The Pentatonic major scale

Recall that a scale is a collection of notes within an octave usually not played at the same time. (May 3rd's lesson)

Recall also that we are using numbers to describe notes in relation to the root note ( the letter used in a particular chord/scale/etc.)(Building a context lesson)

Recall that a major chord is a chord made up of the notes 1,3,5. (Building a context lesson)

Recall that a step pattern of a scale is the pattern of the notes in the scale (strictly ascending). (Building a context lesson)

Now, a pentatonic scale is a scale made up of five distinct notes and their octaves. (Note: C is distinct from D, but C# is not distinct from Db.)

A major scale is a scale that contains a major chord built on its root note. In other words, the scale contains 1,3,5.

So, a pentatonic major scale is a scale of five distinct notes with a major chord built on the 1. It is a five note scale with the notes 1,3,5, and any two other distinct notes.

THE pentatonic major scale we are discussing (and everyone else talks about) contains the notes 1,2,3,5,6. Its step pattern is W-W-m3-W-m3. In the key of C, it would be the notes C-D-E-G-A.

One of the first things we can do with the pentatonic major scale is to create modes out of it. Using the step pattern as a template we can create modes by takingthe first interval in the step pattern and moving it to the back, and then interpreting these 5 modes using numbers. We then get:

WWm3Wm3 = 1,2,3,5,6
Wm3Wm3W = 1,2,4,5,b7
m3Wm3WW = 1,b3,4,b6,b7
Wm3WWm3 = 1,2,4,5,6
m3WWm3W = 1,b3,4,5,b7

The first mode is our parent scale (the pent.maj. scale), the 2nd mode is sometimes refered to as the egyptian scale, and the 5th mode is commonly called the pentatonic minor scale. (I've yet to see use of the 3rd or 4th modes and refer to them as pent.mode#3 and pent.mode#4.) Although these modes can be seen as having the same notes with an emphasis on different notes, it's better to understand the distinctive flavor that each scale/mode imparts. Try playing through each scale/mode based on the same root note to hear the differences.

So, first let's try learning the pent.maj. scale in the 5 moveable positions we've been learning. (E-shape, A-shape, D-shape, C-shape, and G-shape) (see lessons on major chords, and simple progressions)











Note: the E,A,and D shapes would have to be slightly modified to play them open. Also if you'll examine the shapes here, it might clarify where the major chord is (the 1,3,5's) and how the pent.maj. fits around the chord.

These shapes will allow you to play in box positions (recall that the positions wrap around the neck in the following pattern: E-shape to D-shape to C-shape to A-shape to G-shape back to E-shape).

By combining two or three shapes together we can come up with lead patterns ( a way of moving up and down the neck in a scale rather than just across the neck). So you could learn these as a way to travel between two unconnected shapes (just one example of their use).



Going further, we could break them down to two adjacent strings and find that (because of standard tuning) there are two patterns for playing a pent.maj. scale within an octave. One for strings 6 to 5, 5 to 4, 4 to 3, and 2 to 1 [based on the tuning of a perfect fourth]. The other pattern for strings 3 to 2 [based on the tuning of a major third]. Here you go.

For two strings seperated by a P4:


For two strings seperated by a M3:


And finally, regardless of tuning we could play on a single string:


(this is useful for tapping, or playing any fretted instrument in any tuning)

OK. So now you're practicing your scales. What can you do with them? How about:
1.) Playing them in different articulations.
2.) Creating Bass Lines.
3.) Using them as a substitution for other major scales.
4.) Using them to solo over progressions.

Using Articulations
An articulation is a patterned way of playing through a scale.
The easiest articulation is to play straight through the scale 1-2-3-5-6, etc.
You could play in groups of three notes. 1-2-3-2-3-5-3-5-6-5-6-8,etc.
You could play in groups of four notes.
1-2-3-5-2-3-5-6-3-5-6-8-5-6-8-9, etc.
Articulations need not be continuous or ascending, the pattern could involve skipped notes, or be based on a different type of pattern. Consider one going down and the up (broken up to clarify the pattern). |1-6-1-2-3|2-1-2-3-5|3-2-3-5-6|5-3-5-6-8|
You can play articulations in any shape. It is a good way to learn a fingering for a scale.

