Alongside the major and minor scales, the minor pentatonic scale is one of the most popular choices for musicians spanning across any genre and instrument, although it definitely has a special place in the heart of almost every guitarist.
This scale is easy to use in many circumstances, and it even sounds good over major and dominant chords – hence why it is such a popular sound in blues and rock scenarios.
As the name implies (penta), this scale contains 5 notes, as opposed to the common 7 notes that most scales have.
This guide is going to focus specifically on the minor pentatonic scale – you’ll learn about the intervals that the scale contains, how to find its patterns in the guitar’s fretboard, and other interesting concepts you should be aware of.
Throughout this guide, we’ll use the E Minor Pentatonic as an example, but you will be able to apply this information to any other key, since all of the patterns we’ll go over are movable.
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The Pentatonic Scale at a Glance
As stated above, the pentatonic name gets its name from its set of 5 notes. Most scales, such as the major and natural minor scales, have 7 notes instead.
Let’s check which notes exist in the minor pentatonic scale, and compare it with its “parent scale”, which is the natural minor scale.
Once again, we will be using E Minor as our key throughout the article. This is one of the most popular keys among guitarists since you have the open low E string as your root note.
In E Minor, the natural minor scale has the following notes:
- E, F#, G, A, B, C, D; or alternatively: 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7
However, its pentatonic counterpart looks like this:
- E, G, A, B, D; or alternatively: 1, b3, 4, 5, b7
Right off the bat, we can easily notice that the pentatonic scale has had two of the natural minor scale’s notes removed.
The notes that were removed were the 2nd and 6th degrees, which in E Minor correspond to F# and C.
Why Does the Pentatonic Scale Sound so Good?
The number one reason that makes the pentatonic scale such a great tool for improvising and composing is the fact that the notes that “need” to resolve the most are left out of the scale.
In E minor, those notes would are F# and C.
Removing these two notes gives the scale an open kind of sound that isn’t as easy to obtain when using the natural minor scale instead.
It is often said that in music, “there are no wrong notes”, and while it is always possible to change something that will make a certain note sound more musical, some might not sound as good if you land on them in an awkward moment.
The minor pentatonic scale can help you avoid a situation such as this.
Having this set of 5 notes also does something that ends up being an advantage – the scale patterns on the guitar are all two notes per string, which helps in playing faster runs.
You are also left with a scale that has no semitone intervals, which helps you get that distinguishable pentatonic sound.
Let’s compare the E natural minor scale and the E minor pentatonic scale to have a better perspective on their differences:
|Minor Scale Degrees|
|Minor Pentatonic Scale Degrees|
As you can tell from this table, there are no semitone intervals where there usually would be – you go from E to G (instead of having F# in between) and from B to D directly.
One of the most amazing perks of the minor pentatonic scale is that it can sound good over minor, major and dominant chords!
If you’re a fan of the blues, you’ve already heard this scale countless times, alongside the blues scale.
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Minor Pentatonic Scale Patterns on the Fretboard
For you to be able to navigate the fretboard fluently and not have to search for notes while you’re playing, you definitely need to have a solid knowledge and awareness of the guitar’s neck.
To achieve this efficiently, it is great to learn the neck by dividing it into sections that make memorizing the fretboard a more manageable task.
The guitar is organized in a way that allows you to create “enclosures” that have a certain note pattern that you can memorize, and then simply move around when you want to change keys.
Using a method such as this one and sticking to it for some time will allow you to look at the guitar and instantly know where the most important notes are.
This will eventually make you sound a lot better, since you’ll play with more confidence and intention.
One of the most popular methods of learning the fretboard is called the CAGED System, which is what we’re going to look into next.
The CAGED System is a wonderful method of dividing the fretboard into chunks that are much easier to digest (full guide here).
The name comes from the 5 open chord shapes that are the base of the method (C, A, G, E and D, played in their open shapes).
Instead of looking at a diagram that shows you the entire neck and being overwhelmed by all the information, this system divides it into 5 distinct enclosures, or “boxes”.
Once you learn these five divisions and start connecting them, you’ll be able to navigate the fretboard much more naturally.
Memorize the location of the root note on each shape so you can find them more quickly while playing.
The following diagram illustrates the notes that belong to the E minor pentatonic scale throughout the whole fretboard:
Looking at this diagram as a whole, even after removing the 2nd and 6th degrees of the minor scale, it is still a lot to absorb and memorize.
Let’s start by splitting it into our 5 distinct CAGED enclosures.
