Although a lot of guitar is based around chords, knowing your scales is also important part of playing guitar. Scales come in a variety of flavours: major scales, minor scales, pentatonic (both major and minor) and more. When starting out with scales on guitar, I suggest starting with the minor pentatonic scale.
If you’re here before learning beginner guitar chords, turn back now! You need to learn and understand these chords before moving onto scales.
What Is A Pentatonic Scale
Your basic scales (both major and minor) are made up of 7 notes while a pentatonic scale only has 5 notes. The minor pentatonic scale skips the 2nd and 6th notes of your natural minor scale for reasons that are too deep to go into here.
So the minor pentatonic scales you’re about to learn on guitar consist on the 1, b3, 4, 5, and b7 of the scale.
Why Start By Learning The Minor Pentatonic Scale on Guitar?
Simply put, the minor pentonic scale lends itself to a lot of popular music, especially rock and blues. Sure, these styles are often in a more major key, or at least feel more major, but once you know the minor pentatonic, you can quickly and easily adapt it into a blues scale, which works over a lot of blues and rock.
Going further, once you learn the minor pentatonic, the same shapes are used for major pentatonic scales (it’s just that the root is in a different place).
So yeah, start with the minor pentatonic scale and go from there.
How To Read Scale Diagrams
On the diagram you’ll see a lot of numbers all over the place. The numbers refer to which finger you should be using (1 being your index finder and 4 being your pinky). The dots in red are the root, the dots in green are the other notes played in the standard chord (in addition to the root), and the black dots are other notes in the scale.
These scales can be played in any position, so while the diagram shows the scale on the first fret, play them anywhere that’s comfortable. I suggest learning pentatonic scales (and all scales for that matter) in the 5th position just because it’s about in the middle.
How To Practice Pentatonic Scales On Guitar
When I was first learning pentatonic scales, I went up and down the scale, in order, so that I could learn the pattern. Once the pattern was locked in, I started playing around a little more randomly; this is what gets you improvising and soloing.
It may sound boring to go up and down a scale endlessly, but the key is to lock in the pattern and the shape. It shouldn’t take to long. Once it’s locked in you can fool around.
Here Are The Five Minor Pentatonic Scale Patterns
Take me to a scale pattern
I like to think of pentatonic scales (and all scales really) in relation to their corresponding chord shapes. If you take a look at your basic guitar chords, you’ll see that they’re made up of the root (1), the 3rd, and the 5th of the chord. Knowing where the chord tones are will help you not only remember the pattern but also know where you are in the scale; i.e. whether you’re on the root, the 3rd, etc.
That’s why these minor pentatonic patterns are referred to by their chord shapes. Learn and understand the chords first, and the pentatonic scale is easy.
From there, you can play these patterns in any position. Just because it’s called the Am pattern doesn’t mean you have to play it in Am. Play it anywhere on the neck.
Em Pentatonic Scale Pattern
Remember that the minor pentatonic is 1, b3, 4, 5, b7, and the notes are played in order. Starting on the low E string, your first finger is fretting the root of the scale, then your 5th finger (still on the low E) frets the flat 3rd, and so on. Play that up and down, making sure each notes rings out. Then play it backwards.
You’ve played your first scale!
Am Pentatonic Scale Pattern
When practicing this pentatonic scale on guitar, don’t start on the 6th string, start on the root note on the 5th string. Go up in notes, then back again all the way to the notes on the 6th string, turn around and finish on the root. Keep going until you’ve memorised the pattern.
Dm Pentatonic Scale Pattern
As with the Am shape, when practicing, don’t start on the 6th string. Start and end on the root that’s on the 4th string instead.
Gm Pentatonic Scale Pattern
That being said, a minor becomes a minor when you flatten the third. So, on the diagram for this pattern, you’ll notice a note highlighted in blue on the 5th string. This is the flat 3rd, move that up a fret and you have a major 3rd. Are you starting to see the shape of a G major chord now?
You’ll also notice on the diagram that there’s another note highlighted in blue on the 2nd string, this is the 4th note of the scale, move that back a fret and you have a major 3rd. Hopefully you’re seeing the chord now.
When practicing this scale, start on the root note on the 6th string (with your fourth finger as indicated). Like always, go up the scale and back again, passing through the root to hit that last note, turn around and finish on the root.
Cm Pentatonic Scale Pattern
All that being said, this pattern is difficult to visualise on the diagram. Highlighted in blue on the 4th string is the minor third. Again, move that up a fret and you have a major third. Hopefully you’re starting to see the chord. Where it may be confusing is all the other notes! If you were playing this pattern open, the nut (the “0 fret”) is actually the first fret you see in the diagram; so the note you’re fretting on the third string would actually be an open string. Is the chord showing its face now?
Practice this scale starting and ending on the root note on the 5th string.
Now you should know the five pentatonic scale patterns for guitar. We’ve touched on a little bit of theory here, which can be a little confusing at first. I’ve tried to explain everything without getting too far into the theory, which may actually make it more difficult to understand! But I’m not sure where you’re coming from when reading this; if you have an OK grounding in theory, it doesn’t need to be said. If you have no theory, well, that’s all for another article.
Anyway, practice your chords, understand your chords, then practice these pentatonic scale patterns. Get a friend to strum some chords and play your pentatonic scales over the top. Then you’re making music!