Tom Serb

Tom Serb is a Chicago area guitarist who has been making music professionally since 1978. Over the course of the past twenty-five years he has managed to amuse himself by teaching, writing, performing, producing and composing. He is the author of Music Theory for Guitarists (NoteBoat, Inc., 2003), and a frequent contributor to the Guitar Noise forums.

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  1. Richard
    December 5th, 2011 @ 8:07 am

    I know you say scales are not confusing, but I am confused. Here is what I am having trouble wrapping my mind around.

    I don’t understand why a scale is called what it is. The tonic made it a little clearer, but let me give you an example.

    The minor penatonic scale. Are all minor penatonic scales c minor penatonic and then distinguished by key or does the key name the minor penatonic?

    For example can you have a c minor penatonic scale played in the key of a minor or is the key of that scale name it and make it an a minor penatonic scale and so on for the other notes like b, c d etc…

    Rich D

  2. Tom
    December 5th, 2011 @ 8:13 pm


    Scale names have two parts to them. One part tells you what the tonic is (like C); the other part tells you how the notes in the scale are spaced. When a scale is called “minor pentatonic”, that means the notes will be spaced 1-b3-4-5-b7 compared to the major scale.

    This might become a little clearer later on in the series when I talk about the structure of the major scale. But let’s say you want to make a D minor pentatonic scale. The D major scale looks like this:


    The D minor pentatonic will have the 1 (the tonic, in this case D), the b3 (here the 3 is F# – flatting it gets you F natural), the 4 (G), the 5 (A), and the b7 (since the 7 is C#, the flatted 7 is C natural). The D minor pentatonic ends up being the notes:


    Does that make a bit more sense?


  3. jeremy
    December 11th, 2011 @ 1:12 am

    So, in other words, the second one, Rich. The “minor pentatonic,” like all scales, can be played in any key. As you said, the key of the scale names it, while the “minor pentatonic” part further establishes what type of scale it is.

  4. jeremy
    December 11th, 2011 @ 1:21 am

    Tom, thanks. This is awesome. Extremely well-written and clearly articulated explanation for a concept that many people find fuzzy and befuddling. Like a lot of self-taught players, i never bothered learning scales. I understand them and know all about them theory-wise, but i am (25 years into playing) just now starting to really take the time to learn how to play and use them. With your help, hopefully i’ll be able to recognize them when i learn and play famous solos, and that will lead to a far more solid understanding of my fretboard, allowing me to play freely at a decent clip, instead of poking around in a blues box.

    I can’t wait to see more! Thanks again.

  5. Sam
    March 21st, 2012 @ 11:47 pm


    I’m having trouble understanding the idea behind a scale formula. In this and several following lessons, you keep referring back to the format looking similar to this…


    Maybe I missed it, but I can’t find an explanation for this. I’m sure it’s simple and I’m just overlooking it. Please clarify. Thanks!

  6. Tom
    March 22nd, 2012 @ 12:00 pm


    Right before giving that formula I said “music theorists compare them to the major scale”.

    The major scale is numbered 1-2-3-4-5-6-7. In the key of C, that corresponds to C-D-E-F-G-A-B. So a C minor pentatonic would be 1 (C), b3 (Eb), 4 (F), 5 (G) and b7 (Bb).

    Does that help?

  7. Wes
    April 1st, 2012 @ 1:38 pm

    I think I see what Sam is missing. Where and when did 1-b3-4-5-b7 come to define a minor pentatonic scale?

    I’ve always thought the major with a flatted 3d defined a minor? Does the flatted 7th have something to do with the Pentatonic part? Or am I just wrong?

    I love this site!

  8. Tom
    April 1st, 2012 @ 2:13 pm

    Wes, in music (with very rare exceptions) usage precedes theory. So first we’ve got a collection of tones, and then it’s given a name. In the case of the minor pentatonic, the scale had been used for a long time before we tried to give it a name. Then we start applying a bit of logic, looking at the way other scales are named – any naming system is easier to use if it’s consistent.

    It’s called a ‘pentatonic’ scale simply because it has five notes – all five note scales can be called pentatonic. The term ‘minor’, when applied to a scale or a chord, indicates there’s a b3 compared to the major scale. So a Cm7b5 chord, a C harmonic minor scale, or a C minor pentatonic scale will all contain Eb, the b3 of the C major scale.

    A different series, like 1-b3-4-5-7, would also technically be both a pentatonic and a minor scale. But to avoid confusion, the first scale named usually keeps the name, and the new series requires a new name. In this case, the new scale might be called the “pentatonic harmonic minor”: pentatonic tells us it has five notes, minor tells us the b3 is included, and ‘harmonic’ tells us the 7th is the same as in the major scale (just as the harmonic minor scale has the natural 7th: 1-2-b3-4-5-b6-7).

    Does that clear things up a bit?

  9. Wes
    April 2nd, 2012 @ 7:30 am

    Perfectly clear Tom!

    Thank you. It’s good to know there’s someone who not only knows what’s going on (I think there are a lot of people who are intimately familiar with music theory) but can communicate information in an understandable way (I think this significantly narrows the field). To further narrow the field to a handful in the world you are willing to do so. Thank you again.

  10. Ray
    June 14th, 2012 @ 9:52 am

    Can you give an example of how to connect the positions together when going through a run, or point me in the right direction to some other lessons on the site. I really only know the first position of the minor pentatonic well and now that I see how you explained the rest of the positions it makes sense to me, but I’m not really clear how you can start at the open position and run through all the notes in the scale and end below the 12th fret.

  11. Tom
    June 14th, 2012 @ 8:09 pm

    Ray, the easiest way to visualize connecting positions is to recognize that the higher notes of one position are the same as the lower notes of the next.

    If you’re in F pentatonic minor, in first position you’re playing:


    You’ve got three notes on the third fret, and three notes on the fourth fret. The next position will start at the third fret (the lowest of the ‘upper’ note from the first position), and will be:


    This logic will hold true for every position – the lower notes are in exactly the same place as the upper notes of the previous position; the higher notes will be in exactly the same place as the lower notes of the next position.

    When you really think about this, it make sense – if you’re in F, the F note on the third fret of the fourth string will work, regardless of which finger plays it… the third finger will be used in the first pattern, and the first finger will be used for the same note in the next pattern.

    • gareth
      November 6th, 2012 @ 11:21 pm

      Hah! Lightbulb moment! Thank you!

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