The pentatonic scale is the guru of improvisers. And it is not hard to discover the reason why everybody uses and abuses of this scale: It is easy to create and to use. Some decades before, some musicians use to earn millions just playing this scale. Today is not too easy to become rich just playing the pentatonic scale; therefore any beginner musician learns how to play this scale (and generally spends the rest of the life doing only this).
What is pentatonic scale?
The concept is really simple: the major pentatonic scale is a bunch of notes from the major scale. We know that the major scale has 7 notes. The pentatonic scale chose 5 from these notes and created another scale, this is why it is called “penta”.
Pentatonic scale has notes that when played generate a pleasant melody, even if it is just the execution of this scale from up and down. This makes the life of everybody easy! It is just to memorize the pentatonic scale and then, when you are going to improvise a song in a major tonality, instead of “elaborating” a phrase with a major scale you play the pentatonic scale and it is guaranteed success! The pentatonic scale played backward is nice; played forward is nice; played from the middle to the end is nice, from the end to the beginning is nice, nice, nice, nice…
Very well; if you have never listened a pentatonic scale in life, take a keyboard or a piano and play the black keys one after another. This is the sound of a pentatonic scale.
There are many shapes to pentatonic scales; this example of the black keys was just one to make the observation easy because it is really practical. If you don’t have a keyboard in home, don’t be desperate, we will explain in details how to create this scale.
Major and Minor Pentatonic Scale
The pentatonic scale can be major or minor. The major pentatonic scale has the 5 notes of the major scale; the minor pentatonic scale has the 5 notes of the minor scale. A drawing of the C major pentatonic scale can be:
Now see a drawing to A minor pentatonic scale:
Compare these scales (C major pentatonic and A minor pentatonic) with the C major and A minor scales, respectively. Notice that the major pentatonic took 5 notes from the major scale, as we said, and were 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6 degrees. In other words, it took out 4 and 7 degrees! And the minor pentatonic took 1, 3, 4, 5 and 7 degrees from the minor scale. In other words, it took out 2 and 6 degrees!
Observation: the normal thing it would be starting and finishing with the same note in a drawing of a scale, but we prefer to finish the scale with other notes here in these designs just to you understand the logic of this scale.
We chose to show the C major pentatonic and the A minor pentatonic because they have the same notes. The minor is the relative of C. Do you remember?! If this is not in your veins yet, return and study the relative minor, use it, and then follow your journey, because just accumulating knowledge to not use it and forget it is a real waste of time!
It would be better spend your time watching soap operas or playing videogames…
How to use the pentatonic scale
We already said that pentatonic scale (major and minor) can be used in the same place where you use the major and minor natural scales, respectively. But this scale, besides of the possibility of being used in these contexts, can also be used in other contexts that the major and minor natural scales cannot (this is the reason for you to like it!).
One example is Blues. Soon you will see in the article “Blues Definition” that the pentatonic scale is the “queen” in this style. We will show examples of application of the pentatonic scale in major and minor contexts here in this article and in the article “Blues Definition” we will show the utilization of this scale in Blues. We really advise you to practice well the pentatonic scale in blues, because it is really funny! Spend hours and hours, days and days doing this and you will become a born improviser.
How to practice pentatonic solos
But how do you practice the pentatonic scale to progress and like what you are doing? Follow these steps:
Step 1: Memorize well the minor pentatonic scale and use it in the tonal context. In other words, you can play with this scale inside a minor harmonic field or in a major harmonic field (playing the minor relative pentatonic, in this case). Do this for a long time.
Step 2: Use the minor pentatonic in Blues context, after reading the article “Blues Definition”. Do this for a long time.
Step 3: Now that you are familiarized with the minor pentatonic, you have to memorize the major pentatonic and use it in the tonal context, as you did in step 1.
Step 4: Now that you are familiarized with the two pentatonic scales and know how to use them, play the pentatonic scale starting in all the degrees. Do the following training, which will expand your dominium about the instrument fretboard:
We will play the pentatonic scale in C major tonality, but starting in other degrees (other regions of the instrument fretboard). We will go first in G, playing the other notes of the C pentatonic (this will create a peculiar drawing). After that, we will do the same pentatonic scale, but starting with A. There is nothing magical in this, we will play the same notes as before; we will only start in A instead of starting in G. After that we will do the same to all the other degrees.
Check below the drawing and memorize each one:
This is the same idea that we had to create the Greek modes.
In the case of Greek modes, there were 7 notes in the scale; therefore starting with each degree resulted in 7 scales. Here in the pentatonic we had 5 scales.
Now the mission is to practice the same way that you did in the previous steps. Use these drawings in the tonal and Blues contexts.
Very well, you already have material to study for months! Your performance in improvisation is being developed. If you master only the concepts that we talked about until here you will be able to improvise in the most of the songs that exist.
Don’t waste this knowledge. Put it into practice!
We will show you bellow some examples of application of the complete pentatonic scale (drawing starting in all the degrees), in the tonal context (major and minor relative harmonic field). All this is to give you a boost in your ideas!
And the application of the pentatonic in the Blues context will be shown in the article “Blues Definition”.
The solo of the article in the Guitar Pro below is in A minor tonality. The harmony has the following chords:
| Am | F | C | G |
You can download the file here: soon!
Go to: Blues definition
Back to: Module 4