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The Pentatonic Scale (Both Major & Minor)

25th August 2018

In this lesson you will learn, in depth, how to play and construct a major and minor pentatonic scale.

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THE BASICS

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.

 

SUMMARY

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.

Comments

  1. Should I work on understanding the intervals of the pentatonic scale or memorise the shapes? you mentioned knowing where the intervals sit will help me play lead more strategically, could you explain in what situation that skill can be applied?

    1. Good question Shaun. The short answer = both. The long answer = If I had to choose just one method, I would always without any doubt opt for interval recognition over shape recognition. The reason for this is because with the knowledge of intervals (and practice), you will be able to construct scales anywhere on the guitar neck, without restriction. However in times where you don’t want to use your brain, you can always opt for the shape based playing at basic level. Providing you follow the shape, you can’t go far wrong. If you want to be more strategic in your playing however, interval awareness is key. Which intervals you ask? Chord tones. Chord tones are simply notes that exist within the chord that you are playing over.