Everything You Need To Know About Pentatonic Scales

Last week one of my students asked me “What scale should I learn? I am thinking about Harmonic Minor”

I did not respond immediately but I asked him instead “How many pentatonic scale shapes do you know?”

“I know the minor and the major pentatonic” he said.

And this is where the fun starts for me as a teacher because that answer tells me right away that there are some wrong ideas about how scales really work in his head.

Fortunately those ideas are quite easy to correct.

The first thing to know:

There are no major or minor SHAPES.

Yes, there is an A minor pentatonic and an A major pentatonic, but it does not matter in which shape you are playing it.

Here is an example to illustrate what I mean:

The notes of the A minor pentatonic are A, C, D, E and G.

The notes of the C major pentatonic are C, D, E, G and A.

Same notes, just different starting tone.

And different formula.

And now the shocker:

THEY LOOK EXACTLY THE SAME ON THE GUITAR!

Here is a fretboard with all the notes of either scale for reference:

Why do people call it Major and Minor pentatonic then?

Because of context.

If you are playing in a major key, it makes more sense to also call it a “major pentatonic”.

So you don’t have to convert it from minor to major if somebody in a jam says “Use the C major pentatonic”.

(instead of saying “use the A minor pentatonic” when in the key of C major)

He does NOT say “Play this or that position of the pentatonic” because the position does not change any of the sound itself.

It still matters which notes you choose.

Now the funniest thing:

If you use the scale above to play over an A minor chord, you are playing the A minor pentatonic scale.

But if YOU change nothing but the chord changes to C major, now suddenly you play the C major pentatonic. 🙂

Conclusion: The context determines what the scale is called in the end.

NOT the position on the fretboard.

Back to the question of my student:

There is really no excuse to learn all 5 shapes of the pentatonic to a point that you can handle them well.

This I would say is a really vital fundamental skill that gets overlooked by many guitar players.

I’m not saying “Don’t learn anything else before you mastered the pentatonic”, no, far from it.

I AM saying: Don’t AVOID learning how to use ALL 5 pentatonic shapes.

Last question: What do I mean with FIVE pentatonic shapes?

Let us look at the scale again:

A, C, D, E, G.

The way the minor pentatonic scale is *usually* laid out on the fretboard is two notes per string from any starting note on the E string.

If we start on the 5th fret on the E string with the A note, we end up with the frets:

e 5 8

B 5 8

G 5 7

D 5 7

A 5 7

E 5 8

If we repeat this process now from the C, D, E and G note on the E-string, we get FIVE different pentatonic scale shapes.

I will let you figure them out by yourself now but it’s not difficult, just needs to be done and this little exercise will go a LONG way.

What I think you should do with this knowledge:

Start applying ALL shapes of the pentatonic scale.

Force yourself to NOT only play the first shape 😉

For one training session restrict yourself to only two shapes for a while, then another combination.

That is just the beginning.

You can get as creative with this as you want.

If you want to learn other scales during the same time period, go ahead, no problem.

Just don’t ignore the pentatonic scales 🙂

They are way underrated in my opinion.

And if you want more customized-to-you help and get your playing really on the fast track:

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