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A Beginner's Guide To The Minor Pentatonic

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Read Time: 12 min
This post is part of a series called An In-depth Look at Playing Guitar (Premium).
Using Chromatics In Rock Guitar
Acoustic Finger Style Basics

The Minor Pentatonic scale is probably the first thing a guitarist learns. It is without doubt (along with its Major counterpart) the most useful and versatile scale you'll ever learn. It's the basis for virtually every minor Blues, Rock, Metal, Country, Pop, Soul, and Jazz lick you've ever heard played on a guitar. If you could only play one scale for the rest of your life this would be it! And you'd never run out of ideas!

The problem is most guitar players find it hard to get past the first position of the scale, commonly referred to as the 'Blues Box'. This position or 'shape' (and it's very important to understand the difference between a scale and a shape) is only one fifth of the story when it comes to the fretboard.

In this tutorial I'll explain how you can fully understand this simple scale over the whole neck and release it's full potential. From lead lines to chord fills you'll see just how powerful this little scale really is!

It's What You Don't Play!

The Pentatonic scale is a very simple scale comprising of only five notes. Now that may seem a bit basic but that's where its strength lies. Because it's so simple it's able to hide inside other scales and chords making it incredibly versatile.

Although we generally associate the Pentatonic with rock and blues guitar the Pentatonic scale is found in practically every form of music in the world. Traditional Chinese music is virtually all Pentatonic, as are many Far Eastern musical styles. Here's a piece off 'Oriental' music that I put together. It's strictly minor Pentatonic and hard to image that the same scale was used to play the solo from 'Foxy Lady' by Hendrix!

The Pentatonic is also the primary scale used in Blues and Gospel which are the catalysts for many if not all modern western pop music genres. The black notes on a piano also make an Eb minor Pentatonic scale. The list goes on!

In this tutorial I'm only going to focus on the minor version of the scale. It's important to know there is a major version but it contains all the same notes as its relative minor cousin and therefore the same shapes on the guitar, so once you know one you essentially know the other. So let's have a look at how the scale is constructed.

Below you can see the interval structure of the minor Pentatonic. In the key of A this would be A C D E G. There's not much to it right, well that's the interesting thing. The important thing is what intervals it doesn't have.

The Minor Pentatonic scale

Below are the intervals of the natural minor scale. This is the relative minor cousin of the major scale. In the key of A this would be all the white notes on a piano starting from A, then B C D E F G and back to A. You could also call this the Aeolin mode. The most important thing to notice here are the 2 and b6. These notes are the most colorful notes in the scale and are referred to as 'Color Tones'. Apart from the obvious minor 3rd these two notes define this scale as being natural minor (Aeolian).

The Minor Pentatonic scale

Now, the distance between these notes is a b5 or tritone. The devils interval!! This is quite important to know and will crop up again and again when using the Pentatonic scale over different minor modes of the major scale. If you look at the image below you'll see that the minor Pentatonic is actually the natural minor scale without the color tones. More importantly it's missing the tritone interval, without these two notes the minor Pentatonic has no semitone intervals, only tones and minor 3rds.

The notes of the Minor Pentatonic in relationship to the Natural Minor (Aeolian) scale.

This means you could use the minor Pentatonic over any chord progression that's based on this natural minor scale as it doesn't interfere with the color tones, that's a lot of material!!! There's literally millions of songs that use this minor key scale!

Now let's have a look at another mode of the major scale, the Dorian mode. Again it has the same basic minor structure but this time has a major 6th. You can see the minor Pentatonic fits perfectly inside this scale too. And even though the tritone is now in a different place in the scale (between the b3 and 6) it's still not possible to mark with the minor Pentatonic.

The notes of the Minor Pentatonic in relationship to the Dorian mode.

Using With Minor Chords

One other chameleon quality the minor Pentatonic scale has is it's ability to fit perfectly over any straight minor chord, no matter where it is in the chord progression. Let me give you an example.

If I harmonize the A natural minor scale above into 7th chords I get Am7 - Bmin7b5 - Cmaj7 - Dm7 - Em7 - Fmaj7 - G7 - Am7. The chords I'm interested in here are the min7 ones, namely Am7, Dm7 and Em7. Let's have a look how this chord type relates to the minor pentatonic.

The notes of the Minor Pentatonic in relationship to the min7 chord type.

You can see they contain all the same notes bar one, the natural 4th interval. We'll funnily if I was to extend the min7 chords from the harmonized minor scale to min11 chords which contain the 4th interval they would all have natural 4ths, just like the minor Pentatonic!!

This means if I have a chord progression in Amin that goes Amin7 -> Dmin7 -> Emin7 I could use a minor Pentatonic from the Root note of each min7 chord as they changed, in this case A minor Pentatonic, D minor Pentatonic and E minor Pentatonic. here's an example.

I have this standard minor blues progression.

The first time round I'll play just A minor Pentatonic over the whole thing. Pretty standard stuff.

This time round I'm going to play some phrases using the root note Pentatonic of each of the different min7 chords. Now I get this, which is a bit more colorful.

This kind of thing works really great although you have to be a bit careful how you use it. Running up and down each Pentatonic will sound rubbish. The concept I've used is to target chord tones by playing around the chord shapes with my Pentatonics. Which leads me to the next section.

The Five Positions

The five positions of the Minor Pentatonic are inextricably linked to the five CAGED minor chord shapes. If you've never heard of the CAGED system for guitar you really need to as it's the best way to learn guitar. In a nut shell there are five ways to play a straight minor chord (1-m3-5) on the neck. These are based on open chord shapes played at the nut.

