The Pentatonic Minor scale


Recall that a scale is a collection of notes within an octave usually not played at the same time. (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)

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 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.)

Recall that a minor chord is a chord made up of the notes 1,b3,5. (Building a context lesson)

A minor scale is a scale that contains a minor chord built on its root note. In other words, the scale contains 1,b3,5.

So, a pentatonic minor scale is a scale of five distinct notes with a minor chord built on the 1. It is a five note scale with the notes 1,b3,5, and any two other distinct notes.

THE Pentatonic Minor scale we are discussing (and everyone else talks about) contains the notes 1,b3,4,5,b7. It's step pattern is m3-W-W-m3-W. In the key of Am, it would be the notes A-C-D-E-G.

The pentatonic minor scale belongs to a modal family of scales that includes the pentatonic major scale and 3 others (more on this in pentatonic major lesson.)

Let's start by learning the 5 moveable positions we've been studying (E-shape, D-shape, C-shape, A-shape, G-shape) (see lesson on major chords)

Pentatonic minor "E-shape" (root note on 6th string)

|-1-|---|---|b3-|
|-5-|---|---|b7-|
|b3-|---|-4-|---|
|b7-|---|-1-|---|
|-4-|---|-5-|---|
|-1-|---|---|b3-|

Pentatonic minor "D-shape" (root note on the 4th string)

|---|b3-|---|-4-|
|---|b7-|---|-1-|
|-4-|---|-5-|---|
|-1-|---|---|b3-|
|-5-|---|---|b7-|
|---|b3-|---|-4-|

Pentatonic minor "C-shape" (root note on the 5th string)

|---|-4-|---|-5-|---|
|---|-1-|---|---|b3-|
|-5-|---|---|b7-|---|
|---|b3-|---|-4-|---|
|---|b7-|---|-1-|---|
|---|-4-|---|-5-|---|

Pentatonic minor "A-shape" (root note on the 5th string)

|-5-|---|---|b7-|
|---|b3-|---|-4-|
|b7-|---|-1-|---|
|-4-|---|-5-|---|
|-1-|---|---|b3-|
|-5-|---|---|b7-|

Pentatonic minor "G-shape" (root note on the 6th string"

|---|b7-|---|-1-|
|---|-4-|---|-5-|
|-1-|---|---|b3-|
|-5-|---|---|b7-|
|---|b3-|---|-4-|
|---|b7-|---|-1-|

These shapes will allow you to play in box positions across the neck.
Recall that you can use "lead patterns" to move through a scale up or down the neck (pent.maj.lesson). Here are two such patterns for the pentatonic minor scale:

|---|--|---|---|---|---|---|-5-|---|---|b7-|---|-1-|
|---|--|---|---|---|-1-|---|---|b3-|---|-4-|---|---|
|---|--|---|---|-5-|---|---|b7-|---|---|---|---|---|
|---|--|-1-|---|---|b3-|---|-4-|---|---|---|---|---|
|---|--|-5-|---|---|b7-|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
|-1-|--|---|b3-|---|-4-|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|

|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
|---|---|---|---|---|-5-|---|---|b7-|---|-1-|
|---|---|-1-|---|---|b3-|---|-4-|---|---|---|
|---|---|-5-|---|---|b7-|---|---|---|---|---|
|-1-|---|---|b3-|---|-4-|---|---|---|---|---|
|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|

Breaking it down to two strings we can come up with two patterns for standard tuning (whose strings are tuned in perfect 4ths [6 to 5, 5 to 4, 4 to3, 2 to 1] and a major third [3 to 2]).

