Getting More Out of Pentatonic Scales

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Ed Note: The following article is a guest post by Roger Panella of Village Guitar Studio based in Chicago, Illinois.  Roger is an accomplished teacher and a professional jazz guitarist that graduated Magna Cum Laude from Berklee College of Music in Boston.  In this article Roger discusses how we can get more out of the major and minor pentatonic scales.

I’ve had a lot of students who’ve told me that they mainly use pentatonic scales to solo, but weren’t always sure exactly which one to use. I thought that choosing the ‘correct’ major and minor pentatonic scale to solo over a song or a chord progression would be a good topic for an article. Also, for people who already understand which pentatonic scales to use in a given key, I’ll cover some other possibilities that maybe you haven’t thought of. The guidelines I’ll talk about in this article apply to soloing over songs or chord progressions in a major key.

Image Courtesy Guitar Noise

Image Courtesy Guitar Noise

Since it’s the more widely known of the two, let’s start with learning how to identify which minor pentatonic scale will work for soloing over a song or chord progression. I’m going to assume that you already know the key of the song or progression you want to solo over. To identify the minor pentatonic scale that will work, you simply play the major scale starting on the note that is the key in which you want to solo and find the 6th note of the scale. Start a minor pentatonic scale on that note, and you have the scale that will work in that key. For example, if you are playing in the key of C Major, the sixth note of the C major scale would be A. So, an A minor pentatonic scale will work in the key of C. You can use any fingering you know for A minor pentatonic and it will work. If you aren’t familiar with the major scale, there is another way to find the exact same note. All you have to do is locate the note that is the key of the song or progression on your guitar and then move down the neck three frets from that note. In the key of C, this will also bring you to the note A, which is the note that you start the minor pentatonic scale on to solo in the key of C. Either method will bring you to the same minor pentatonic scale.

Next, let’s talk about how to find the major pentatonic scale you can use, as well as the relationship between the major and minor pentatonic scales. To solo in any given key, you can start a major pentatonic scale on the note that is the key of the song or progression and it will work. For example, in the key of C, you can use a C major pentatonic scale. We already saw that you can use an A minor pentatonic scale to solo in the key of C. These two scales, C major pentatonic and A minor pentatonic, are actually made up of the exact same five notes! Each scale just starts on a different note. This type of relationship is called ‘relative.’ So, from the root note of a major pentatonic scale, to find its relative minor pentatonic scale, you go back three frets just like you would from the major scale, or you can play up the scale to it’s 5th note (since this is a 5-note major pentatonic scale, rather than a 7-note major scale it’s the 5th note, not the 6th). If you are thinking in terms of a minor pentatonic scale, you can do the reverse and go up three frets from the scale’s root note to find its relative major pentatonic scale. What this means is that once you have identified both scales, you can use them both to solo in any given key. For example, in the key of C, you can use both C major pentatonic and A minor pentatonic. Or, in the key of G, you can use both G major pentatonic and E minor pentatonic. With just these two scales, you can cover a large amount of the fretboard, especially if you know more than one fingering for each scale. I recommend learning two fingerings for each scale, one with the root on the 6th string and one with the root on the 5th string, and working toward combining all four fingerings together.

While these are probably the most common uses of pentatonic scales to solo in a major key, I’d like to give a couple of other examples of how pentatonic scales can be used. In addition to the minor pentatonic scale usage above, you can also start a minor pentatonic scale on both the 2nd and 3rd degree of the key that you’re soloing in. Starting on the 2nd and 3rd ‘degree’ simply means starting the scale on the 2nd note or the 3rd note of the key’s major scale. So, if you’re in the key of C, in addition to the A minor pentatonic scale, you could use a D minor pentatonic (the 2nd degree), or a E minor pentatonic (the 3rd degree). Remembering what we said about the major pentatonic/minor pentatonic scale relationship, you could use the major pentatonic scale that contains the same set of notes as each of these two minor scales. So, you could also use F major pentatonic, which is the exact same thing as D minor pentatonic, and G major pentatonic, which is the exact same thing as E minor pentatonic. This gives you a total of three minor pentatonic scales and three major pentatonic scales you could use. In the key of G, those scales would be: A, D, and E minor pentatonic and C, F, and G major pentatonic.

All of these possibilities will give you slightly different sounds, since each one will be using a different set of notes from the key that you are in, so try experimenting with them. These are not the only possibilities for the use of pentatonic scales, but these uses are definitely a good start.

I hope that you found this article helpful. If you have any questions, feel free to email me at: lessons@villageguitarstudio.com. If you are interested in guitar lessons in Chicago, check out my teaching studio, Village Guitar Studio. Thanks for reading!

Images Courtney of Guitar Noise

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