The minor pentatonic scale is a highly popular scale due to its versatility and playability. A staple in blues music, this scale brings moodiness and tension that creates that familiar blues sound, particularly when played over major/dominant chords.
In this lesson, we’re going to break down the minor pentatonic. We’ll take a look at how it’s built, each of the five positions, and how to go about practicing the scale.
Building the Minor Pentatonic from the Natural Minor Scale
As the name implies, a pentatonic scale is a scale made up of five (penta) notes (tonic). It is derived from the natural minor scale.
Natural Minor Scale
The natural minor scale is a 7 note scale made up of the following intervals:
- Major 2nd
- Minor 3rd
- Perfect 4th
- Perfect 5th
- Minor 6th
- Minor 7th
The pentatonic removes the major 2nd and minor 6th intervals, leaving the following minor pentatonic scale formula:
- Minor 3rd
- Perfect 4th
- Perfect 5th
- Minor 7th
In the minor scale, the 2nd and 6th intervals are dissonant tones that need resolution. Because these notes are absent from the minor pentatonic, it makes it easier to use this scale for soloing.
Even better, the minor pentatonic works well over both major and minor chord progressions.
Applying the Minor Pentatonic Scale to the Fretboard
The notes/intervals for the minor pentatonic scale can be found all over the fretboard. The diagram below shows all the notes in the G minor pentatonic from frets 3 through 15.
Taken as a whole, it may seem a bit overwhelming to try to learn all of these notes. But, we can break these notes down into smaller patterns that make the task much easier to accomplish.
Once you learn these scale shapes for one minor key you know them for all minor keys because the patterns are the same for all minor keys. The only difference is the tonic, or root note of the scale which the pattern is based around. More on that in a bit.
5 Minor Pentatonic Scale Shapes
The pentatonic scale can broken up in to five small patterns that connect up and down the fretboard. Each position of the scale overlaps with the position above and below it on the fretboard. After the 5th position, the patterns just repeat, starting with the 1st position.
Below we go over each position of the minor pentatonic scale. For each position I have a diagram outlining the intervals of the scale, the root note pattern, and suggested fingering pattern for playing the scale in that position.
It’s important to note the use of intervals instead of notes in these diagrams. The reason for this is because the scale pattern is note agnostic. In other words, you can start the pattern using any note on the guitar as the root note and the pattern will remain the same.
Playing the Scales
Since the pentatonic doesn’t included the 2nd and 6th intervals of the minor scale, you end up with a two-note per string pattern for each position. Because of this, pentatonic scales (both major and minor) are played using the 1st (index), 3rd (ring), and 4th (pinky) fingers in either a 1-3 or 1-4 pattern.
Some shapes can be played using a 2-4 pattern as well. However, the reason for the recommended fingering patterns is because you’ll most frequently see the scales played this way in guitar solos. But it’s not a bad idea to practice both fingerings.
When practicing each scale position, you should always start with the root note and play across and back until you end up back on the root. This serves two purposes:
- It familiarizes you with the root note positions of each scale pattern. This is important in order to understand the key you’re playing in.
- It helps develop your ear. By playing this way you’ll begin to hear the relation of each interval to the root note.
The first position of the minor pentatonic scale is by far the most popular position used in rock music and the position that feels most natural to play in.
In the first position, you find the root notes on the 6th string, 4th string, and 1st string, forming a triangular shape. It’s important to note that when in this position, you will always find the root notes in the same location relative each other. This will apply to all other positions as well.
In the second position, there are only two root notes and they fall on the 4th and 2nd strings.
Unlike the first position, the second position requires a shift when moving from the 6th string to the 5th and again from the 3rd to the 2nd. Because of these shifts, this position doesn’t feel quite as natural to play as a whole.
The root notes in the third position fall on the 5th and 2nd strings. As with the second position, this position also contains a couple of shifts between the 4th and 3rd strings and again between the 3rd and 2nd strings.
Position 4 is very similar to the first position. It does contain shifts between the 3rd, 2nd, and 1st strings, but these can be avoided by using an alternative fingering. By using the middle finger on the 2nd string instead of the index finger, you can play through the whole position without shifting.
The root notes in this position are found on the 5th and 3rd strings.
Similar to the first position, the fifth position contains three root notes. They are found on the 6th, 3rd and 1st strings.
Connecting the scale shapes
If you study the diagrams above closely, you may notice a relationship between each position and the position that precedes it. Each scale shape shares notes with the position before and after it. After position 5, the patterns repeat with position 5 connecting back to position 1.
In the diagram below, you can see the shared notes between each position.
Refer back to full diagram and you can see how these scale patterns connect on the neck.
Transposing to a Different Key
To apply the minor pentatonic scale to another key, you simply adjust the root note of the scale.
For instance, if you want to play the A minor pentatonic, you just have to slide the first position up two frets to start on the 5th fret instead of the 3rd.
This holds true for all positions of the scale. The scale patterns are always the same relative to the root notes.
The minor pentatonic scale is a versatile and widely used scale. It can be used over minor chord progressions and major chord progressions, which is common in blues music.
Practice each playing through each position while paying close attention to the root note patterns for each position. This will be useful when you start moving between scale positions for soloing purposes.