For a perfect 4th:

|---|---|-5-|---|---|b7-|---|-1-|
|-1-|---|---|b3-|---|-4-|---|---|

For M3:

|---|---|---|-5-|---|---|b7-|---|-1-|
|-1-|---|---|b3-|---|-4-|---|---|---|

And regardless of tuning, on a single string we have:

|-1-|---|---|b3-|---|-4-|---|-5-|---|---|b7-|---|-1-|

(useful for tapping and playing in any tuning)

Ok. So practice (and memorize your scales), practice, practice your scales. I'd start with two shapes- oh say "E-shape" and "A-shape" and memorize those first. Then add another shape to practice, and concentrate on that till it's memorized, then switch positions between the three for awhile, then add a 4th one, etc.
Sing with every note you play. I can't emphasize this enough. It is the practice that will lead you to the place where you can play what's in your head.

Here are some things you can do while you're learning/after you've learned your scales: (some of this is scale specific, some of it can be applied to all scales. For more ideas see may 24ths lesson).

1.) Let's start by learning to improvise with a limited palette. Pick two adjacent strings of one shape, let's say the middle two strings of the "A-shape". That's 4 notes. Spend about 20-30 minutes just playing those 4 notes in different orders at different speeds in different rhythms. Sing with every note you play. Eventually you will be able to play those 4 notes from random singing (of those notes only), and be able to play what you sing (of this limited palatte). When this happens add an adjacent string and start over> this exercise will familiarize you with the scale and help create an ear-mind-finger connection that's necessary for total improvisation.

2.)You can use pentatonic minor as a substitution for other minor scales. You can use it to substitute for other minor scales that contain the same notes within them. Here are some other minor scales:
Pentatonic minor = 1,b3,4,5,b7
Aeolian = 1,2,b3,4,5,b6,b7
Dorian = 1,2,b3,4,5,6,b7
Phrygian = 1,b2,b3,4,5,b6,b7
Harmonic minor = 1,2,b3,4,5,b6,7
Melodic minor (Jazz minor) = 1,2,b3,4,5,6,7
Gypsy minor (Oriental minor) = 1,2,b3,#4,5,b6,7

So you you can use pentatonic minor as a substitution for aeolian, dorian, or phrygian since those three scales contain the same notes (1,b3,4,5,b7) within them. You would not; however, use pentatonic minor to substitute for harmonic minor, melodic minor, or gypsy minor since the 7's would clash. (also in gypsy minor the 4's would clash)

3.)You can use pentatonic minor to solo over various chords and progressions. Pentatonic minor can generally be used over the following chords: minor, m7, m add9, m6, m6/7, m7/11, m9, m7b9, m11, m13 (use the same "1" for the chord and scale. e.g. use C# pentatonic minor over C#m7, etc.). You can also substitute pentatonic minor for aeolian, dorian, phrygian scales.
As for progressions, if it contains a minor chord or some extended chord with a minor chord in it (ex. m9), try playing the pentatonic minor with the same letter name over the progression. Hopefully, this will be an "inside" choice (no notes clashing). If you do find a note that clashes, you could try omiting that note from the scale you play.

4.) Use pentatonic minor as an "outside" scale over a major chord or a "7" chord. Often heard in blues and classic rock. Try playing a pentatonic minor over a major chord.
major chord = 1,3,5
pentatonic minor = 1,b3,4,5,b7
major chord + pentatonic minor = 1,b3,3,4,5,b7
= 1,#2,3,4,5,b7
It creates a 7#9 or 11#9 sound.
7#9 = 1,3,5,b7,#9
11#9 = 1,3,5,b7,#9,11

Jimi Hendrix did much to popularize the sound of the 7#9 chord in rock (although it was already much used in jazz). I've heard people refer to 7#9 as "that Hendrix chord". You hint at this chord by playing pentatonic minor over a major chord.

