The Pentatonic Scale (Both Major & Minor)
You’re probably already very familiar with the typical minor pentatonic box shape that looks like this:
This is your A minor pentatonic scale, because its root note is an A. Knowing this shape is a great start! But let’s take a moment to actually understand this shape, where it comes from, and why it is the minor pentatonic scale.
Penta (greek origin) means five, indicating that the pentatonic scale is a 5 note scale. More specifically, it is built from the following intervals:
- Major: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6
- Minor: 1, b3, 4, 5, b7
In minor, the flattened third and seventh degrees (minor third and minor seven) indicate its minor tonality. In major, its major third indicates its major tonality. Take note of these formulas so that you can develop a greater understanding of how the scale is built.
The minor pentatonic shape that you already know is built from the sixth degree of the major pentatonic. The sixth degree of the major pentatonic scale is the final note before moving back to the octave/root note. This indicates that, based on your current knowledge of the minor pentatonic scale sequence, we can build the major pentatonic scale using the exact same shape, but rather starting on the second note as shown below:
This is your C major pentatonic scale, because the root note is a C. Despite using the same pattern of notes on the fretboard, you are playing two different scales in two different keys. To hear this more clearly, play an Am chord before playing the Am pentatonic scale, or a C chord before playing the C major pentatonic scale.
The simple interchange between these two scales is referred to as “relative keys”. We’ll expand further on this point in an upcoming lecture. For now, take a moment to study the intervals within each shape as demonstrated in the above graphics.
DISTINGUISHING MAJOR & MINOR
When you play both of the patterns we’ve spoken of so far, you’ll notice that they sound almost identical. That’s because they are. The only thing that helps to define them is the context in which you play in. If you play the pattern over an Am chord progression, it will sound like you’re playing the minor pentatonic. If you play the pattern over a C major chord progression, it will sound like you’re playing the major pentatonic.
To help your ear distinguish the two scales from each other, there’s another shape that we can learn and use when playing a major pentatonic scale:
In aid of distinguishing the two scales, I recommend that you associate the shape above with major, and the first shape I demonstrated with minor.
Not only do you have two shapes to take away from this lesson to associate with both major and minor, but I also want to encourage you to get comfortable with remembering the intervals in each shape. Knowing where the intervals sit will later on help you play lead more strategically rather than just running up and down the scale shapes.