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Understanding (And Using) The Pentatonic Scale

When it comes to scales, perhaps few scales are as versatile and widely used in all kinds of music as the pentatonic scale. In essence, a pentatonic scale is a five note scale, with the word penta meaning five in greek. We can have many different types of pentatonic scales, but the two most widely used are the major and minor pentatonic scales, which are extracted from (and based on) the major and natural minor scales respectively. In this segment, we’re going to be taking a closer look at one of the most widely used scales in music, the minor pentatonic scale, and how you can use it to unlock your fretboard and have more options when it comes to playing and improvising.

I have covered the principles covered in this article, as well as the real life applications and example towards the end, in this video on my YouTube channel, where I show you how to play what I’m describing on guitar. This segment is effectively the transcribed and detailed version of that video.

The Pentatonic Scale

In order to understand how to build a minor or major pentatonic scale, you should first be familiar with its parent scales, the natural minor and major scales. If you’re unsure what these scales look like or how they’re constructed, I would recommend you check out my other article on the fundamentals of scale theory. In a natural minor or major scale, we have 7 notes or degrees that make up that scale (which is why these scales are called heptatonic scales). In order to get the pentatonic scale from the heptatonic, what we’re going to need to do is to eliminate two of those seven degrees, leaving us with 5 notes. These 5 notes will form the major and minor pentatonic scales respectively. Now it’s important to note that the degrees that are eliminated are different for the major and minor.

Minor Pentatonic

To create a minor pentatonic scale, we take the heptatonic natural minor scale, and remove the second and sixth degree. Let’s take a real life example in order to illustrate this better. Let’s say that we want to create a G Minor Pentatonic scale. We therefore need to start with the G Natural Minor Scale, which contains the following notes (the roman numerals underneath each note indicate the degree which it occupies in the scale) :

G Natural Minor (heptatonic) :

G A Bb C D Eb F
I II III IV V VI VII

So as we’ve discussed before, we can now get the minor pentatonic scale by removing the 2nd and 6th degrees of this scale, which in the case of G Minor will be the A and Eb. This leaves us with the 5 notes that form the G Minor Pentatonic Scale, which looks like this :

G Minor Pentatonic :

G A Bb C D
I II III IV V

 Therefore, the G Minor Pentatonic is composed of the five notes G (the root), Bb (the minor third), C (the fourth), D (the fifth) and F (the minor seventh). You can apply this same principle to any key of the minor scale you like across all twelve notes in the musical alphabet.

Major Pentatonic

To create a major pentatonic scale, we will apply the same principle above but using different scale degrees. We’re going to take a major scale and remove the fourth and seventh degrees to achieve the major pentatonic. Taking a real life example in the key of D Major, it’s going to look something like this :

D Major  :       

D E F# G A B C#
I II III IV V VI VII

To get the major pentatonic scale from the heptatonic scale above, we’re simply going to remove the 4th and 7th degrees, which in this case are the G and the C#. This leaves us with the following :

D Major Pentatonic:

D E F# G A
I II III IV V

So the five notes that make up the major pentatonic scale are D (the root), E (the second), F# (the major third), A (the fifth) and B (the major sixth).

The Usefulness Of Different Pentatonic Positions

 Let’s now take a look at how you can make use of the pentatonic scales to expand your musical vocabulary on your chosen instrument. I will be applying this principal to guitar, since this is the instrument on which I normally teach this concept, however you can apply this to any instrument capable or producing distinct individual pitches! So guitar, bass, sax, piano, doesn’t matter. For you guitarists, I will also be including tab that will help make this easier to visualise. Also, for this segment, I’m only going to explore the minor pentatonic, although you can apply the exact same principle to the major pentatonic scale as well.

So as we’ve seen, each pentatonic scale has, by definition, 5 notes. What we can now do is to create different ‘modes’ of that scale (which I will also be calling positions), by playing patterns that start from all the different notes within that scale. In effect, we’re still going to be playing the same five notes, just using a different starting and end point. While this might seem somewhat useless at first, what you’ll discover when you try it out is two things. Firstly, on a more technical level, it will allow you to explore new and different combinations of finger positions, since each pattern will be different from the rest… all of this makes it good training!

