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Positions of the Minor Pentatonic Scale

In my previous blog post, I introduced the minor pentatonic scale. We learned what it actually is, how to play it and some songs we could use to train our ears to listen out for it. In this blog post, I wanted to discuss the subject further and with a little more theoretical detail. 

You may have heard the term modes when discussing the major scale, or inversions when learning about chords. A position of the minor pentatonic scale is the equivalent in the context. We simply start the scale from a different note in the pattern. 

For example, if the notes of A minor pentatonic scale are A C D E G in position one, in position two we would have C D E G A (which is also the C Major pentatonic scale, but I digress). This doesn’t make C minor pentatonic, as that would use the notes C E♭ F G B♭. Following that pattern, position three would start with a D note, position four with an E and position five with G.

All Five Positions

Let us get to grips with all positions now. Remember to try to keep your finger discipline in check and use one finger per fret if you can. With example B (position two), start with your middle finger. This makes things easier when moving to different keys later on down the line.

Also, as before, ascending and descending is the best way to go!

Position one is the classic, the starting point for all of us. It will be your best friend for the first year of your playing, and soon it will feel like home. Remember, we call this position one because the root note, or tonic, is the very first note we play in this shape.

Position two, as mentioned above, is also the first position of the Major pentatonic scale. The two are closely connected because A minor and C Major are relative - they are considered by some as being the same thing because they share the same notes, the only difference being what feels like ‘home’.

I tend to favor this shape quite a bit, though I am not exactly sure why. What I do know is that in the key of E minor (in this case, play from the fifth fret of the low E string), this position is extremely popular for writing and playing riffs due to the open E string being in the ideal place - see the Pantera riff ‘I’m Broken’ that I recommended in the last blog post for an example.

This position can be troublesome for some players. We know that the notes are the same, so it is not that which makes things complicated. The difficulty arises due to similarity in shape between this and position one - they often get confused and, in my experience as a teacher, this is the hardest one to get to grips with. Using the middle finger on the B string is another popular place for people to get confused.

Rounding up the group, and bringing up the rear, we have position five. This is another shape to start with your middle finger, and I personally find myself using this more when I am adding notes to position one, rather than using the shape itself.

Don’t Get Stuck!

One of the big problems people have when learning positions of the minor pentatonic scale, or modes and other similar ideas, is that they get stuck in those boxes and struggle to get out. Rather, they move from one shape to another and this gets boring, robotic and uninspiring really quickly. 

Here are two cool ways to move through the positions in a way that is not boring and allows you to glide up and down the fretboard with ease. 

Example 1

Try this example with alternate picking first, and then maybe branch out and experiment a bit once you are comfortable. Some people like to incorporate a slide leading into each new position - maybe you could try that too!

In this example, we are starting from the lowest possible position given the limitations of the open strings - keep in mind we are still in the key of A minor. Take the two notes of each shape over the high E and B strings (1 and 2, close to the floor) and play them in a descending pattern. I have marked the example with a red number so you can see what position is being used and where - when the marking numbers repeat, you are in the next octave. I have marked each root note with a green circle, just so you can keep your bearings as you move through the exercise.

Naturally, this ends with a big, two-fret bend because there is no point being a guitar player if we can’t show off once in a while! Whilst the last note isn’t a root note, I have marked it with a green circle also as we are bending it up to an A. 

Example 2

This time we are playing in the key of G minor (note the key signature!). The idea is to flow through positions one, two and three smoothly and extend the shape out - this is a good way to break down those walls that people get boxed in by. Once again, the root notes are marked with a green circle.

In some cases, I actually teach this approach straight after teaching position one. I find that starting students on the path of flowing between shapes early prevents them from being boxed in further down the line. 

Below I have included a slightly different angle on this same concept, which further gives us the smooth flow we are looking for. As with the other example, it is common for people to incorporate slides into this - slide between the third and fifth fret on the A string, do the same between the sixth and eighth frets on the B string.

Final Thoughts

Try not to get caught out when learning these shapes, there is a lot to take in. There is a real danger that a new guitarist could become a one trick pony and only use this information in one key, that is why I changed to G minor towards the end. You should always make an effort to learn something on the guitar as best you can, then apply it to as many different keys as possible. 

Go and find yourself a backing track or some friends to jam with and try out some of these ideas. Better yet, you could try and come up with some of your own! That is another sure fire way to develop your own voice and to develop your own sonic signature. 

If you are having trouble with this, any of the talented teachers at The American Guitar Academy would be able to help you out. Once you understand it, you will be glad that you put in the footwork beforehand - good luck!



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