The major pentatonic scale is one of the most widely used scales on the guitar. The versatility and playability of the scale makes it a popular choice for use in guitar soloing and melodies. No doubt about it, this five-note scale packs a punch! Let’s take a look at what makes up this scale and how it’s applied to the guitar fretboard. By the end of this lesson you’ll see for yourself what makes this scale so special!
Pentatonic Scale Theory
Unlike the major scale, which is a seven note scale, the major pentatonic consists of five notes (“penta” = five, “tonic” = notes). It consists of the root, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 6th intervals of the major scale (the 4th and 7th scale degrees are left out).
Let’s take a look at our major scale intervals and see what we can learn about the major pentatonic scale. For this example, we’ll use the G major and G major pentatonic scales.
The 4th and 7th Intervals
If you look closely, you’ll notice the pentatonic scale doesn’t contain any semitones (1/2 steps). The intervals of the major scale that create half steps (4th/7th) are removed from the scale. This is an important quality of the pentatonic scale and goes a long way toward explaining why the pentatonic scale is so versatile and can sound good over virtually any chord progression.
Semitone, or half step, intervals are generally considered dissonant. That is, they create a bit of tension that needs to be resolved. This is particularly true of the 7th interval of the major scale. As an example, play up the major scale starting with the root note and stop once you reach the 7th.
You can feel the need to continue moving beyond this note to a note that is more stable. This can be a great quality of a guitar solo and can create a mood and feel to a solo that really gives it some life. However, if these notes are played at the wrong time or applied improperly, they can really stand out and sound out of place. For this reason, the pentatonic scale is a safe choice to use because pretty much any note will sound “good” when applied over a proper chord progression.
So now that you know what makes up a pentatonic scale and a little bit of theory behind its versatility, let’s learn the patterns and see how it can be applied over chord progressions.
Applying the Major Pentatonic Scale to the Fretboard
Similar to the major scale in the CAGED system, the pentatonic scale contains five patterns that are each connected to the pattern above and below it on the fretboard.
Below are the 5 patterns of the major pentatonic scale, shown with the interval for each note. Notice the absence of the 4th and 7th intervals.
As stated above, these patterns are connected just like the major scale.
Included in the resources below you’ll find a diagram outlining the recommended fingerings for each position. As stated above in the theory section, there are no half step intervals in the pentatonic scale. This results in a 1-3 (index finger, ring finger) or 1-4 (index finger, pinky) fingering pattern.
In this lesson we looked at the major pentatonic scale, the qualities it has, and how it is applied to the fretboard. Its simplicity makes it easy to learn, play, and use.