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Mastering Pentatonic Scales - Part 1

June 10, 20236 min read

Welcome to the first part of our three-week series on "Mastering Pentatonic Scales." This week, we are starting from the ground up by exploring the basics of major and minor pentatonic scales. As a foundational block for many genres, understanding these scales is key to unlocking your guitar-playing potential. today we'll dig into how these scales are constructed and uncover the five vital patterns every guitarist should learn. If you are new to pentatonic scales, you'll gain a new perspective on the fretboard and be one step closer to mastering the pentatonic scales. If you already know pentatonic scales, it will fill in some gaps you may have to use anywhere on the fretboard in any key.

What are Pentatonic Scales

At the heart of many memorable melodies and soul-stirring solos lie pentatonic scales, a cornerstone of music that spans across genres and cultures. These scales, unlike the more common seven-note major and minor scales, are composed of just five notes per octave - hence the term "pentatonic," drawn from the Greek words "pente" (five) and "tonic" (tone). Simple yet profoundly versatile, pentatonic scales are intrinsic to various musical traditions, resonating in the tunes of traditional Chinese and African music and underpinning the powerful riffs of contemporary rock and blues. They split into two predominant categories: the major pentatonic and the minor pentatonic. While the major pentatonic paints a picture of joy or elation, the minor pentatonic often communicates a more reflective or somber mood. Interestingly, rock and blues frequently leverage the tension created by overlaying a minor pentatonic scale onto a major backdrop, resulting in an edgy sound. As we venture deeper into the realm of pentatonic scales, you'll come to appreciate their essential role in crafting a guitarist's unique sound.

How are they Built

The construction of major and minor pentatonic scales follows specific formulas, making them an organized and predictable aspect of music theory. A major pentatonic scale is formed by selecting the 1st (root), 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 6th notes from the diatonic major scale. For instance, in the key of C, the C major pentatonic scale would consist of the notes C (1), D (2), E (3), G (5), and A (6).

On the other hand, the minor pentatonic scale uses a slightly different formula, selecting the 1st (root), flat 3rd, 4th, 5th, and flat 7th notes from the diatonic minor scale. Using the A minor pentatonic as an example, you would have the notes A (1), C (b3), D (4), E (5), and G (b7).

These distinct formulas contribute to the unique character of major and minor pentatonic scales. The major pentatonic projects a more upbeat sound, while the minor pentatonic embodies a bluesy, more introspective feel.

Penatonic Sclaes

Major / Relative Minor Relationship

In the realm of music theory, it's fascinating to uncover the intertwined relationships between different scales. A perfect example of this is the connection between the C Major pentatonic and the A Minor pentatonic scales. Remarkably, these two scales share the exact same set of notes: C, D, E, G, and A.

This occurs due to a concept known as 'relative keys.' In simple terms, a major scale and a minor scale are said to be relative to each other if they share the same key signature. The A minor is the relative minor of C major, and vice versa. Hence, the C Major pentatonic and A Minor pentatonic scales share the same notes but are rooted in different tonal centers.

In practice, what sets these scales apart is where they start and end - their 'root' note. The C Major pentatonic scale begins and ends on a C note, giving it a distinctly major, or happy sound. In contrast, the A Minor pentatonic scale begins and ends on an A note, which lends it a minor, or melancholic character.

The 5 Patterns Ever Guitarist Should Know (and then forget)

As paradoxical as it may seem, the journey towards truly understanding pentatonic scales encompasses a phase of meticulous learning, followed by a stage of forgetting. These five essential patterns, which fall across the guitar's fretboard, are your initial roadmap to mastering both the Major and Minor pentatonic scales. They serve as a way to break a part the entire scale into digestible chunks that we can use right away to make great music.

The diagrams below demonstrate how the patterns fit together for both the A Major pentatonic and F# Minor pentatonic scales. They are interwoven, each connecting to the next to form a cohesive whole. As you ascend and descend through these patterns, you're not merely practicing; you're engraving these pathways onto your muscle memory.

However, if your ambition aspires to express yourself through the instrument, knowing these patterns is just the starting point. An integral part of the journey is to 'forget' these patterns - not in the literal sense, but to transcend them. Once these patterns are deeply internalized, the focus then shifts from the scales themselves to the music they can create.

The ultimate aim is for the entire scale to become second nature, so instinctual that your fingers find the notes without conscious thought, freeing you to focus on the emotion, the dynamics, and the story you're telling through your music.

In the upcoming posts, we will delve further into this process of knowing, internalizing, and eventually, 'forgetting'. So stay tuned, as we continue our exploration of mastering the fretboard through the beautiful world of pentatonic scales.

For the time being, focus on the fundamentals: understanding these pentatonic patterns and identifying the scale degrees relative to the root note. This foundational knowledge is the bedrock upon which you can build your musical vocabulary. It's also helpful to familiarize yourself with the scales by their number and type - for instance, 'Scale 3, Minor Pentatonic.' This approach promotes precision and clarity in your learning process.

Major PentatonicMinor Pentatonic

As we wrap up this first part of our series on pentatonic scales, it's crucial to emphasize one key point: the importance of comprehending the degrees of the scales and their relationship to the root, not just learning the shapes. It's not just about learning the patterns, but also understanding the scale degrees and their relationship to the root note. Sure, learning the shapes of each pattern is important, but knowing the value of each note – the root, the flat third, the fourth, and so on – is what give the scale context.

The key here isn't just knowing where the patterns fit on your fretboard. It's about understanding why these patterns produce specific sounds and how to utilize these sounds to craft emotionally engaging music. This level of understanding is what mastering pentatonic scales truly entails, transforming you from just a guitar player into a full-fledged musician. Stay tuned for our next post, where we'll continue this exploring pentatonic scales.

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Andrew Gingerich

freteleven founder

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