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The Minor Pentatonic Scale

The minor pentatonic scale is the guitarist’s favorite! Put simply, every guitarist either knows this already or should learn it. As with anything to do with the guitar, or music as a whole, there are endless ways to use this simple collection of notes - you will never stop learning ways to use this. 


You can hear this scale in almost every type of music, from blues and jazz to the heaviest of metal. It can be found in riffs, melodies, solos and is the one and only scale some guitarists ever choose to learn. Aside from being synonymous with the guitar, this scale is also very common for vocalists in the Soul and R&B genres when ‘riffing’ (the really quick vocal runs that boggle the mind!). You can hear a great example of this in Christina Aguilera’s song ‘Show Me How You Burlesque’. 


What is the Pentatonic Scale?

Let us break down the word ‘pentatonic’. The word ‘penta’ is of Greek origin, and translates to the number five, then couple this with the word ‘tonic’ which we understand as ‘note’ in a musical context at least. Therefore, the ‘pentatonic scale’ means a ‘five note scale’ - like many chords, there are major and minor versions. The focus of this blog post is the minor pentatonic scale, so we shall start by learning the scale itself. The minor pentatonic scale comes from the parent minor scale, as does nearly everything. First of all, we will start with the A Natural minor scale that uses the following notes:


However, as you will have undoubtedly noticed, the Natural minor scale has seven notes, so we must remove two of them. The two intervals that need to be removed are the 2 and the ♭6. This leaves us with the following notes:

This R ♭3 4 5 7 formula must be remembered for later on. For now, get yourself acquainted with this shape if you are not already; to to internalize the sound of the scale as a whole.


There is one small issue with the above minor pentatonic shape, and that is that it can’t really be moved due to use of open strings. In order to utilize one of the big benefits of learning the guitar, the ability to move a simple shape and change the key as a result, we should learn this shape instead - the order of the notes remains the same. You will notice that the version below also uses more than one octave.



Be careful to use your pointing finger on all of the fifth frets, your pinky finger on the eighth frets and ring finger on all of the seventh frets - trust me on this! You would also benefit from playing the scale ascending, as written, but descending too.


How Do I Use This Scale?

Now that you know what the scale is and have a good start on how to play it, we can start to discuss how to actually use it.  As mentioned before, there are a seemingly endless number of approaches you could take from here, but we are going to start basic. At this point, you should have practiced internalizing the sound of the scale by itself - now we start trying with some music! Try to play the scale up and down along with this backing track. Try to form your own opinion of how each note of the scale sounds when played with the chords. 


Pro Tip: Don’t worry yourself with speed. Focus on the sound, and that the notes you produce are clear, consistent and not rushed at all.


Without going into too much detail with improvising, now is the time to start implementing some phrasing. The best way to try this is to think like you are having a conversation and where would be a natural point to take a breath - give your playing some space. Also, don’t feel that you need to play the notes in that written order - experiment as much as you like with what note you play where, just be mindful to stick within the confines of that scale for now. 


Up to now, we have been learning this scale in the key of A, which is only really useful when playing a song in that key. We know that moving the shape is how you change the key, but where do you move it to? The root note of a scale or chord isn’t always the lowest pitched note you play in a given shape, but in this case it is - I have highlighted it in red in the previous example. 


The fifth fret on the low E string (string number 6, closest to the ceiling) is an A note, the sixth fret is an A# (or B♭) note, so if we move the entire shape and start it from fret six we will have A# (B♭) minor pentatonic. The first fret on the low E string is an F note, so if we move the scale there we get the F minor pentatonic - this can be tricky to get a grasp of initially, though the effort pales in comparison compared to the doors that will soon be opened for you.


I would recommend that you do learn the notes of the strings rather than relying on fret numbers. This is because it makes things much easier for you to understand and converse with other musicians (a piano player might not even know what the fifth fret is!).


Using Your Ears

In my opinion, one of the most effective ways to learn to truly understand a musical concept, is to recognise it in the wild. Here are a selection of some very famous songs that use this scale:


Led Zeppelin - Stairway to Heaven


This song is widely regarded by many as the best rock song ever written. Whilst this is hotly debated, the impact that this solo had on the world of guitar is undeniable. Most of the solo is just pure pentatonic profoundness - it just seems right without being overly flashing or contentious. 


Pink Floyd - Comfortably Numb


Guitar Player magazine called this the best guitar solo ever written, and Dave Gilmour really pulls out all of the stops on this one. The minor pentatonic framework, additional notes and the tone really make this one of the best. 


Pantera - I’m Broken


Pantera were one of the biggest metal bands in the world during the 1990s and early 2000s, and guitarist Dimebag Darrell was a prolific, groundbreaking individual until his untimely death in 2004. In this example, the main riff uses the pentatonic scale, although through different positions to what we have learned - it is a personal favorite riff of mine and is quite easy to learn, too!


BB King - The Thrill is Gone


It was this performance that really made me take the guitar seriously. Not only is his voice sublime, but the playing ticks so many boxes on so many levels. At points the solo lines are just one note long, other times they are longer and more complex but still staying true to the scale in question.


On a slightly unrelated note, the solo played right at the end of this performance has the best guitar tone ever recorded in my humble opinion. The solo itself is at 5:55, but to get the full effect you should listen to the build up beforehand, pure magic!


Final Thoughts

Some people say that this scale is overused, whilst others swear by it and think everything else is pointless. It remains as important today as it did when it became the ‘guitarists’ scale at the birth of rock and roll - it will continue to be important for the rest of time.


Unlocking the full potential of this scale is something you should probably explore with your current teacher, or one of the great tutors at The American Guitar Academy. Learned correctly, you’ll be smashing out solos, writing pounding riffs and taking the world by storm in no time!


Alex


Below is an example of an exercise using the A minor pentatonic scale. Give it a try!


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