Some of the most popular scales that musicians use to write music and improvise are the major and natural minor scales, as well as some of their modes, but there’s another scale that is used by players everywhere – the minor pentatonic scale.
This scale is distinguished by having 5 notes instead of the usual 7.
It can be used in several contexts, and it even sounds good over both major and minor chords, as well as others, such as dominants.
This guide will focus on the A minor pentatonic scale specifically.
You’ll learn all the essential theory, as well as where and how to play it on the guitar.
In any case, be aware that what you’ll learn here are tools that you can later apply to every other minor pentatonic scale, after you transpose it to a different key.
What is the Pentatonic Scale?
As you’ve just seen, the reason why it is called pentatonic is the fact that it has 5 notes.
Let’s analyze the minor pentatonic scale and see exactly what sets it apart from the natural minor scale, its “parent scale”
Once again, the information you’ll see refers to the A minor pentatonic scale, but by shifting your hand, you can use all of the following examples with any other minor pentatonic scale.
The A natural minor scale has the following notes:
- A, B, C, D, E, F, G; or alternatively: 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7, if you’re thinking in scale degrees.
On the other hand, the A minor pentatonic looks like this:
- A, C, D, E, G; or alternatively: 1, b3, 4, 5, b7.
To go from the natural minor scale to its pentatonic counterpart, you need to remove two notes from it.
The removed notes are the 2nd and 6th degrees, which correspond to B and F in the key of A minor.
Why is the pentatonic scale so useful?
The reason that mainly makes the minor pentatonic scale such a versatile resource for writing and improvising is the fact that the notes that would otherwise “ask” for resolution have been removed.
In A minor, these notes are B and F. These are also the scale notes that form a tritone interval.
Having a scale that doesn’t include these notes gives it a more open sound, and the scale patterns are also easier to learn and connect.
The fingerings you’ll learn about all have two notes per string, which helps when you’re playing faster runs throughout the neck.
Lastly, this scale doesn’t have any semitone intervals, which adds to its characteristic sound.
Let’s compare the A minor pentatonic scale to its parent scale with the help of the table below:
|Minor Scale Degrees|
|Minor Pentatonic Scale Degrees|
Once again, you can see how after removing the 2nd and 6th degrees, there are no semitone intervals where they would usually be.
The minor pentatonic scale is so versatile that it can sound good over minor, major and dominant chords!
If you listen to blues music, you’ve surely heard this scale many times, as well as the blues scale, which is the same as this one, but with one extra note.
The A minor pentatonic scale throughout the neck
In order to be the kind of guitarist that knows exactly where he is, regardless of the key they’re playing in, you need to develop a solid knowledge and awareness of the fretboard.
This is one of the characteristics that separate pro players from the rest.
To get to that point, you need a good method that will allow you to divide and learn the neck in smaller sections. This will make memorizing the fretboard a much simpler task for you.
The guitar works in a way that makes it possible to imagine “enclosures” between certain frets, each having their own note pattern that you can memorize and then transpose to a different key.
By sticking to a method like this, you’ll most definitely notice improvements over time. Your objective is to be able to look at the guitar and know where your most important notes are throughout the whole neck.
This knowledge will surely make you sound better with time, since you’ll play every note with more confidence.
The method that will be covered is called the CAGED System, which you will learn about in the next section.
The CAGED System is a fantastic method that takes the fretboard and divides it into 5 different unique enclosures, or “boxes”.
Its name comes from the chord shapes around which the enclosures are built. These are C, A, G, E and D major chords, in their open shapes (next to the nut, with open strings ringing).
To visualize it better, we will take a diagram that illustrates the A minor pentatonic scale throughout the neck, and then we’ll analyze each of the 5 boxes individually.
As soon as you have a solid knowledge of them and start connecting them as you play, you’ll sound much better, and you won’t need to be “fishing for notes” anymore!
A good starting point would be to memorize the locations of the root note of the key in each enclosure.
Here’s the location of all the notes that belong to the A minor pentatonic scale (open strings up to 13th fret):
Before we dive into the CAGED System, there is something quite interesting about the enclosures we are about to see: they are the same ones from the C Major pentatonic scale, due to the fact that these are relative scales – meaning they share the same notes.
So, the bottom line is that you will play the exact same notes, but you’ll have a different root note (A instead of C).
This means that if you have ever studied the C Major pentatonic scale, you will learn how to play in A minor much faster!
The C Major scale also has the same notes as you see here, but it also contains the 2 notes that we’ve removed in order to obtain the pentatonic scale.
Now, let’s split this large diagram into our 5 CAGED enclosures.
The first CAGED position we’re going to look at is built from the G Major open chord shape, as you can see in the chord diagram below:
When we take this to our fretboard in the key of A minor, we get this enclosure, which is found between the 5th and 8th frets.
This shape is hands down the most recognizable (and probably the most played) minor pentatonic shape there is.
It is very easy to play and there are a million blues and rock licks that can be effortlessly played without having to leave this enclosure.
