The Pentatonic Scale: Easy to Learn

We’ve already covered the most used scales – the major and minor scales, and found out that the major scales have been solidly ingrained in Western musical heads for centuries already. What you might not be so aware of, is the dominance of the pentatonic scales which have helped shaped pretty much any popular contemporary music ever made. Just like the natural major and minor scales, there are major pentatonic scales and minor pentatonic scales. These scales are also easy to learn and can be quickly used for improvising.


If you play the black keys of a piano, then you already have the major pentatonic scale down. Maybe you find that the scale sounds like a piece written in the East, and you’re not far off, since Chinese music uses the pentatonic scales. In fact, Irish Celtic, Scottish, Indian, African, and Blues music use pentatonic (five-note) scales. Western classical music can also be pentatonic or use pentatonic elements – the piece, Morgenstimmung by Norwegian composer, Edvard Grieg is a great example of this. Many children’s songs are also based on pentatonic scales. The term pentatonic stems from the Greek word, ‘pent’, meaning five, since a pentatonic scale is made up of just five notes, while the natural scales are made up of seven notes.

Major Pentatonic

You could see the major pentatonic scale as a derivative of the natural major scale where the major pentatonic scale is a major scale with the leading notes removed. Leading notes are notes that are a semitone apart from another note. In the C major scale, there is half a note between the E and F, and between the B and C (an octave). In the C major pentatonic scale, the F and B are left out, so the fourth and the seventh, making the C major pentatonic run C, D, E G, A, C, where the last C is the first note of the following octave. If you write this out numerically, it would run: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 8. To look at a different key, the G major scale is G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G, while the G major pentatonic scale drops the fourth and seventh notes (C and F#), so it runs: G, A, B, D, E, G. Another example: the F major scale runs F, G, A, Bb, C, D, E, F. Drop the fourth and seventh notes (Bb and E) and you get the F major pentatonic scale: F, G, A, C, D, F.

Major pentatonic scales

Easy to Improvise

Before we start looking at the minor pentatonic scales, it’s worth saying again that the pentatonic scales are incredibly useful tools for a musician, especially improvising musicians. Using pentatonic scales, improvising is actually much easier since it’s much harder to make any mistakes. This is definitely the case for rock music, which usually uses chords with no or very few ‘additions’ like sevenths or diminishments. The chords used to play a lot of rock are often two-note or three-note chords (power chords), making them great for using pentatonic scales to improvise over the top. Pentatonic scales are also easy to play on a guitar or bass. In fact, while it’s not actually known, it could well be that the note differences between the strings of a guitar have been specifically chosen so that the instrument can be used to play pentatonic scales with ease. Pentatonic scales are also great tools when improvising to the Blues, and are even easier to use for pianists, since the Blues scales don’t work in every key, so you can make life easier on yourself and just use pentatonic scales. A great example is the classic song, The Thrill is Gone by Blues guitar legend, B.B. King. This is a blues song in B minor and, since some pianists find the B minor Blues scale a little awkward when it comes to improvising, they use the B minor pentatonic scale instead which plays a little more comfortably and sounds great.

Minor Pentatonic

Now we come to the minor pentatonic scales. To refer back to our blogs on the natural major and minor scales, it’s worth mentioning here that the minor scale can have the same notes as the major scale, so they are closely related. What’s referred to as parallel minor scales can be found by looking for the 6th note of the major scale. For example, the 6th note of the C major scale is A. If you play every note of the C major scale from A to A, then you have the A minor scale. You can do exactly the same thing with pentatonic scales. The C major pentatonic scale and and A minor pentatonic scale use the same notes, so the C major pentatonic runs: C, D, E, G, A, C, and the A minor pentatonic scale runs: A, C, D, E, G, A. The same notes, with the only difference being that the C major pentatonic starts from C while the A minor pentatonic starts from A. Searching for the parallel minor is a useful trick for quickly finding a minor scale using a major scale. Here’s another example: the G major pentatonic scale and E minor pentatonic scales also use the same notes, and this is also true of the F major and D minor pentatonic scales. Another thing worth mentioning about the minor pentatonic scales is that they actually sound a lot bluesier than the major pentatonics. This is because minor pentatonic scales include a minor third and a minor seventh – considered the ‘blue notes’ of Blues scales.

Minor pentatonic scales

Major or Minor?

Now comes the question: say you’re improvising over a piece, when should you use the major pentatonic scale and when should you use the minor pentatonic? There’s a simple rule you can follow so you’re sure: with a major key, go for the major pentatonic. With a minor key, go for the minor pentatonic, It’s that simple. It also can depend on the character of the piece or song, so if a minor seventh pops up, you’re better off using the minor pentatonic. If you can’t quite figure it out, then just try something and your ear will make the choice for you.

Here’s a clip of B.B. King using a minor pentatonic scale to solo during The Thrill is Gone:

See Also…

» Music Notation: Sharps, Flats, and Naturals
» Learning to Play Guitar: Sheet Music, Chords, or Tabs?
» Learning to Play Guitar: Chords for Beginners
» How to Play Basic Piano Chords
» Ukulele for Guitarists: The Four Important Chords
» Chords: Theory and Chord Symbols
» Reading Music: Rhythm, Tempo & Measure
» Reading Music: The Minor Scale & Keys
» How to Tune Your Guitar or Bass
» Reading Music: The C Major Scale
» Learning to Read Guitar Tabs

No responses

No comments yet...

Leave a Reply