals.)

When it comes to progressions that are based on power chords, the easiest way to figure out whether to use major pentatonic or minor pentatonic is “by ear”. Try one. If it doesn’t work, try the other one. 9 times out of 10, one or the other pentatonic scale will work perfectly. Often times, both will work, and you can mix and match in the same solo.

The Fingerboard


C major

A minor


C major

C minor

The Practice

Learn the major and minor pentatonic in every key over the entire fingerboard. Pay particular attention to the difference in sound between the two scales. The major pentatonic has a sweet, almost country flavor to it. The minor pentatonic has a darker, more blues sound to it. Knowing this difference in sound will help you to match your playing to the flavor of the chord progression.

Also, if you already know the major and minor scale well, you can learn to see the pentatonic scales by leaving out the appropriate intervals (4 and 7 for major, 2 and b6 for minor).

Once you know the scales pretty well, turn on the radio and try improvising lead lines along with whatever tune is playing. You can do this with any CD you own as well. The trick is to try and home in on the key of the song. once you determine the key, try either major or minor pentatonic in that key. Remember, if one doesn’t work, the other one probably will. It doesn’t get much easier folks.

Now, impress your friends and neighbors by playing some blues licks in A.

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