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What are Pentatonic Scales?

What are Pentatonic Scales? Pentatonic scales are very common in rock lead guitar playing. The scale is a great starting point to help getting comfortable writing and playing guitar solos. Almost every rock guitar solo utilizes it in some form or another. The purpose of this discussion is to serve as a starting point for learning and applying this great scale.

A pentatonic scale consists of just five notes and omits some of the notes that can cause trouble for beginning guitarists found in more “traditional” 7-note scales.

Major vs. Minor Pentatonic Scale
Major and minor pentatonic scales are basically the same scales with different reference points. If you can play a minor pentatonic scale you will also be able to play a major one. Let’s start by discussing how we can learn to play these scales. A good starting point is, first, focus on minor pentatonic forms rest assured that there will be no extra memorization when we convert them to major forms.

Before we dive into forms, let’s look at the scale on single strings. First, play any note on the fret board and write the name of the note on a piece of paper. Second, move up 3 frets and play and write the name of that note down. Third, move up two frets and do the same thing. Fourth, move up another 2 frets and do the same thing. Finally, move up 3 frets and do the same thing. Guess what, you just played and wrote down the five notes in a minor pentatonic scale. The notes you should have written down, if you started on a ‘G’ note, are G, Bb, C, D and F. Now, you can use this same method to learn them on all strings.

Now, to make them major, as I promised, you won’t have to learn anything new. To play a G major pentatonic, start on the ‘G’ note and play the pattern you played before starting on the second note instead. You should also notice that the G major pentatonic has all of the same notes as the E minor pentatonic; the only difference being what note you start and end on. So, to do this you would first play the ‘G’ note and write it down on your sheet of paper. Second, move up 2 frets and do the same. Third, move up 2 frets and do the same. Fourth, move up 3 frets and do the same. Finally, move up 2 frets and so the same. If you did this correctly the notes should have written down are G, A, B, D and E.

To hear the difference in the sound of each scale, play each one over a G major chord. You will hear the difference in sound. Examples of both can be found in many rock guitar solos. A great example to listen to is “You Shook Me” by ACDC. Angus starts the solo in a minor pentatonic and jumps over to a major pentatonic in about the fifth measure of the solo. He keeps on doing this throughout most of the solo. As an exercise, try to identify exactly when he makes the transitions.

The theory behind the difference in sound is pretty simple. Over a G chord, the G major pentatonic has a B note in it which is the major third of the chord. The G minor pentatonic has a Bb note in it which is the minor third of the chord. Let’s look at the notes of both, G major pentatonic and G minor and analyze a bit: G Minor Pentatonic - G, Bb, C, D, F G Major Pentatonic - G, A, B, D, E If we were to analyze the intervals, or distance between the notes, the major pentatonic has a major 2nd, major third, perfect 5th and a major 6th. The minor pentatonic has a minor 3rd, perfect 4th, perfect 5th and a minor 7th. These intervals are what define the sound of the scale. Since this is only an introduction to the pentatonic scale, we aren’t going to get too deeply into intervals. However, I would recommend learning more about them since they are an important part of music theory.

Now that we can play these pentatonic scales on one string, let’s try learning some forms that use all six strings. Since there are five notes in this scale, logic dictates that there are five forms that should be learned, each starting on a different note. We will start with the more traditional forms known as box forms. The root note of the scale is indicated by the letter 'R'.

Here are the G minor pentatonic forms:

Here are the G major pentatonic forms:

Here are the 3 note-per-string G major and minor pentatonic forms:

That brings this article on pentatonic scales to a close. Now that the difference between major and minor pentatonic scales is hopefully clear, start using these scales to write and improvise solos. The 3-note-per-string forms require large finger stretches but can add an interesting new sound to the traditional box forms. Experiment with all of these forms and try creating some of your own as well. The key in any lesson is experimenting with the information and trying to make it fit your style.

About Stephen Ross:
Stephen Ross is a professional guitarist/author who released is debut CD, "Midnight Drive" on Shrapnel Records in the early nineties. He is also the other of the book "Arpeggios for the Modern Guitarist" published by Hal Leonard and leader and chief songwriter of the Rogosonic project. Stephen has finished writing and recording his second instrumental release. No release date available yet.

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