Your root note appears 3 times inside this box – in the 6th, 4th and 1st strings.
This is also a shape that starts on your root note. The next shapes might start on other notes which aren’t the root.
You should know how to play the scale starting from the root (from A to A, at least in one octave), but you should also practice the entire box, so that you develop muscle memory and realize where the rest of the important notes are.
Play this shape the following way:
- Index finger covers the 5th fret;
- Ring finger covers the 7th fret;
- Pinky finger convers the 8th fret.
Here is a tablature that will help you learn and practice this shape, both ascending and descending:
Moving on to our second position, we’ve got an enclosure built upon the E Major open chord shape, just like the diagram below is demonstrating:
And below this line, you’ll see a fretboard diagram that represents this enclosure, when playing in the key of A minor.
You can find this box between the 7th and 10th frets.
This is one of the patterns that do not start on your root note. Once again, you have to know how to play this scale from A to A (starting on the 4th string), but it is important that you know the full shape.
The root note appears twice here – in the 4th and 2nd strings.
Check out the tab below for instructions on how to play this enclosure from top to bottom the right way:
Our 3rd CAGED position is based on the D Major open chord shape, which is represented on the diagram below:
In A minor, this enclosure can be found between the 9th and 13th frets, as the diagram below shows you.
On this one, you can find your root note twice – in the 5th and 2nd strings.
Once again, same drill: learn how to play the full enclosure ascending and descending, but learn how to play the scale from A to A as well.
Let’s check out the tablature that illustrates this enclosure:
Our 4th CAGED position is built upon the C Major open chord shape, as seen on the following diagram:
In A minor, this position can be found between the open strings and the 3rd fret (or also between the 12th and 15th frets, one octave higher).
The root note appears twice – in the 5th and 3rd strings, as you can see on the diagram below:
Next, let’s take a look at its corresponding tablature:
If you start playing this from the 5th string instead of the 6th, you’re starting on A (your root note), so keep that in mind for when you need to start a musical idea with it!
Lastly, our 5th CAGED position comes from the A Major open chord shape, just like the next diagram shows you:
When we transpose this shape to A minor, this enclosure falls between the 2nd and 5th frets.
The root note appears three times here – on the 5th, 3rd and 1st strings.
And to end this section, here’s the corresponding tablature so you can learn and practice this box:
If you want to start this one on your root note, simply refrain from playing that first note (G on the 3rd fret of the 6th string), and you’ll be playing this shape starting with the note A!
In order to practice all of these 5 enclosures you have just seen, you should set a metronome to a slow tempo such as 60bpm, and play only one note per beat – playing fast should not be your objective by now.
Then, play through these boxes with the help of their corresponding tabs.
Once you’re comfortable with 60bpm, increase the tempo by 10bpm and keep repeating this process until you are able to play it relatively fast.
After that, it is time to work on connecting all of these enclosures together!
Connecting all the minor pentatonic shapes
Of course, the main goal of learning these 5 enclosures is being able to connect them and move freely throughout them while knowing exactly what notes are nearby. This will take your playing to another level!
The easiest way to connect them is to first check which notes are shared by every adjacent enclosure.
The diagram you have below has the A minor pentatonic scale across the neck, as well as highlighted regions where two neighboring enclosures share some notes. The roman numerals refer to fret numbers.
You can employ several different strategies when it comes to connecting these enclosures with one another. Depending on what you’re playing and the kind of feel you’re looking for, go with the one that suits you best.
For example, you can use slides, or simply shift your hand. You can also travel the neck using arpeggios covering several octaves.
One very important thing to retain: while all of this knowledge is specific to A minor, the real deal here is being able to transpose these enclosures to any other key.
That is why it is so important to memorize the location of the root note in each enclosure. After you know that very clearly, it will be easy to start playing any of those enclosures in any key that you’d like to play.
Practice this by calling out random keys and seeing if you can identify where each of these boxes are located.
This kind of knowledge and fluency is the ultimate reward of dedicating enough time to studying the CAGED System, and it will definitely take you playing to the next level!
To sum it up, mastering the pentatonic scale should definitely be high up on your to-do list as a musician. Minor pentatonic licks can be heard everywhere and guitarists sure like them a lot, as you can sound like a million dollars without having to get too crazy!
In any case, as easy as it might be when compared to other more complex resources, you still have to put in the hours to make it work.
You need to develop a great spatial awareness of your fretboard, memorize the shapes you’ve learned, know where the most important notes are, and finally, be able to connect those enclosures fluently.
If you are familiar with the natural minor scale, then the pentatonic scale is the same, except for the 2nd and 6th degrees, which are removed.
This leaves us with a 5 note scale that can be described as “1, b3, 4, 5, b7”, which refer to the scale degrees.
There is an immense variety of ways to apply this wonderful scale, whether it is over plain minor chords, major, dominant, and more!
As it was said before, take your time with the individual enclosures first, and then move on to connecting them. Follow the tips that were given alongside the diagrams and tabs on this article!