How to Play the Pentatonic Scale

The guitar neck is made up of different scales and within those scales are different notes. Learning how to play scales is vital to a guitarists understanding of chords, music theory, and when creating riffs of your own. Scales are versatile and can help you improve your guitar skills in many areas using different exercises. Below, we will look at these exercises and explore one of the many scales going up and down the guitar neck: the pentatonic scale.

Meaning of pentatonic

You will find that most scales encompass 7 notes, this is called a heptatonic scale, the pentatonic scale, however, only encompass 5 notes. This makes the pentatonic scale a valid starting scale for beginners as there are less notes to remember in the scale pattern. It is also beginner friendly because it can be played over any chord change as long as you play the scale in the right key. Should you wish to make up a nice melody to a guitar comp, the pentatonic scale is a good place to start.

Another funny anecdote that might explain the naming of the scale better is that penta is a loanword from greek that means 5, just as hepta which means 7.  

Minor and Major pentatonic scale

The pentatonic scale comes in two keys/variations: Minor and Major. These variations can be used to apply the scale to different keys and musical styles depending on what kind of sound you want to create. Learning both of these will aid you in your understanding of the relation between notes on the guitar neck and how to quickly find the note you want. 

Below you will find scale boxes for both Major and Minor. The boxes show the specific scale pattern as it moves on the guitar neck. No matter what key you play in the pattern will always be the same. For instance, if you play A minor pentatonic scale the first fret will be the 5th fret on the first position, while if you play C minor the first fret will be the 8th fret on the first position. 

The numbers on the scale boxes are the finger you will use to play that note e.g. 1 being your index finger and 4 being your pinky finger. The blue notes are the notes naming the key of the pentatonic scale, for example should you play the A minor pentatonic scale all blue notes will be A. 

Let’s have a look at the scale boxes and discuss them one scale at a time to get a clearer understanding on how they work.

The Minor pentatonic scale boxes.

Minor

The minor pentatonic scale is usually what people mean when they simply say “the pentatonic scale” as it works well over any chord. Above you see the scale boxes for the minor pentatonic scale as they progress up the guitar neck. To figure out where to place the scale boxes you need to look to the blue notes. If you wish to play A-minor pentatonic scale all blue notes has to be A. Looking at the 1st position of the scale boxes you will find the blue note As on the 5th and 7th fret; the 1s on the 5th fret and the 3 on the 7th fret. Looking at the next scale box, the 2nd position, you will see that the first 2 frets of the scale box overlap in pattern with the 1st position’s 3rd and 4th fret, we can then assume that the 2nd positions 1st scale box fret will be the 7th fret on the guitar neck. 

It can be a bit overwhelming when looking at it like this but in my experience it slowly starts to make sense as you put it to practice. Focus on the 1st position first and move on to the next position as you get comfortable using the scale box. The more time you put into learning the scales properly the more you will be able to utilize them in actual play.

A-minor pentatonic is a reasonable starting place with the minor pentatonic scale and has the 5th, 7th, 9th, 12th, and 14th fret respectively as the first fret on the different positions. 

Here is a video that shows how to play the pentatonic scale in its 1st position across the guitar neck and how to use it.

The Major pentatonic scale boxes.

Major

The major pentatonic scale works just as the minor pentatonic scale when it comes to understanding and using the scale boxes. If you want to play A-major pentatonic scale all the blue notes has to be A. In the 1st position then it means that the 2nd fret on the scale box would be the 5th fret on the guitar neck as that makes all the blue notes A. In the 2nd position, the 2nd fret in the scale box will be the 7th fret on the guitar neck. 

A-major pentatonic scale as a starting point can be found on the 4th, 6th, 9th, 11th, and 14th fret respectively as the first fret on the different positions.

Scale exercises

One way to better familiarize yourself with the scale boxes and the pentatonic scale overall is to do scale exercises. They do not only make you more comfortable playing the pentatonic scale, they also help you improve the dexterity in your fingers. As you start out you might find it easiest to focus these exercises on one scale box and one scale. In my experience, the most commonly used is the A-minor pentatonic scale in its 1st position. All examples below will therefore be in set in that position. If you do not know how to read guitar tabs you will find a helpful article here.

Double, triple, and quad picking

In this exercise you pick every note two, three, or four times before moving on to the next note. Start slow and increase in speed as you get used to the exercise. I would also advise to begin with the double picking as shown in the tabs below, and then move on to triple picking, and finally quad picking.


Double picking ascending exercise.

Triplets ascending 

This exercise progress through the scale in threes. You play three notes in the scale, go back one note, and then play the three next notes. This then repeats going up the scale. Start slow and increase in speed as you feel comfortable. 


Triplets ascending exercise.

Note skipping

So far you might have played the pentatonic scale up and down in different ways following its note pattern rigorously. This exercise helps you break up the scale and jump between the notes rather than play one after the other. You will play each note of the scale in succession, but instead of directly playing the next note you instead skip that note and play the one that comes after. You then go back to the note you skipped and repeat the pattern.


Note skipping exercise.

 

Hopefully, this article has helped you achieve an understanding of how the pentatonic scale works and how it can be useful to you when learning how to play the guitar. Take it slow and you will soon understand the intricacies of guitar scales.

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