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 scale consists of five notes (“penta” = five, “tonic” = notes). The five notes of the major pentatonic scale are 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.
- Major 2nd
- Major 3rd
- Perfect 4th
- Perfect 5th
- Major 6th
- Major 7th
Major pentatonic scale
Looking at pentatonic, you can see that the 4th and 7th intervals are removed, leaving us with the major pentatonic scale formula:
- Major 2nd
- Major 3rd
- Perfect 5th
- Major 6th
The 4th and 7th Intervals
If you’re familiar with the major scale, you know it’s a diatonic scale made up of a whole-step/half-step pattern (whole-step = 2 frets, half-step = 1 fret).
Looking at the G major scale, you get the following:
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.
Applying the Major Pentatonic Scale to the Fretboard
Notes on the guitar are repeated all over the fretboard. Given this, it’s understandable that scale notes, too, exist all over the fretboard. If we look at the notes of the G major pentatonic scale from fret 2 through fret 15, it looks like this (root note in orange):
At first glance, it may seem complicated trying to visualize a scale in this manner (because it is!). But fortunately, we can break these notes down into learnable patterns that repeat up and down the neck.
5 Major Pentatonic Scale Shapes
In the scale diagrams below, I outline each of the scale positions, the root note patterns of the position, and the suggested fingering of the notes for the position. Feel free to adjust the fingerings as needed.
Also, note that the examples below are for the G major pentatonic. However, the diagrams are labeled with intervals rather than the notes of the scale. This is because these patterns aren’t key specific, meaning they apply to ALL major keys. The only difference is which note is in the root position (which highlights the importance of showing the root note patterns of each position).
Playing the Scales
When practicing the scales, it’s important to start and end on the root note of the position. This reinforces the tonal center of the scale and also helps with learning the root note positions.
Because the 4th and 7th intervals aren’t part of the major pentatonic, each scale position results in a two-notes per string pattern. The suggested fingerings for these are either 1-3 (index and ring fingers) or 1-4 (index and pinky).
The first position contains 3 root notes, forming a triangular shape. Learning the shape of the root notes helps with learning the root note positions as well as identifying the scale position.
The root notes in this position are found on the 1st, 4th, and 6th strings.
For an alternative fingering, you can try using 2-4 on the 1st, 2nd, and 4th strings.
The second position of the scale starts on the 5th fret with the root notes on the 4th string and 2nd string. For an alternative fingering, you can try 2-4 on the 4th, 5th, and 6th strings.
Position three of the scale contains root notes on the 2nd and 5th strings. The scale shape of this position is very similar to the fifth position.
An alternative fingering option for this position is 2-4 on the 2nd string.
In the fourth position, the root notes are found on the 3rd and 5th strings. As an alternative fingering, you can use 2-4 on strings 1, 2, 4, and 6.
Like the first position, position five also contains three root notes that form a triangular shape. The roots in the fifth position are found on the 1st, 3rd, and 6th strings.
This is probably the most commonly played position of the scale and the one that feels most natural.
Connecting the scale shapes
If you look closely at the diagrams for the adjacent scale positions, you may notice a relationship between the bottom notes of the position above and the top notes of the position below.
Each position shares notes with the position directly above and below. After the fifth position, the patterns repeat.
The diagram below outlines the shared notes between each position:
You should now be able to visualize the different scale positions on the neck and how they connect with each other.
Transposing to another key
The purpose of using intervals in the diagrams to show the different positions is to drive home the fact that the scale shapes aren’t key specific. In other words, the same positions can be applied to any major key by changing the root note around which the position is based.
For example, to move from the first position of G major to the first position of A major, you simply move the root note up two frets.
Again, this applies to all major keys. The patterns are the same relative to the root note.
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.