Creating Bass Lines
One of the things scales are good for is creating melodies. These melodies could be in a high, middle, or low range. When they are in a low range, we often refer to them as bass notes or bass lines. In a group setting, these melodies might be played by a bass guitarist, piano player, tuba player, etc. We could play notes connecting chordal tones in a progression, or we could create scalar based passages over a particular chordor the whole progression (and we could play a riff/lick/ostinato pattern that repeats regardless of the chords).
Let's look at an example of connecting chordal tones in a progression. Suppose I have a I-IV progression. In the key of G it would be G-C. G contains the notes (G,B,D). C contains the notes (C,E,G), and the key of G contains the notes (G,A,B,C,D,E,F#,G). The simplest bass line would be to play the G note over the G chord, and then to play the C note over the C chord. We can create a simple bass line connecting the two by playing the notes (in the key) in between them, any or all. So we could play the notes G-A-B (in order) over the G chord, and then play the C note over the C chord. Or we could pick G-A over the G chord, and C over the C chord, or G-B over the G chord, etc. We could try G-B-A over the G. We could use other notes, such as G-B-A-D over the G chord and then C over the chord. How about C-D-E over the C chord? You achieve a different sound by playing a different note in the bass than playing the root. Try playing the 3's instead of the root note. Play B over the G, and E over the C chord. You could then choose notes to go from B (over the G chord) to E (over the C chord). etc.etc. ...
We could create scalar based passages.We could do this on a per chord basis or over several chords. staring with our previous example I-IV (in G). we could play G pent.maj. over the I chord and C pent.maj. over the IV chord. Consider the first five notes of "Wish you were here" by Pink Floyd. It's open G pent.maj. played 1-2-3-5-6. those heavily familiar with Pink Floyd should note the the exact same notes in the same order are the first five notes of "your possible past" but with a different rhythm. In fact, many of Roger Waters bass lines are based on the pent.maj. or the pent.min. scales.
The other possibility is to play the pent.maj. over the whole progression (I-IV), without being too concerned with which chord you're on.

Using Pentatonic Major as a substitution for other major scales
Consider the following major scales/modes:
Ionian = 1,2,3,4,5,6,7
Lydian = 1,2,3,#4,5,6,7
Mixolydian = 1,2,3,4,5,6,b7
Spanish Major = 1,b2,3,4,5,b6,b7
Pentatonic Major = 1,2,3,5,6

You could use Pentatonic major as a substitution for ionian, lydian, or mixolydian, since all of these contain the pent.maj. scale within them. The spanish major; however, contains a b6, so you wouldn't use a pent.maj. to substitute for it. Why would I want to substitute a scale for another scale? Sometimes when I jam with friends on songs I don't know (or don't want to solo on the same scale throughout the song) it keeps me from hitting "outside" notes that I might not want.

Using Pentatonic major to solo over a progression
How do I solo? That's a complicated question. discussing all the nuancescould easily fill some magazine column for a couple of decades and not exhaust the subject. So let's start simply and save more for later. Here are a couple of ideas to get you started. All the following assume you know the progression you're soloing over and you're making an "inside" choice of scale to solo with. So how does one know which chords go with which scales? You can find a scale sylabii from different sources. I would recomend Jamey Aebersold's line of play-along jazz recordings.( They include a scale sylabus in each book. his eries is a good place to develop soloing in a jazz style. The principles can be applied to ther musics as well.
Generally you can play pentatonic major (using the same 1 for the root of chord and scale) over the following chords: major, 6, 6/7, 7, maj7, add9, 9, maj9, 6/9, 11, maj11, 7/11, 13, maj13. You can substitute pent.maj. for ionian, lydian, and mixolydian.

Some soloing ideas:
1.) Get out a tape recorder. Press record. Strum the progression and sing a melody over it. When you're done, rewind, and pick out the melody on your guitar note-for-note. you could TAB it out or write it down in any fashion that you can look at and understand what's written. Then practice this on the guitar with either a friend or a recorded strumming pattern of the previously recorded progression.
2.) Don't be afraid to repeat notes. "One note samba" by Antonio Carlos Jobim is a good example of what can be accomplished with one note. I've also heard Neil Young play one note repeatedly building up tension in it. Usually when someone sings there are notes in a row which get repeated. Soloing is a way of singing (expressing yourself) through the instrument.
3.) Pick a small range of the scale pattern and master that, then move on. I would recommend picking one position, and changing two adjacent strings (only). Spend 10-30 minutes playing only these 4 notes and see what they sound like together, how do the fingers move? what sounds/moods does it evoke? Just let your fingers flange over the notes until it's burned into your fingers and brain what these four notes sound like/feel like. Sing with what you play. It shouldn't be too long (using such a small palate)before you can play what you sing in your head (assuming you're singing only these 4 notes). When you get to that point, add another string adjacent to the first two, and repeat.

Any questions? Remember you can use a transposition chart ( to turn I-IV, 1-3-5, etc. into chords/notes you'll recognize C-F, C-E-G, etc.

Christopher Roberts

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Last updated January 1, 2003
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