Among all the scales played on the guitar, the pentatonic scale has a special place. For more than five decades, it has been the “scale of choice” for may musicians.
The reason for this is because the pentatonic (as most guitar players refer to it) forms the basis for playing all types of popular music, from blues and some jazz to rock and alternative.
Its influence on popular music is enormous, which is why every aspiring guitarist wants to learn how to play in it.
What is the pentatonic?
The pentatonic (from the Greek pente and tonos), as its name suggests, is a scale consisting of five notes – two notes less than in seven-note scales, both major and minor.
What is very interesting about it is that it is found in a large number of musical traditions around the world. This may explain its global appeal and the influence it has had on world music during the late XX century.
In one form or another, the pentatonic scale has been present from ancient times, as it occurs in Native American traditions, sub-Saharan Africa, the music of Southeast Asia, as well as certain times of early European music, such as Gregorian chant.
What makes it to appealing?
The fact that the pentatonic has only five tones actually makes it more powerful and applicable than its seven-note counterparts. If for example, you play a minor harmony, it would be impossible to play a major seven-note scale over it, because you would be off key. Vice versa, you cannot play a minor seven-note scale over a major harmony, because the dichotomy will not work in your favor.
The pentatonic, on the other hand, will sound just right in over any chord progression, be it a minor or a major one. There is no need for you to adjust the scale to a specific harmonic framework – the pentatonic takes care of itself, and works instantly. This is the basis of its lasting appeal.
The Different Types
Basically, there are two types of the pentatonic: major and minor. The major pentatonic consists of the first, second, third, fifth and sixth note of a major scale.
The minor pentatonic also consists of these five notes, as the major pentatonic does, but there is one slight difference: the first tone in this scale (usually called the tonic) is three half-notes down in comparison to the major pentatonic.
Here is one example: the C major pentatonic has notes in this exact order, C – D – E – G – A.
The C minor pentatonic has the same notes, but they are arranged in a different way, A – C – D – E – G. Notes that are used in a minor pentatonic are the first, minor third, fourth, fifth and minor seventh of a scale.
How to memorize the pentatonic scale for the guitar?
When it comes down to memorizing this scale for guitar playing, it comes down to this: you should learn the positions, not the notes.
Unless you’re a professional guitarist, there is no need to bother yourself with the notes. Guitar playing is a skill based on finger positions, and that is the best and the easiest way to develop your playing.
There are a couple of so-called boxes or fretboard positions for the pentatonic scale, and that is all you need to learn it. Once your fingers get used to the exact positions, playing the pentatonic scale will come to you naturally, and you won’t even think about it.
How to play in the pentatonic scale?
As we mentioned, the pentatonic is used extensively in blues, rock, and alternative music. If you’re keen on playing these genres, the pentatonic is perfect for it.
Once you become comfortable with the pentatonic scale and the boxes, you can go on and learn a couple of riffs. A riff is a sequence of notes used as the musical theme of a song; the majority of riffs are composed within the pentatonic.
A good way to perfect your playing is to use special techniques, such as bending, pull-offs, and hammer-ons because they will enable you to give extra flair to your soloing, as they go hand-in-hand with the pentatonic scale.