Deep Dive: The A Minor Pentatonic Scale
The A minor pentatonic scale is one of the most widely used guitar scales of all, particularly in the blues genre. In this lesson we’ll take a deep dive into the scale and explore some examples of its many uses.
As this lesson is a bit lengthy, here is a table of contents for what will be covered:
- Building the A minor pentatonic scale
- 5 positions of the A minor pentatonic scale
- A minor pentatonic connected across the fretboard
- Extending the A minor pentatonic scale
- Applying the A minor pentatonic musically
Building the A minor pentatonic scale
Before we hop into the A minor pentatonic, let’s first take a look at its parent scale, the Am scale, to see how the scale is formed.
The A minor scale
The A minor scale is a 7-note, diatonic scale made up of the notes A, B, C, D, E, F, & G. It’s the only minor scale that doesn’t contain any sharps or flats.
Because it’s a minor scale, it follows the following pattern of whole & half-steps:
W – H – W – W – H – W – W
If we apply this formula to the chromatic intervals on the guitar, you can see how the minor scale is built.
The diagram below shows the notes and intervals that make up the A minor scale.
Notes of the A minor pentatonic scale
Since pentatonic scales contain 5 notes, we need to remove two from the minor scale in order to get the minor pentatonic. The two notes removed are the 2nd and 6th intervals.
This means the formula for the minor pentatonic scale is made up of the 1st (root), 3rd (♭3), 4th (p4), 5th (p5), and 7th (♭7) from the minor scale. For the A minor pentatonic scale, this gives us the notes A, C, D, E, and G.
Note that the intervals that make up the Am pentatonic scale are universal to all minor pentatonic scales. The only thing that changes is the root note from which the scale is built.
5 positions of the A minor pentatonic scale
The notes for the A minor pentatonic scale are found all over the fretboard, as shown in the diagram below.
However, we can combine these notes into note groupings to form memorable scale patterns, or positions.
When you do this, you get 5 different positions of the A minor pentatonic scale, several of which repeat in different locations on the fretboard.
We’ll go through each position and go over the note patterns, intervals, and recommended fingerings. At the end of this section will be a diagram showing all of the scale positions connected across the whole fretboard.
Note that the fingerings shown in the diagrams below are recommended based on how these scales shapes are typically used in music. Try to play through the scale positions as shown, but feel free to adjust them if a different fingering pattern works better for you.
Root note patterns
When going through each scale position, it’s important to note the location of the root notes. Root notes help provide a reference point to quickly identify and navigate between scale positions.
It’s also vital in order to know and understand where the other intervals in the scale are located relative to the root. This helps with targeting chord tones and being able to play over chord progressions, particularly when using a single scale. So be sure to pay attention to the patterns created by the root notes in each scale position and learn them as well as possible.
Scale Position 1
The first position of the A minor pentatonic starts with the A note on the 5th fret of the 6th string.
The first position contains three root notes, which form a triangular shape on the guitar fretboard:
- 5th fret of string 6
- 7th fret of string 4
- 5th fret of string 1
It’s important to note that while this position can be played in both octaves of the fretboard (the same note pattern is found starting on the 15th fret of string 6), the interval locations are always the same relative to each other. In other words, with the root on the 6th string, I can always count over two string and up two frets to find another root note.
The bottom fretboard diagram outlines the suggested fingering for playing position 1 of the scale. When practicing the scale, it’s a good idea to start and finish on a root note so you hear how the other intervals of the scale sound relative to the root.
Scale Position 2
The second A minor pentatonic position connects to the first position via the following notes/intervals:
- C (♭3) on the 6th string
- E (p5) on the 5th string
- A (root) on the 4th string
- D (p4) on the 3rd string
- G (♭7) on the 2nd string
- C (♭3) on the 1st string
As you can see, the second position contains two root notes, found on the 7th fret of the 4th string and the 10th fret of the 2nd string, forming a common octave shape.
The fingering in this diagram is one option and uses just the index, ring, and pinky fingers.
Alternatively, you could use the middle finger in place of the index on the notes played on the 8th fret of the 6th, 2nd, and 1st strings. This would prevent you from having to shift positions to maintain the 1-3 playing pattern.
Scale Postion 3
The third position of the A minor pentatonic scale connects to the second with the following notes/intervals:
- D (p4) on the 6th string
- G (♭7) on the 5th string
- C (♭3) on the 4th string
- E (p5) on the 3rd string
- A (root) on the 2nd string
- D (p4) on the 1st string
The third position again contains two root notes, found on the 2nd and 5th strings. Use these notes as the starting points for playing across the scale.
When playing this position, a position shift is unavoidable. The fingering noted in the diagram requires two position shifts, but it can be reduced to one if you prefer to use the middle finger in place of the index finger on strings 4, 5, and 6. Again, the fingers shown in the diagrams are typically how you’ll come across it or want to play it when these scale positions are found in music.
Scale Position 4
Position four of the scale connects with position 3 via the following:
- E (p5) on the 6th string
- A (root) on the 5th string
- D (p4) on the 4th string
- G (♭7) on the 3rd string
- C (♭3) on the 2nd string
- E (p5) on the 1st string
The two root notes of this position are found on strings 5 and 3, again forming the common octave shape.
The fingering for the fourth position is pretty straightforward, though some may prefer to use the middle and pinky fingers for the two notes on the 2nd string.