There's a C shape, A shape, G shape, E shape and a D shape (CAGED, get it!). These can be played in one part of the neck as unique chords say Em, Am and Dm (at the nut) to make a chord progression. More importantly these shapes they can be joined together to give you the minor triad shape (Say, Em) over the whole neck.

Each Minor Pentatonic position is related to one of the minor CAGED chord shapes. Because each one is tied to a minor chord shape it means the minor Pentatonic can be used just as effectively in a rhythm guitar context as in a lead guitar context. Jimi Hendrix was a master at this and practically invented a new style of hybrid lead/rhythm guitar playing that outlined chords with double/triple stop (playing 2/3 notes at a time) ideas using either the major Pentatonic (for major chords) or minor Pentatonic (for minor chords). Funnily he stole this from country and gospel piano players. This Pentatonic style has permeated practically every genre of guitar from Funk and Soul to Indie to Pop and Rock.

I've made a point of giving a lead and rhythm fill example so you can see the scope of the scale.

Position 1 - E Minor Shape

This shape is usually called the 'Blues Box' as it's where you'll find a lot of classic Blues and Rock licks. It's also considered as the 1st position of the scale and is fits perfectly over the CAGED E minor shape. A lot of beginners consider this 'shape' to be the minor Pentatonic scale and have no idea the scale actually covers the whole fretboard, a master shape that can be broken in to five positions! This is where most guitarists start (and stop!) and can take some time to break out of this shape.

The most important thing to pay attention to inside the shape are the Root note positions as most ideas you play will start and resolve to these notes! Each CAGED shape has a unique Root note (octave) pattern that you should learn by heart as it make identifying them easier.

Position 1 of the Minor Pentatonic

It is however a very useful shape. Here's a couple of examples of the kind of things you can do with it.

A Typical Lead Lick Using Position 1

A Typical Chord Fill Using Position 1

You probably find these very familiar.

Position 2 - D Minor Shape

Position 2 starts on the b3rd of the scale and is tied to the D minor CAGED shape. This is a very nice position that contains lots of classic licks and fills. Again pay attention to the Root note position as this is where you will probably start and resolve your ideas to!!

Position 2 of the Minor Pentatonic

A Typical Lead Lick Using Position 2

A Typical Chord Fill Using Position 2

Position 3 - C Minor Shape

Position 3 starts on the natural 4th interval (3rd note) of the scale. Take a look at the chord shape and try to see it inside the Pentatonic shape. Again study those Root note positions!

Position 3 of the Minor Pentatonic

A Typical Lead Lick Using Position 3

A Typical Chord Fill Using Position 3

Position 4 - A Minor Shape

Position 4 starts on the natural 5th (4th note). This is a very popular position and contains tons of options for ideas!

Position 4 of the Minor Pentatonic

A Typical Lead Lick Using Position 4

A Typical Chord Fill Using Position 4

Position 5 - G Minor Shape

The final 5th position. After this your back to position 1. Just as important to know as any of the others!!

Position 5 of the Minor Pentatonic

A Typical Lead Lick Using Position 5

A Typical Chord Fill Using Position 5

When it come to these five positions you should be aiming to try and improvise with all of them. Everyday make a point of just concentrating on one shape. Play the CAGED chord shape and then try and play a fill using the corresponding Pentatonic shape. Try to visualize the chord and scale as one entity. When you play a certain minor chord shape anywhere on the neck you'll know there is a handy minor Pentatonic shape right under your fingers!

The Big Picture

At the end of the day you have to realize that the five positions above are parts of a bigger picture, a 'whole' if you will. The image below shows you what the shapes look like when joined together. Don't worry if this looks a bit daunting. Trying to learn this big shape on the right would be a lot to ask straight away. That's why we break the information up into smaller chunks! With practice this bigger picture will start to emerge.

I've started with just the Root notes on the left. This pattern is probably the most important thing you'll ever learn when it comes to fretboard navigation. Knowing where the Root notes are to the key of the song or the current chord your playing opens the whole instrument up for you. Here's a tip...If your trying to memorize shapes based on fret markers you'll have a much harder time when it comes to playing in different keys as the marker spacings are not consistent, this octave (Root note) shape however never changes!! If you can see and connect these patterns together you'll get on a lot faster. Learn this basic shape!!!

The middle column represents the CAGED minor shapes as a whole, I've added the CAGED name alongside each one so you can see it inside the pattern. So what your seeing is the minor triad over a repeating 12 fret span (A shape -> A shape). Finally to the right is the master shape of the minor Pentatonic over the same distance. This is how I see the Pentatonic scale when I look at the fretboard. Whatever key I'm in I look for the Root note and there is the shape. I'm free to play where ever I want at any time! It's all about that Root note shape!

When you practice a position have a look at this shape and see how the position above and below interlock with the one your playing. Try this with every one. As a lot of licks are rarely played in just one position you'll find yourself jumping and sliding into a new shape.

How the patterns build up from Root to Triad to Pentatonic shape

The cool thing is that the major Pentatonic is the same shape, you just move the Root note up a minor third within this pattern.


So I think I'll stop there. The are of course many cool things you can do with this scale and there's a lot more to learn as I've only scraped the tip of the iceberg! Hopefully you've got something out of this. It does require a certain amount of practice to memorize and become familiar but that's what it's like learning an instrument!

Maybe I'll take this further in another tutorial and look at some more advanced concepts that you can do with the Pentatonic scale. If you have any question leave a comment and I'll try to answer them for you! Till then...:)

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