The Amazing Pentatonic Scale
You may have learned about the pentatonic scale in school, or maybe you have come across it already while playing guitar. It is a simple scale that may seem limited, but instead gives you access to an entire world of music. Every guitarist should be able to play basic pentatonic scales and we will show you how.
The Difference Between Major and Pentatonic Scales
Often when studying guitar you will be in the Western system of tonality, one of the first guitar scales many learn is the major or diatonic scale. These common note sequences have seven notes and are called heptatonic.
A major scale formula is simply 1 2 3 4 5 6 7. You can use a scale finder to help you build scales from scratch.
So a C major scale is C D E F G A B, or a G major scale is G A B C D E F#, and so on for each key. This info can easily be obtained from your Circle of Fifths, find your root note, and follow the correct sharps or flats as you apply the formula.
Now one of the caveats of learning music theory in this manner is that our thinking will often get stuck in tonality. But one of the advantages is that following simple formulas is very easy for beginners! Just remember that music can be approached in a variety of ways beyond our method here.
How to Build a Pentatonic Scale
We showed the heptatonic scale having seven notes, you can guess the pentatonic will only have five! And there are a few different five note scales, but we will focus on the major and minor pentatonic.
The major pentatonic formula is 1 2 3 5 6, we drop the 4th and 7th scale degrees.
In the key of C that gives us C D E G A, notice these are the same notes on the side of the Circle of Fifths. Find those notes on your guitar and give them a play. If you want to experiment try adding the F and B back in, just notice how open it sounds with just five notes.
Another easy major pentatonic scale to visualize is the black keys on a piano, they make up the F#/Gb major pentatonic. Apply the formula to different root notes and practice each one. Without the other scale degrees the five notes will always sound good together.
When we build a minor scale we are just lowering or flattening specific degrees. The minor pentatonic formula is 1 b3 4 5 b7. Here we lose the 2nd and 6th, again giving us a more open minor feel.
The C minor pentatonic will be C, Eb, F, G, Bb. Play that scale, even hum it if possible and notice how easy it can be to sing along too.
Another quick example: apply the minor pentatonic formula to the key of E, it will give you the notes E A D G B. Hopefully you recognize this as the standard guitar tuning, which you are likely in (Unless you are playing in some drop tunings!).
As mentioned there are other pentatonic scales, you can use different formulas or start on different notes to get new musical vibes and feelings (this is how modes work!). But they will always have five notes and be sonically adaptable over a wide range of music.
What Songs Use the Pentatonic?
It is almost easier to list songs that don’t have it! The pentatonic scale is used across the globe and by nearly all cultures, it is incredible how common it is and how long it’s been around. The scale is historically and socially of great importance.
You can find it in any kind of folk, gospel, blues, bluegrass, jazz, rock, and really every genre of any nationality. If a song is very popular, there is a strong chance that somewhere the pentatonic is used.
Some specific tunes that use pentatonic scales are
- Oh Susanna
- Amazing Grace
- Auld Lang Syne
- Your Song
- Things We Said Today
- We Will Rock You
- My Girl
- Whole Lotta Love
- The Bridge
In folk and popular tunes, it is the major pentatonic that shows up the most. But in blues and rock we often use the minor pentatonic. It makes sense that the guitar would become such a staple of rock as it is literally tuned to a minor five note scale!
And if you happen to be an aspiring songwriter, these simple scales are the best place to start writing melodies. The audience loves anything it can sing along with!
How Can I Play the Pentatonic Scale?
One of the reasons music teachers use this scale for teaching children is how easy it is for people to learn, as it appears to be a part of our evolution. Start the same way by just practicing your major and minor pentatonic scales and then build from there.
Look for backing tracks that suit your genre and start playing along. Five note scales are great to solo and riff with as they fit over most progressions and rhythms. It is easy for anyone, even beginners, to sound great with the pentatonic. Start by using the right key and seeing if the major or minor formula fits.
For some guitarists this scale can have a negative connotation, at times it is seen as too simple. But that can be a very limiting view. As a beginner it is great to have a scale that is easy to use, and in some cases even complicated music can be helped with the pentatonic.
If the pentatonic scale feels a little stifling, start adding in the missing degrees, or raise and lower your notes. Pay attention to what notes sound great or bad, and your path to awesome improvisation can start with the pentatonic and branch out into so many possibilities.
The pentatonic scale is so successful because it uses only five notes and avoids intervals with strong dissonance. It is not surprising that such a musical scale has been created independently across the globe. People love pleasing sounds, and this scale is one way to create them! Try some pentatonic scales on your guitar and see just how versatile they are!