Secondly, on the musical side, because you’re starting from a different note each time, you’re actually going to be rotating the amount of importance you give to each note out of the five, since you will tend to anchor your patterns and rotate them around the note that you’re using as your ‘first’ in that particular mode or position. So for example in one mode, you’ll be starting off with the root note, but in another you’ll start with the fourth… so this time round you’ll tend to favour the fourth in whatever you’ll playing and give it more ‘air time’ in that particular position. This will create a different and unique vibe each time. This  However it’s important to keep in mind that we’re only changing the order in which we play the notes, but we’ll always be in the key of the pentatonic scale we’re playing! This will become clearer in the following section.

Case Study : The 5 positions of G Minor Pentatonic

Let’s take a real life example, and stick to our G Minor example from earlier. Again, keep in mind that in the following example, we’re always going to musically be in the key of G Minor, we’re just changing the order of the notes we play. If you play any of the following positions over a G Minor chord (or piece of music that’s in G Minor), they will all sound good, they’ll just have somewhat a different flavour to them. So the roman numerals you see will see in this case do not refer to the scale degree as they relate to the overall G Minor (as they did before), but simply the position they occupy within this particular mode or position. Once you reach the end of a cycle, you can simply start again from the next note in the scale (for example once you reach the end of position 1, you start again from a G. At the end of position 2, you start again from the Bb, and so on and so forth).

The first mode, or position, of G Minor pentatonic will be starting from the first degree of the scale. So effectively, position 1 of the G Minor Pentatonic scale is the scale starting from the root (G in this case) :

G Minor Pentatonic Position 1 :

G A Bb C D
I II III IV V

 

For position 2, we’re now going to be starting from the Bb, and cycling all the way through the five notes.

G Minor Pentatonic Position 2 :

Bb C D F G
I II III IV V

 

Position 3 starts from the C, which is the third note in the G Minor Pentatonic Scale (but in this case you’ll see the number 1 roman numeral underneath it because it’s the first note in this particular position)

G Minor Pentatonic Position 3 :

C D F G Bb
I II III IV V

 

Position 4 starts from the D, which is the fourth note in the G Minor Pentatonic Scale

G Minor Pentatonic Position 4 :

D F G Bb C
I II III IV V

And finally, position 5 starts from the D, which is the fourth note in the G Minor Pentatonic Scale

G Minor Pentatonic Position 5 :

F G Bb C D
I II III IV V

At this point, each note in the pentatonic scale has a position or mode that starts from that particular note. When all five positions have been used, they simply start again in a cycle.

Using The Positions To Unlock Your Instrument!!

I have included both standard notation (in treble clef) as well as tab in the following segment to cater to as wide a range of instruments as possible. My writing will be somewhat guitar specific, but feel free to apply whatever information is relevant to your instrument.  To create a really cool sound on guitar, and also a useful exercise out of this five position concept, we’re going to be playing all five positions in two-note-per-string formats. This means that we will be using all six strings from the low to the high E, and playing only two notes on every string. This will make the patterns easier to remember and it will also allow us to cover the entire fretboard more effectively. It also means that for each position, we will be covering quite a wide range of an octave and a half. For example in position 1, we’re starting from the G, going up to the second G an octave above, then going to the Bb above this second G… meaning that we’ve covered one and a half octaves with just one position… now imagine how much you can cover with five modes or positions… powerful stuff!

Here’s a two-step exercise you can use to really learn these different positions and apply them to the music you’re playing :

  • Learn each position in both the ascending and descending directions. Once you’re familiar with all positions in both directions, try step 2
  • Start from position 1 and ascend the one and a half octave pattern, as noted in the notation/tab above. Once you’ve done this, you’re going to be descending not back down position 1, but rather position 2. Once you’ve descended position 2, ascend back up position 3, then descend position 4, and ascend position 5. At this point you’ve woven up a down through all five positions. Now you have two choices. You can either keep going up and repeat the whole process, meaning that you start position 1 again an octave above where you originally played it, or you can start going back down.

In order to make the most of this exercise, I would recommend that if you choose to start going back down, start by descending position 5 after you’ve ascended it. In this way, you’re now going to be approaching all the other positions in the opposite direction you did when you were going up the positions. So for example, if you initially ascended position 4, you’ll now be descending it. This will make sure you get as much value from this exercise as possible. Doing this will take you back all the way down to descending position 1, at which point you’re exactly at the point from where you started, and you can repeat the exercise all over again.

I would encourage you to try this exercise in different keys, once you’re comfortable enough doing it in G (or any other key of your choice).

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