Part 5 – Pentatonic Scales

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We have made it this far which means you should now know at least 1 major scale position (but most likely a few or even all 5) and be able to use it/them in a creative way, playing little melodies and phrases, using all parts of the position or even just ascending and descending while simultaneously doing the following exercises:

  • Mentally labelling where all of the Major Root notes are as you play them
  • Mentally labelling where all of the Minor Root notes are as you play them
  • Mentally labelling where both root notes are (keeping track of two notes at once)
  • Mentally labelling any of the other remaining notes as you play them (i.e. 2nd note, 5th note etc)
  • Mentally labelling any note that you play with its actual note name

If your mental game is approaching this point you are ding remarkably well! This is what it takes to improvise. Remember the principle from lesson 1?

The point here is to get better and better at mental labelling as well as playing the scale.

The more of these mental labels you make while practicing, the more your mind will start to keep track automatically. You can read this article about the process of how mental actions become more and more unconsciously controlled with repetition. With time, the labelling becomes more and more of a “background knowing” of, not only what you are playing as you play it but also, what the music that you are playing along with is doing too. This will free you up to play more expressively, without all of this thinking getting in the way!


Now, I’m sure you have heard of pentatonic scales before. You have quite possibly learned them at some point but weren’t sure how they related to other scales, chords or theory in general. One thing I do know is that your ears know the sound of a pentatonic scale- it is remarkably common in almost all forms of music. 


But how does it relate to the major scale?

It turns out that, like the minor scale, the pentatonic scales (major and minor) can be found contained within the major scale. If you have learned your major scale patterns you are already playing all of the notes of the pentatonic scale! We actually get to it by dropping two notes…

Pentatonic literally translates as Five Tones. It is a scale that has 5 notes in it while the major scale has 7 notes.


To play the Pentatonic Scale, the two notes that we refrain from playing in the Major Scale are the 4th note and the 7th note. 

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Here you can see that these patterns are very similar shapes to the positions that you already know. What has been removed for them to become pentatonic rather than major are the 4th and 7th notes which are actually the only notes with semi-tone gaps between them. The pentatonic scale does not have the sound of any semi-tone intervals in it. Have a play through these patterns and a good listen to its characteristics.

In this diagram, you can see that the Major Root Notes are all still in the same place as the major scale so essentially, you can use it in exactly the same way as the major scale. To play in a certain key, let’s say A major, you’ll still slide the shape just like you normally would until the Major Root Notes are aligned with the notes of A.

What if you wanted to play in the minor pentatonic? Well, the minor root notes are still in all of the same spots as before too. Have a look at the shapes here and then see if you can use the scale just you normally would.


The reason why I like to start people off with learning the Major scale first is that once you’ve got it, you already have what you need to play all of these other scales. It’s just a matter of being shown how they all fit together and then it’s pretty easy to see.

Note: If any confusion arises because it seems like this information conflicts with other stuff you have learned, trust me you are on the right track! I often get students who feel a bit confused because of all the different things they have learned from here and there. While you are gong through the learning process, once again, my advice is to stick to one method to avoid the confusion that arises from mixing up messages. Once you have got it all in place and can apply everything in a practical way you will have a much easier time knowing what other people mean when they describe the same things with different language!


Now. At this point, just make sure you are really clear on everything that we have covered. Even consider running over it all again briefly. Repetition is the mother of skill! You can always google search the keys of any songs that you like and try playing along using the appropriate major/minor/pentatonic scales! Once you are satisfied, it’s time to investigate what chords are, how they are constructed and how they relate to the scales you now.

Andrew Scrivens

Andrew Scrivens

I am a live musician and guitar teacher from Brisbane, Australia, with extensive experience playing live, in the studio and for TV shows. I play in many venues, studios, music shops and with my students and as such am exposed to a lot of different gear. I form my opinions based on my experiences playing instruments in these locations.

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