Pentatonic Scale: The Charm of the Five-Tone Music
Hello, Guitar-Elite community! We already discussed the pentatonic scale in our previous article. Here is a more in-depth study of the five-note scale. Of course, your chromatic scale contains twelve notes and your major and minor scale has 8 notes. What’s with this pentatonic scale? Do we musicians make use of it frequently? If you have a piano you can easily visualize and hear the pentatonic scale. All you have to do is play the five black keys – no matter which key you press first, it will fit right in with the pentatonic scale.
Brief Introduction to Pentatonic Scales
So let’s start discussing what the pentatonic scale is – the words “penta” and “tonic” literally means “five” and “tone”, respectively. Basically, a pentatonic scale is a set of 5 different notes that are found within a major or minor scale. That’s because the notes of a major pentatonic scale come from a major diatonic (8-note) scale – without the dissonant notes. This goes the same for the minor pentatonic scale.
The history of this scale goes as far back as Ancient Greece. For example, the kithara or ancient Greek lyre was tuned to just 5 tones. As people evolved, so did Western music, and we expanded these set of notes to what we know now as the major and minor scale. However, East and South Asia retained it as a standard for almost all of their traditional music. You’ll find a lot of instruments, such as zithers, fiddles, flutes, and even gongs tuned to a pentatonic scale. After the Romantic period, the pentatonic scale was re-introduced into the West and became controversial and was even popularized by some famous composers like Mussorgsky, Bartok, and others.
To understand it simpler, let’s use the G Major scale as an example. The G Major scale consists of the following notes: G A B C D E F# and G. To make a major pentatonic scale, just take out the 4th and the 7th note of the major scale. That would result in G A B D and E. Easy peasy!
Now how do I make a minor pentatonic scale? Let’s use the E minor scale this time: E F# G A B C D E. For this one, you just have to remove the 2nd and the 6th notes. That would make E G A B and D.
This sounds so easy, what’s the catch? The only difficulty you’ll be having in learning pentatonic scales is familiarization with the major and minor scales. Normally, a musician would learn all the notes in all the major and minor scales. But in this case, guitarists typically just have to learn the hand shapes if you don’t want to go through all those notes. We’ll discuss those later in this article.
The Magic of Pentatonic Scales
Thing is, why should I even bother learning about pentatonic scales? If you’re a guitarist, you can’t just play chords all day! You also have to learn how to do and make your own solos. You want to be your own person! Just like how Yngwie Malmsteen is known for his minor scale rock metal solos; just like how Eric Johnson is known for soloing a whole song in the major scale. You want to be able to create your own flavor, your own solos. And these pentatonic scales are one step closer for you!
The good thing about these pentatonic scales is that they have just a few notes and are super easy to use. Take a backing track in the key of G major. Start playing around with the G major pentatonic scale (G A B C D E). Now let’s stir it up a bit with a G minor pentatonic scale (G B B C D F#). You’ll be surprised at how much the minor pentatonic scale fits right in with the backing track in the key of G major! Magic!
Those are just some perks of learning the pentatonic scale. Another thing to convince you into learning it is the fact that you’ll be able to jam with to your favorite music with just 5 notes!
In Popular Songs
I was kind of surprised to find numerous songs that bands and musicians have used pentatonic scales in. We have Auld Lang Syne, Amazing Grace, and even the children’s song Old MacDonald Had A Farm. If you’re more inclined to rock, then you’d be happy to know that bands like Led Zeppelin use the pentatonic scale in their songs too! The best example would be the solo (starting at 05:56) in Stairway To Heaven. Cream’s Sunshine Of Your Love also makes use of the pentatonic scale in their solo! Name a band, and they’ve probably used the pentatonic scale in at least one of the solos in their songs.
Pentatonic Hand Shapes
This is the best (and fastest) way to learn the pentatonic scale – hand shapes. There are many different kinds of pentatonic scale hand shapes, but in this article, we are only going to teach you one. This “magic” one will be applicable to both the major and minor pentatonic scale.
Memorize the hand shape on the left. Try that shape starting from the 2nd fret – you will have an A major pentatonic scale. Next, try moving the whole shape up to the 5th fret – you now have an A minor pentatonic scale! That is the “magic” we are talking about. A single hand shape for both types of pentatonic scales!
Experiment around with that shape starting on different frets. You’ll find that you can already play on most keys just with that single hand shape.
For reference, the RED circle indicates the starting point (or root) for minor pentatonic scales, while the BLUE circle indicates the root for major pentatonic scales. Take the previous exercise as an example to understand it better. When you do the hand shape starting on the 2nd fret, the BLUE circle will be on “A” on the 6th string. Next, move the whole shape up to the 5th fret and the RED circle will now be on “A” on the 6th string. Keep this in mind when you try the pentatonic hand shape out on other frets. The “root” should always be in mind so you don’t just go about guessing what you’re doing, but really know what key you’re playing the pentatonic on.
Where do I go from here?
With just that one hand shape, you can already solo to most of your favorite backing tracks. And yes, it’s that easy. But don’t end your learning there! There are other ways to play the pentatonic scale, and it would be a good thing to have a lot of ideas for your next jam sessions with your bandmates. A good way to practice playing your pentatonic scales is by jamming to backing tracks on different keys and styles. We have a library full of these which will help you start your journey on becoming the next guitar solo rockstar!
If you still find yourself confused, we have teachers here at Guitar-Elite explaining what pentatonic scales are and how to use them to make your own solos. We have a lot of lessons covering this topic, so join us when you can! Furthermore, we have a community where you can share your stories about learning guitar and other guitarists out as well!