Have you ever heard of the pentatonic scale?
If you’re answer is no, then it’s actually yes because it’s in literally every song and solo ever created. It just sounds so darn good and blues guitarists would probably marry it if proposing to musical scales was legal.
Today, I’m gonna go over the five different pentatonic scale shapes, how to learn and connect them effectively and – finally – how to use them to solo and become a pentatonic pro.
But first, I’ll give you some background on what the pentatonic scale is and why the heck everyone tells you to learn it…
What is the Minor Pentatonic Scale and Why is it Useful?
The minor pentatonic scale is basically a five (pent meaning five) note scale which gets rid of the 2nd and 6th notes that you would have in a normal minor scale.
This leaves us with a cool sounding and easy to play scale.
And because there are less notes, all pentatonic positions only have two notes per string instead of three (which is often the case with a normal scale).
And this makes them as easy to play as it is to play Uno.
* Other card games are available
There is also a major and a minor variant of the pentatonic scale.
But they both use the same scale shapes so once you learn one, you’ve basically learnt both. (Don’t worry, I’ll explain more on that later)
Learning these pentatonic scale positions will be beyond useful for beginners because you’ll begin to see these shapes in solos that you learn.
AND, you’ll also have the ability to write your own solos and become a master of improvisation. And who doesn’t want that?
Anyway, that’s enough chit chat, let’s roll!
A Minor Pentatonic Position 1
Alrighty, if you want to learn the fundamental scale shape that every guitarist on the planet should know, then congratulations! You are in the right place.
I honestly don’t think you’ll ever see any scale position more when playing guitar, and learning it will be as useful as a torch in a power cut.
And thankfully, it’s the easiest to play too.
So, ladies and gentlemen…
Boys and girls…
May you please welcome…
The first minor pentatonic scale position:
Now, I just love that.
A bit underwhelming, isn’t it?
Err, did you just dis the pentatonic scale…
It’s just black dots on lines, with a red one here and there, it’s a bit rubbish really.
Take that back, right now!
And when you play it, it just sounds like a normal scale, so what’s the point?
OK, Sam… Calm… Calm… Trees… You are a tree, swaying in the breeze… That’s better.
Okay, so the red dots indicate the roots notes of the scale (which are A notes in this case as we’re in A minor pentatonic).
The numbers indicate which fingers you should use to play the notes, 1 – index, 2 – middle, 3 -ring, 4 – pinkie.
And yes, it may feel like an ordinary not-so-special-scale at the moment, but later on, with a backing track and some phrasing tips, you’ll fall in love like the rest of us.
For now though, give that a wack and go up and down this shape for a while until it feels comfortable.
Make sure you have this one firmly ingrained in your memory before you move onto the next of the pentatonic scale positions that improvising beginners should learn, otherwise you’re just gonna forget both.
And that ain’t fun for nobody.
A Minor Pentatonic Position 2
Learning that first one should hopefully be a walk in the park, so it’s time to move on to the 2nd position.
Although the shape may look completely different, the actual notes it contains are the exact same.
You basically just start from a different note on a different place on the fretboard.
Take a look and you’ll see what I mean:
(You could also play those 4 highest notes on the top 2 strings with your 2nd and 4th fingers instead, but be wary that in solos you’re probably gonna be playing them with your 1st and 3rd fingers)
The note you start with is the C on the 8th fret of the low E string because that’s the 2nd note of the A minor pentatonic scale.
Because we’ve started on the 2nd note of the scale this time, we call this position 2.
But here is the cool part…
The top half of Position 2 is the exact same as the bottom half of Position 1.
Take a look at what you would get if you combined position 1 and 2 together:
See!? How epic is that?
The thing is, many people learn Position 1 way before they learn any other positions.
And the problem with that is that people get stuck in a sweet and cosy box, and never really know how to get out of that position.
As ashamed as I am to say it… even I am guilty of this offence.
Yup, you’ve heard it here first – Beast Mode Guitar exposed.
So to help you avoid committing guitar crime too, I’ve got some expert tips to help you conjoin these two positions…
*How to Practice Scale Positions for Fast Progress
So by now you should know two of the pentatonic scale positions.
But how do you go from just knowing them to having them instinctively hardwired into your fingertips, without getting stuck in the most comfortable one?
Well, you do not want to do what most beginners do, which is learn all the pentatonic scale positions at once, forget them all very quickly, complain that guitar is too hard and start hitting someone with it to prove that it’s hard.
What you’re really gonna want to do is practice getting one shape down, then practicing gluing the next one onto the end of it.
I call this the Glue Method:
- First, start by going up and down the two shapes separately until they both feel comfortable.
- Then practice going up Position 1, sliding up a note to the highest note of Position 2 on the high E string and coming back down Position 2.
You can then flip this by going up Position 2, sliding down to Position 1 and then descending again.
- Then practice going up Position 1 and sliding up on each string to the other note in Position 2.
You can then repeat this by descending down Position 2 and sliding down each time to the lower note in position 1.
- Finally, put it all together and have a bit of a bop by improvising and sliding about between the two positions. It doesn’t have to sound good – just play something and slide up, then back down again.