Scale Position 5
The fifth, and last, A minor pentatonic position connects to the fourth via the following:
- G (♭7) on the 6th string
- C (♭3) on the 5th string
- E (p5) on the 4th string
- A (root) on the 3rd string
- D (p4) on the 2nd string
- G (♭7) on the 1st string
The fifth scale position also connects with the first as the scale positions start over again. These two positions connect via the following notes/intervals:
- A (root) on the 6th string
- D (p4) on the 5th string
- G (♭7) on the 4th string
- C (♭3) on the 3rd string
- E (p5) on the 2nd string
- A (root) on the 1st string
Like the first position, the fifth position also contains three root notes, which are found on the 6th, 3rd, and 1st strings.
The fingering shown in the diagram can be altered by using the middle and pinky fingers when playing the notes on strings 6, 5, 2, and 1.
A minor pentatonic connected across the fretboard
The diagram below shows all positions of the A minor pentatonic scale connected across the entire fretboard.
Notice the overlap in each scale position where it connects to the positions above and below. The diagram below shows more clearly how the positions are interconnected.
Extending the A minor pentatonic scale
From the fretboard diagrams above, you can see that the notes of the A minor pentatonic scale exist all over the fretboard and form distinct patterns, or positions.
Learning pentatonic scales position by position is easy because the notes form distinct shapes that are easy to remember. However, it’s a good idea to start combining these shapes early on so you don’t just view them as “boxed” patterns that are played independently of each other.
Applying the scale horizontally
We can accomplish this by using extensions, which is basically a way to extend one scale position into another. So instead of playing the scale vertically across the fretboard, you play it horizontally up and down the fretboard.
I have a whole lesson on extending the pentatonic scale, but for this lesson I’m just going to focus on one extension pattern spanning three pentatonic positions. This extension is easily one of the most commonly used scale extensions in music.
Extending positions 5, 1, and 2 of the A minor pentatonic
Let’s take a look at positions 5, 1, and 2 of the A minor pentatonic scale and see how we can connect these positions into a single scale pattern.
To create the scale extension, start with the first four notes of position 5:
- ♭7 (G note)
- Root (A note)
- ♭3 (C note)
- p4 (D note)
You then move up to position 1 and grab the next 5 notes:
- p5 (E note)
- ♭7 (G note)
- Root (A note)
- ♭3 (C note)
- p4 (D note)
Next, you move up to position 2 to finish the scale:
- p5 (E note)
- ♭7 (G note)
- Root (A note)
- ♭3 (C note)
- p4 (D note)
The combined extension is shown in the diagram below.
You can practice playing this extension as you would any of the other scale positions. Start and finish on the root notes.
Also, while this extension spans three scale positions, you can easily use it as two separate extensions, one for positions 5 and 1 and another for positions 1 and 2.
In other words, when you move from the fifth position up to the first, position, you can finish out the scale in the first position instead of transitioning to the second position.
Likewise, if you start in the first position, you can transition to the second position to finish out the scale. Examples of both are shown in the diagram below.
Applying the A minor pentatonic musically
So now that you know the notes, intervals, and scale positions of the A minor pentatonic, let’s start applying it in a musical context. Using the scale musically helps you to further understand the scale and prevents you from getting stuck in a rut playing straight up and down the scale patterns.
Key of A minor
The easiest place to start when applying the A minor pentatonic scale is to use it over a chord progression in the key of A minor. The key of A minor includes the following chords: Am – Bdim – C – Dm – Em – F – G
This means the A minor pentatonic can be used over any chord progression based in A minor and containing chords from above.
Let’s take a look at a few examples of using the A minor pentatonic over diatonic chord progressions.
Example #1 – Stairway to Heaven guitar solo
The first example comes from Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. It’s the opening lick of the guitar solo. The chord progression over which the lick is being played is straight from the key of A minor: Am – G – F
This lick is played using position 1 of the A minor pentatonic scale. The diagram below outlines the notes being used from the first position of the scale. The unused notes are faded.
You may nave noticed this lick contains one note that’s not part of the minor pentatonic scale. On the 8th fret of string 5, the ♭6 (F note) is played, which is part of the parent A minor scale. This note targets the root chord tone of the F major chord in the backing chord progression. This type of targeting is common in guitar solos and melodies.
The tab for the lick is below. You can listen to the lick here: Led Zeppelin – Stairway to Heaven guitar solo
Example #2 – Ain’t No Sunshine
The next example comes from Buddy Guy’s take on the Bill Withers classic, Ain’t No Sunshine.
The song is written in the key of A minor and follows the typical 1 – 4 – 5 blues chord progression. The part of the solo we’re going to look at uses the fourth position of the A minor pentatonic scale and is played over the Am chord.
You can listen to the lick here: Buddy Guy – Ain’t No Sunshine lick
Example #3 – Using the scale extension
In this example we take a look at how we can use the pentatonic scale extension from above in a musical context. This lick uses almost all of the notes from the extension and can be played over an A minor chord progression.
The tab for the lick is below. It’s a pretty basic lick, but it gives you an idea of how the scale extension can be used in context.
In this lesson we took a deeper look at the A minor pentatonic scale. We looked at how the scale was built, dissected each position of the scale on the fretboard, and took a look at some real world uses of the scale.
By now, you should feel pretty comfortable with the A minor pentatonic scale and be armed with the knowledge to apply it effectively to your guitar playing.
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