Ah, yes. The pentatonic scale. So simple yet so powerful. It is probably the most used scale in rock but it is also popular in country, jazz, and other types of music. I guess the reason is because it only has 5 notes (penta = 5). Two things spring to mind when I think of this scale. First, you only have 5 notes so it forces you to get creative. Second, the 5 notes used are strong chord tones so it is difficult to make a bad choice when soloing.
I like to break the scales into shapes first and then build patterns like words into sentences. I also do this with the diatonic scales.
So here is my method:
- Learn the intervals (distance between the notes) 4 notes at a time, on 2 strings.
- Learn the order of these shapes (there are 5 of them) so that you can chain them together and play the scale up and down the neck.
- Add these shapes together to form patterns so that you can play the scale across the neck.
- Build all 5 patterns so that you can play the scale anywhere on the guitar.
Now I will show you the 5 interval shapes I use but first, a bit of theory. There are 7 notes in a Major scale (do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti). The distance between two notes is called an interval. This is how chords are built. Major chords have 1,3 and 5 (do, mi, sol). The distance from do to mi is a Major third. The distance from do to sol is a perfect fifth. When you play all three notes together, you get a Major chord. What you need to understand for now is that we are going to have two notes missing from a Major scale. They are the 4th and 7th notes (fa and ti). Therefore we will have 5 shapes. The notes will appear in order. And when we get to the end, we will start at the beginning again. Just to be extra clear, do=1, re=2, mi=3, etc. So we get this:
Shape 1 – 1,2,3,5
Shape 2 – 2,3,5,6
Shape 3 – 3,5,6,1
Shape 4 – 5,6,1,2
Shape 5 – 6,1,2,3
Okay enough school work. For now, just memorize the visual part. Here we go with Steps 1 & 2.
I made this diagram using different colors so that when we put the shapes together to make patterns you will be able to follow the method I am using. Remember the bottom line of each shape is the lower (or thicker) string.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the shapes appear in a certain order and they will always stay in this order. After #5 you would go back to #1 and it starts all over again. You may have noticed that Shape 2 and Shape 4 are the same. They are the same shape but they are not the same notes so keep them separate in your brain.
Keep in mind that at this point, you could play the Major pentatonic scale up and down the neck on two strings. In fact you should practice them up and down the neck so that you get familiar with the order. Notice that the 2nd and 4th notes of one shape are always the 1st and 3rd notes of the next shape.
You can also play any shape in octaves across 6 strings by shifting positions. This will not give you a full scale (only 4 notes) but it allows you to play the same riff across the neck using the same picking pattern. It is very useful for a “call and response” blues solo. Here is an example with Shape 2 starting at the 5th fret:
Okay. Moving right along to Steps 3 & 4.
After you get the shapes from Step 2 memorized, you will play one shape on the E & A strings (lowest), one on the D & G strings (middle) and one on the B & E strings (highest). You build the patterns by stacking the shapes in reverse order across all 6 strings. The reason for this is that they are octaves of the previous shapes.
Pattern 1 starts on the root (do), so whatever note you start on the low E string, that will be the key of the Major scale.
If we play Pattern 1 starting on the 3rd fret, we will get a G Major pentatonic scale.
If we play Pattern 1 on the 7th fret, we will get a B Major pentatonic scale.
And so on, and so on, and so on …
Here are the other 4 patterns:
If you combine the two ideas of playing shapes (up and down the neck, playing across in patterns), you can find notes of the scale in any direction no matter where you playing on the neck. I think of it as North, South, East and West. Let’s look at an example:
You are playing Shape 2 starting at the 5th fret on the middle strings. That would look like this:
Then you add Shape 1 above (North) and Shape 3 below (South). You know this because of the order of the shapes.
Notice you only get 4 more notes:
Now add Shape 1 on the high strings (East) and Shape 3 on the low strings (West). This is the same as building a pattern. We will also add the missing octave notes for Shape 2.
This time you get 10 more notes:
Did you see that the Shape 1 octave is there also? How about Shape 3? They travel in a SE direction (or NW in reverse). It just goes on and on as long as you know the order of things.
Once you learn the Major, you can play the pentatonic minor easily by just changing the order of the shapes but using the same patterns.
I will cover that in a future article.
Does this make sense? Do ya get it? If you have any questions please send me a message so I can update the article.
Thanks for looking!