The Glue Method never fails and it’ll save you from getting stuck in the 1 position rut that even I – in a dark time of my life – found myself in.
*Shudder* I’ve been scarred ever since.
A Minor Pentatonic Position 5
What the heck, position 5, why have you suddenly gone from Position 2 to Position 5? You mad man.
Alright, chill. I have a very good reason for it.
Position 5 is the shape just below the regular pentatonic shape.
And it makes sense to glue on the two pentatonic scale positions either side of the regular pentatonic position first, right?
That way you can use the regular pentatonic as your base, and then go both up and down from it as you please.
You basically unlock a whole new direction that you can go when playing.
Besides, it’s a really easy and quick position to learn:
See? Nice and symmetrical.
This time we are starting from the fifth note of the pentatonic scale, which is why we call this one position 5.
And just like before, the top half of position five is the exact same as the bottom half of position one.
Practice linking Positions 5 and 1 together using the Glue Method and have some improvisatory fun sliding between the three shapes that you now know.
And then we can begin making sense again…
A Minor Pentatonic Position 3
Now that you’ve practiced those three pentatonic scale positions for a while, doesn’t it feel great to finally be able to go to other places on the fretboard?
It’s not as hard as you might think, right?
At least, not yet… he he he…
As we learn the other positions, more and more of the fretboard will open up and become playable to you.
And that means more freedom, more control and more expression.
So let’s keep going higher with the third position, shall we?
We are starting from the third note of the pentatonic scale this time so – you guessed it – we call this one position 3.
You will see again that the bottom half of Position 3 is the same as the top half of Position 2 as well.
And you know what you gotta do to learn this one…
Pick up the Pritt Stick and get gluing.
A Minor Pentatonic Position 4
Woohoo! You’ve made it to the final position you need to learn. The missing piece of one big, fat, annoying puzzle.
Now, before I show you this shape, you gotta promise me one thing…
And that’s to practice gluing this shape to Position 5 at the top end as well as Position 3 at the bottom.
Otherwise, you’re gonna be doing an ascending run and tearing up the fretboard in the massive climax to your epic solo at a packed out gig and everyone is gonna be so amazed and you’re gonna get so many girls and then…
Oh no. You don’t know the next position so you make a mess of it, everyone gets really annoyed because they find it an attack on their human rights, they start throwing rocks at you and you run off the stage crying like a YouTuber in an apology-to-the-fans video.
Trust me, I’ve learnt that the hard way.
So, we got a deal?
Bish bash bosh. Just like that, you’ve learnt all the pentatonic scale positions.
Now you just gotta practice sliding between all the different positions and the fretboard will entirely open up to you.
Just make sure that you practice this in different keys where the notes are all in slightly different places, and you’ll become a million times more versatile.
After that you’re done and dusted, right?
There is such thing as the major pentatonic scale.
But before you start screaming and me and punching your screens because you’ve just spent ages learning all the minor pentatonic shapes just to find out that there are a load more that you gotta learn, then let me tell you a little secret…
Come on, I won’t bite…
Here it is: The Major and the Minor Pentatonic scales are the exact same!
Woooo isn’t that great? You don’t actually have to learn any more pentatonic scale positions!
Bro you aren’t making any sense. How can a major scale and a minor scale be the exact same?
Alright, let me explain…
How to Turn Minor Pentatonic into Major Pentatonic
Time for a music theory pit stop…
Every major key in music has a relative minor key. And every minor key has a relative major key.
When in a minor key, if we go up three frets on the fretboard from the minor root note, we find our relative major.
To find the relative minor of a major key, we go down three frets.
E.g. A minor (A on the 5th fret of the E string) and C major (C on the 8th fret of the E string) are the relative major/minor keys of each other because they are three frets apart.
And the reason reason relative majors/minors are a thing is because the two keys share the exact same notes.
Am: A B C D E F G A
C: C D E F G A B C
Just one sounds major because you emphasise the C note and one sounds minor because you emphasise the A note.
We can apply this exact same logic to pentatonic scales.
Since we’ve figured out that Am and C are related, we now know the notes of the A minor pentatonic will be the exact same as the notes of the C major pentatonic.
We just need to emphasise the C note and it’ll sound major!
And one great way to do this is to use what would normally be A minor pentatonic Position 2 as our base C major pentatonic position.
This is because the shape begins and – discounting the extra note on the final string – ends on a C note.
So if you weren’t worried about the other pentatonic scale positions or music theory and just wanted to know what the standard major pentatonic position would be as a scale on it’s own…
I would show you this one:
Just have a go! Make sure you emphasise those C notes highlighted in red and you will see that it now sounds major.
The positions are all in the same order as before so you don’t need to learn anything new.
And I’ve left all the diagrams for C major pentatonic down below so that you can see where are the C notes are in those pentatonic scale positions that you already know:
Make sure that you also practice position 5 on the 5th fret and position 4 on the 3rd fret below the regular C major position too.
Otherwise, you’ll only be able to ascend.
Phew! That required a hefty amount of mind-yoga.
