The one scale to rule them all: the pentatonic scale.

Pentatonic scales are everywhere in popular American music. Come to think of it, they’re everywhere in a lot of eastern music too. The popularity of the pentatonic scale can mostly be attributed to the fact that it sounds so good with so many different harmonies, or chord progressions.

A pentatonic scale, very simply, is a major or minor scale with two of the seven notes removed, leaving five. There are five notes in the pentatonic scale, hence “pent.” Pentatonic scales come in two varieties: major and minor. The minor pentatonic scale is used more than the major pentatonic scale in American music. The major pentatonic scale is used enough to warrant your attention. So here we go. Let’s start with the minor pentatonic scale first.

In the key of A minor, there are seven notes:  A  B  C  D  E  F  G. Here I have shown them arranged at the fifth fret.

To get the A minor pentatonic from the A minor scale, we remove the second and sixth note. In the case of A minor, the second note is B and the sixth note is F. If we delete B and F from the A minor scale, we’re left with:  A  C  D  E  G. I’ll dim B and F so you can see what is left.

Now, let me visually remove B and F completely. What we’re left with is the most widely used pentatonic pattern in the world:

You can use the minor pentatonic scale in just about any form of American music, from blues to rock to jazz to pop to rap to funk to R&B and lots of others. Why? The explanation is a bit complicated, but very plainly the reason is that notes in the minor pentatonic scale fit very nicely over most chords that are played in American music. Specifically, a pentatonic scale sounds good over major chords, minor chords, dominant chords, minor 7th chords and several others. These chords are so popular in American music that pentatonic scales usually fit right in.

Okay, so now let’s cover major pentatonic scales. Here is a little secret: major and minor pentatonic scales are the same. Yup, the same. The only difference is where the root is.

Here is the A minor pentatonic scale again, with the root A highlighted in orange:

Here is a C major pentatonic scale with the root C highlighted in orange:

As you can see, the notes in both the A minor pentatonic scale and the C major pentatonic scale are the same. The root note is the only difference. So relax, once you learn your minor pentatonic scales, you’ve also learned the major pentatonic scales in the relative key. See, A minor is the relative minor of C major, meaning they share the same notes but simply start that scale from a different note. If that seems a little complicated, don’t worry. As you study music, the concept of relative minors will become very easy for you. For now, just know that relative minor starts from the sixth degree of a major scale. In the case of C major (C  D  E  F  G  A  B), the sixth degree is A. If we start the scale from A, but use the same notes, we have a minor scale:  A  B  C  D  E  F  G.

So there you have it. The pentatonic scale. It’s everywhere in American music so it really is a great place to start when learning scales. The pattern shown above is just one of five patterns that you can learn to cover the entire fretboard. For now, practice this one. Have fun and see you next time.

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2 responses to “The one scale to rule them all: the pentatonic scale.

  1. Pingback: How to play the pentatonic scale in 5 positions | Guitar Lessons Baltimore·

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