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The Pentatonic Scale on the Guitar

If you have been playing guitar for a few months, it is likely that you have come across the famous pentatonic scale several times. But what is the pentatonic scale? If you have ever asked yourself this question, I invite you to read this article to clear your doubts once and for all.

What is the use of the Pentatonic Scale?

First of all, if you are not very fond of learning musical scales and you just want to play songs, let me tell you that this scale is quite easy to learn and with it you will take a big step with your guitar as it is widely used in a great number of musical styles (Rock, Blues or Jazz, just to name a few).

Some examples of guitarrists and groups that use the pentatonic scale are The Black Keys, AC/DC or the great Jimi Hendrix.

Now that you know musical genres related to the pentatonic scale, are you a little more motivated?

Then keep reading!

What is a Pentatonic Scale?

The pentatonic is a musical scale that contains 5 notes (and in case you don’t know, a scale is simply a sequence of notes in an ascending or descending order).

🎵 How many notes make up a pentatonic scale?

There are 5 notes.

That is why this scale is also called pentatonic, because penta means five in greek.

In addition, it is important to clarify that there are two types of pentatonic scales:

  • The minor pentatonic scale.
  • The major pentatonic scale.

Here you can explore each of them in more detail, with its 5 positions and a tab to practice it:

However, if you prefer not to go deeper now, let’s see the main characteristics that define each of them and that allow us to understand how to use them on the guitar, electric or acoustic.

Minor Pentatonic Scale

The minor pentatonic scale has the following shape on the guitar fretboard:

minor pentatonic scale guitar
minor pentatonic scale guitar


Ok, but, how can we deduce this diagram? To do that we have to understand the music theory behind it.

The minor pentatonic is a scale composed of 5 musical notes (called degrees) with the following tonal distribution:

W+H – W – W – W+H – W

W: Whole step or tone.

H: Half step, half tone or semitone.

Which translates into the formula:

1 – ♭3 – 4 – 5 – ♭7

🎵 What is a minor pentatonic scale? The Origin
To understand where the minor pentatonic scale comes from we have remember the natural minor scale, whose formula is 1 2 ♭3 4 5 ♭6 ♭7 and remove the degrees 2 and ♭6.

Don’t worry if you do not understand the formula and numbers above, because I am going to explaint to you “how to make this scale” step by step. To do that, let’s take an example and build the A minor pentatonic scale.

To do this, we only have to start from A (our root) and draw its scheme of tones and semitones:

a minor pentatonic scale degrees

This method will tell us the scale degrees of this scale.

🎵 What are the 5 notes in the pentatonic scale?
  • Degree 1: A.
  • Degree ♭3: C.
  • Degree 4: D.
  • Degree 5: E.
  • Degree ♭7: G.

Therefore, the 5 notes that compose the minor pentatonic scale in the key of A are A, C, D, E and G, which has the following shape on the guitar:

a minor pentatonic scale

To draw the diagram above we have to bear in mind that one semitone or half tone is one freet on the guitar fretboard. There for, if E is a tone away from D, on the guitar fretboard we wil have 2 frets between them.

5 Patterns

In order to use, improvise and play the minor pentatonic scale, we split the initial diagram into 5 boxes or positions, which have the following shapes.

5 minor pentatonic scale shapes
pentatonic minor scale

Major Pentatonic Scale

The major pentatonic scale has the following shape on the guitar fretboard:

major pentatonic scale guitar
major pentatonic scale guitar

At a theoretical level, we have that the major pentatonic is a scale composed of 5 musical notes (called degrees) with the following tonal distribution:

W – W – W+H – W W+H

W: Whole step or tone.

H: Half step, half tone or semitone.

Which translates into the formula:

1 – 2 – 3 – 5 – 6

🎵 Origin
To understand where the major pentatonic scale comes from we have to remember the major scale, whose formula is 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 and remove the fourth and seventh degrees.

Again, in order to understand well all this musical concepts let’s take an example and build the C major pentatonic scale.

And, again, to do this, we just have to start from C and draw its scheme of tones and semitones:

major pentatonic scale degrees

This method will tell us the scale degrees of this scale.

🎵 What notes are in the pentatonic scale?
  • Degree 1: C.
  • Degree 2: D.
  • Degree 3: E.
  • Degree 5: G.
  • Degree 6: A.

Therefore, the 5 notes that make up the major pentatonic scale in the key of C are C, D, E, G and A, which has the following shape on the guitar:

c major pentatonic scale

To draw the diagram above we have to bear in mind that one semitone or half tone is one freet on the guitar fretboard. There for, if C is one and a half tone away from A, on the guitar fretboard we wil have 3 frets between them.

5 Positions

In order to play this music scale, we make use of the 5 boxes or positions of the pentatonic scale on the guitar, which have the following shape:

5 major pentatonic scale shapes
guitar pentatonic scale

The Blues Scale

The blues scale based off the pentatonic scale. We construct it by adding a new musical note called blue note.

Since we have 2 pentatonic scales, by adding the blue note, we will consequently have 2 blues scales (one in major mode and one in minor mode).

Let’s see each of them.

Minor blues scale

The minor blues scale has the following shape on the guitar fretboard:

minor blues scale guitar

We build this scale by applying the blue note (♭5) to the minor pentatonic, which gives us the formula:

1 – ♭3 – 4 – ♭5 – 5 – ♭7

Major blues scale

The major blues scale has the following form on the guitar fretboard:

major blues scale guitar

We build this scale by applying the blue note (♭3) to the minor pentatonic, which gives us the formula:

1 – 2 – ♭3 – 3 – 5 – 6

Mixing The Major Pentatonic scale

If we remember the A minor pentatonic scale notes (A, C, D, E and G) and the C major pentatonic scale (C, D, E, G and A) we will notice that they share the same degrees.

minor and major pentatonic scale

The only difference is the the root or note we use as the point of resolution. Hence, if we play the A minor pentatonic scale we know that the matching major pentatonic would be in the key of C, becasue C is the major relative.

Therefore, if you know a major pentatonic scale and move 3 frets down from the root we obtain the minor.

How to use pentatonic scale

Now that we understand what this music scale it is time to move on and see when should we use it. And this is actually quite easy:

  • We can play the minor pentatonic scale over almost any minor chord.
  • We can play the major pentatonic scale over almost any major or dominant chord.

The reason for this is that the notes that form the minor chords (1, ♭3 and 5) are within the minor pentatonic scale, so they will not clash and the harmony will be perfect. In the same way, the major chords (1, 3 and 5) are also within the major pentatonic scale.

So feel free to play each guitar pentatonic scale depending on the chord that sounds at any given moment.

But there is more.

Because sometimes we can play both scales over the same chord. This is because the pentatonic is strongly used on blues and it always sound perfect. We can actually play, for example, the major pentatonic over minor chords changing only the major third for the minor and it will sound amazing and with a very bluesy sound.

3 Tips to practice the guitar pentatonic scale

And finally I leave you a couple of tips to help you learning this scale and have a good pentatonic control:

  • Play pentatonic scales up and down the neck: in any key and any place of the guitar fretboard.
  • Connect pentatonic scale shapes: the pentatonic shapes overlap so find the conections to move horizontally. You can do this by memorizing the roots on each box.
  • Use the metronome: start with a slow speed and increase it as you feel more confortable.

These 3 tips are very important and I recommend you to follow them to master the pentatonic. In my humble opinion the most important is to know how to move from one position to another because it will allow you to connect and combine the pentatonic and will help you to improvise solos with it.