But hopefully you understand what’s going on now with the major and minor thing.
Now go get a coffee, take a breather, scream “John Mayer!” at the top of your lungs and then we’ll get cracking again.
Playing the Pentatonic Vertically
If you want to really get a grasp of playing pentatonic positions like the back of your hand, you’re gonna want to get used to going up the fretboard on a single string too.
That allows for loads of other phrasing opportunities, and lets you to add some slippery slidage to your solos.
I’ve nicked a couple of great diagrams from Ry Naylor Guitar (great channel by the way) which show the vertical make up nicely:
Practice going up and down these and you will soon notice that everywhere begins to feel much more familiar…
Improvising & Soloing with the Pentatonic Scale Positions
Alright, so this is the real reason you went to all that trouble of learning all those shapes, right?
You want to be able to solo and improvise.
Now, most people will say at this point…
Just go and improvise! Do trial and error to find what sounds good and just adapt over time.
And I don’t know about you, but when I was learning that was the single most unhelpful piece of advice I think anyone could’ve given me.
Yes, learning the pentatonic shapes is a huge step forward and it will take more than that to improvise nice melodies, but trial and error just sounds like a slog.
You’ll end up running away from improvisation like it’s a Nickelback song.
Thankfully, getting your solos to sound good is actually relatively easy in comparison to learning all the positions.
You just need know what to do.
There are two main things that will dictate whether you sound like a god on earth or a primary school jazz band when soloing:
- Your melodic phrasing
- How you solo over chord changes
Speed is absolutely not necessary to sound good.
But you may find yourself wanting to add a spicy lick here or there to add some extra umph. (You can worry about that another time)
For now though, I’ll give you a quick run-down on how to improve those two areas of your soloing to make sure that you absolutely do not end up sounding like a primary school jazz band.
Better Melodic Phrasing
Obviously this will differ depending on the genre you are wanting to play.
But right now, I’m gonna focus on melodic blues phrasing, and then you can expand from there as you so please.
Blues phrasing is all about small melodic fragments bouncing off each other.
And there is often plenty of mini pauses between these phrases to allow breathing space.
And I don’t think anyone explains it better than Rick Beato in this video where he analyses Guthrie Govan’s (my favourite guitarist at the minute) playing.
You’ll walk out the other side feeling like a new man.
The trick is to basically nick other people’s nice phrasing ideas and customise them.
That way, you aren’t spending ages as an improvising beginner trying to decide what sounds nice.
Everyone else has already done the work, so nick anything you like from anybody and make it your own.
Then you can go over to a YouTube channel like Elevated Jam Tracks, find a jam track to solo over, and give improvising a go with your newfound skills!
Better Soloing Over Chord Changes
Nice one, you’ve got some luscious and crisp phrasing going on and everything is beginning to come together.
But it still feels like there is something missing…
Is it because I’m not playing fast enough? Mmm No…
Is it because my guitar is rubbish so sounds bad? Mmm I don’t think so…
Is it because I threw my amp out the window because I thought it would fly?
You know what, it probably is.
But the real problem is that you aren’t following what’s going on in the backing track.
Paying attention to what you are playing over is just as important as what you are actually playing.
Changing the intensity of what you are playing to match the genre of the backing track is normally pretty easy.
If it’s metal, you might be pulling some screeching bends, adding piri piri hot licks here and there and just trying to make stuff sound aggressive, pulling some funny faces whilst you’re at it.
If it’s jazz, you may try to be a bit more mellow and delicate with how hard you’re hitting each note and how much vibrato you’re adding to the bends.
But tracking the chord changes is a little more difficult.
It requires a little more thought and planning.
For example, if you are improvising over a backing track like one from Elevated Jam Tracks on YouTube which shows you the chords you are soloing over, it’s really worth noticing these chords.
If you are soloing in the key of E minor, and the chord switches to D, then make sure you include a D F# or A note (the notes of D major) in your soloing for a bit whilst the chord lingers, and as the chord changes again, throw in a note or two from the next chord.
This will make your playing sound so much more thoughtful and connected with the backing track going on behind.
So go and have another go on a similar backing track to the one you tried earlier and try to implement this idea.
Hitting chord notes will be difficult to begin with, but it will become easier as you grow more and more comfortable with where all the notes are.
It may be worth sticking to two or three pentatonic scale positions for a bit with some pre planned target notes to hit for each chord whilst you get used to this.
And then once you’ve got this down, you’ll be the coolest dude in town.
Phew! That was a long one. But hopefully that’s everything there for you that you could ever need.
You’re gonna need a hell of a lot of Pritt Stick and a fair bit of patience, but in the end you’ll be an epic guitar player and the girls will be queuing up at your doorstep.
*No guarantee on that last one
To sum everything up:
- Learn positions one by one
- Practice gluing them together by sliding and playing vertically
- Observe the phrasing of other guitarists and imitate
- Practice hitting chord notes whilst you’re soloing
- BAM! You’re a beast of a guitar player.
Anyway, I’ve put a lot of effort into this post so sharing it with your friends would mean a ton 🙂
Now, get gluing!