5.) Creating licks/runs/fills/riffs using pentatonic minor. I will define the above terms in the following way:

fill: a melodic piece that fits into a hole left by another melodic instrument. It could be a voice that stops singing the line, and then the guitarist plays a couple of notes in the spot where the singing stopped. Try listening to George Harrison's fills in "I'm looking through you" by the Beatles. (also "Dirty woman" by Pink Floyd)

runs: usually a quick pass through the scale (in whole or in part) straight through or in an articulation. But they usually go through one octave.

lick: a lick is much like a fill but rather than filling in for some other melodic instrument, its kinda filling in holes in the rhythmic section (strumming, fingerpicking,etc.) Many guitarists (B.B.King comes to mind) will hold a rhythm , fall into a lick on some transition, and then fall right back into the rhythm or a different rhythm. Licks are generally played over one or two chords.

riffs: a riff is more of a rhythmical device than the previous three things. Riffs are often heard in place of strumming or fingerpicking/arpeggiating. They are often heard in heavy metal. One example (out of thousands) would be the beginning to "Pour some sugar on me" by Def Leppard. I'm sure many out there could come up more recent examples. (but i'm fairly sure that one uses pentatonic minor)

Until we discuss them again, just keep your ears open as you listen to music and try to differentiate between: strumming, picking, fingerpicking, runs, licks, riffs, bass lines. type the above words into a search engine and see what you can find. "the Guitar Handbook" by Ralph Denyer (an excellent book if short on examples) has some licks for rock/pop/blues in the playing section. I'd heavily recomend that book. Check it out of your library when you get the chance.

There are several books on the market for playing riffs/licks. It would be worthwhile to pick one up (maybe through an inter-library loan). When approaching a book written in standard notation, you can greatly accelerate your learning by transposing the letters into numbers. This saves you from possibly doing twelve times the work.

As long as I'm on the subject, as someone who spent 4 years in daily lessons learning the guitar by standard notation (and at that time unable to jam, though I could sight-read classical music), it is my opinion that teaching someone to spend their time learning all twelve keys for everything is damaging to the student's morale, potential , and knowledge. It is also my opinion that writers who write out every key for everything they teach are merely trying to pad their books to make it look like they're offering more than they really are. That's all I have to say about that.

And oh yeah, you've now learned 8 out of the 12 chromatic notes. Here they are in the relative positions we've been learning.

"E-shape"

|b7-|---|-1-|---|-2-|b3-|-3-|
|-4-|---|-5-|---|-6-|b7-|---|
|---|-2-|b3-|-3-|-4-|---|-5-|
|---|-6-|b7-|---|-1-|---|-2-|
|b3-|-3-|-4-|---|-5-|---|-6-|
|b7-|---|-1-|---|-2-|b3-|-3-|

"D-shape"

|---|-2-|b3-|-3-|-4-|
|---|-6-|b7-|---|-1-|
|-3-|-4-|---|-5-|---|
|---|-1-|---|-2-|b3-|
|---|-5-|---|-6-|b7-|
|---|-2-|b3-|-3-|-4-|

"C-shape"

|-3-|-4-|---|-5-|---|
|---|-1-|---|-2-|b3-|
|-5-|---|-6-|b7-|---|
|-2-|b3-|-3-|-4-|---|
|-6-|b7-|---|-1-|---|
|-3-|-4-|---|-5-|---|

"A-shape"

|-4-|---|-5-|---|-6-|b7-|---|
|-1-|---|-2-|b3-|-3-|-4-|---|
|---|-6-|b7-|---|-1-|---|-2-|
|b3-|-3-|-4-|---|-5-|---|-6-|
|b7-|---|-1-|---|-2-|b3-|-3-|
|-4-|---|-5-|---|-6-|b7-|---|

"G-shape"

|---|-6-|b7-|---|-1-|
|b3-|-3-|-4-|---|-5-|
|---|-1-|---|-2-|b3-|
|---|-5-|---|-6-|b7-|
|---|-2-|b3-|-3-|-4-|
|---|-6-|b7-|---|-1-|


Peace,
Christopher Roberts
snglstringtheory@aol.com


How do I change all those numbers to letters (for notes, chords, etc.)? Here's a transposition chart simianmoon.com/snglstringtheory/guitar/8theory3.html

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Last updated January 1, 2003
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