Our first CAGED position is based off the G Major open chord shape, as seen on the chord diagram below:
Here is the portion of the previous neck diagram that corresponds to the first enclosure. It is found between the open strings and the 3rd fret.
This is definitely the most recognizable minor pentatonic shape, and probably the one that guitar players generally use the most.
The root note appears 3 times in this enclosure – in the 6th, 4th and 1st strings.
Typically, you’d play this shape with your index, ring and pinky fingers, but in this region, the notes that you’d play with your index finger are open strings, but that changes as you find this enclosure again in the 12th fret.
Here’s some tablature that shows you how you can practice this shape, both ascending and descending:
The second position for the E minor pentatonic scale is based on the open E major chord shape, as seen in the diagram below:
Here is the fretboard diagram that corresponds to this shape, when transcribed to E minor.
It’s found between the 2nd and 5th frets.
This pattern does not start with E, the root note, but it’s always a good idea to be aware of the location of the rest of the notes of the scale.
Your root note comes up twice in this enclosure – in the 4th and in the 2nd string.
Here is the tablature that you can use to practice this shape on the guitar, in the key of E minor:
The third position of the CAGED System is based on the D Major open shape, as shown in the following diagram:
When you’re in E minor, this box falls between the 4th and the 8th fret.
Here’s where you’ll find the notes from the E Minor pentatonic scale:
In this enclosure, your tonic appears twice, in the 5th and 2nd strings.
This is a great shape for pentatonic runs like you hear from players such as Eric Johnson.
Check below for a tablature that shows you how to practice this box.
The 4th position of the E minor pentatonic scale is based off the C Major open chord shape, as seen below:
This enclosure can be found between the 7th and 10th frets if you’re playing in E minor.
The root note comes up in the 5th and in the 3rd strings, as seen in the diagram below:
Here is the corresponding tablature, which covers the entire box, ascending and descending.
The 5th and last E minor pentatonic box is based on the A Major open chord shape, as illustrated in the following diagram:
When playing in the key of E minor, this box is located between the 9th and 12th frets.
Your root note is present on the 6th, 3rd, and 1st strings.
Notice that the notes in the 12th fret are the same as you find in the first position.
Everything starts over again in the 12th fret, so the enclosures are the same as from frets 0 to 12.
Lastly, here’s the tablature that shows you how to practice this enclosure.
You should practice all of these boxes individually, with a metronome, starting at a slow tempo (around 60bpm), playing one note per beat.
Start increasing the tempo 10bpm each time, until you memorize these patterns well enough to play them ascending and descending several times without making any mistakes.
When you are comfortable and you’re feeling like you’re quickly identifying the location of the root note in each box, you can start working on connecting them with one another.
Connecting the Enclosures
As you should be able to tell by now, the biggest advantage of using a method such as this one isn’t learning the enclosures individually, but rather being able to connect them seamlessly when composing or improvising.
In order to achieve this level of proficiency, you should first learn the 5 boxes separately, and then analyze which regions have notes in common.
The diagram you see below illustrates all 5 positions that were covered before, and the areas that correspond to their notes in common are highlighted.
The roman numerals refer to the fret numbers.
Connecting these enclosures can be done in a variety of ways, and you should employ those that suit your individual phrasing better.
You can slide from one box to the next one, shift your hand without sliding, or use a different technique altogether.
As well as moving positions within the same key, you should try to practice these enclosures with different keys.
You can either use random keys or try out the ones that you come across more often when playing.
In order to transpose these shapes between keys, you need to know the location of the root notes inside each box, and then you can transpose the shapes accordingly.
For instance, if you’re playing a certain lick in A minor, you can transpose it to B minor by moving the same shape two frets higher!
Having this degree of fluidity is what will allow you to make the most out of the CAGED System.
Final Thoughts on the Minor Pentatonic Scale
As a guitarist, you’re pretty much expected to have a few pentatonic tricks up your sleeve, and minor pentatonic licks are some of the most commonly heard in genres such as blues, rock, and jazz, amongst others.
However, to be able to use the pentatonic scale in a musical way, you must be aware of where all the shapes are, and be able to connect them seamlessly, which is something that can take a long time to perfect.
The minor pentatonic scale is basically the same as the natural minor scale, but with its 2nd and 6th degrees removed, which gives us a 5 note scale that can be described numerically as “1, b3, 4, 5, b7”.
There are a huge variety of musical resources that are based around the minor pentatonic, so you can use this scale whichever way you like the most. This one sounds good over major, minor, dominant chords, and even more!
As always, start by memorizing the individual patterns with the help of a metronome click, and once you feel comfortable, start working on connecting the 5 boxes in between them.