The Guitarist’s Guide: the Importance of Pentatonic Scales

What is a pentatonic scale, and why should I care?

As a guitarist, your world of options expands with every form of scales you can learn. One of the most commonly used forms is the pentatonic scale. It is used in jazz, rock, blues, and gospel music, as well as folk music from throughout the world.

So what are pentatonic scales, and why should a guitarist learn them? This article will explain everything you need to know about these scales.

The definition

The pentatonic scale is simply a five-note scale. It says so right in the name: penta = five; tonic = tone. This is two notes shy of the normal seven-note major and minor scales, which creates a more open and less linear sound. This can actually be a good thing, because it means that it’s harder to play “bad” notes — notes that, although they’re within the key, may not fit well against any given chord in the progression. The pentatonic scale uses just the most universal note choices.

The two basic forms of pentatonic scales are:

Major Pentatonic

Consists of the 1st – 2nd – 3rd – 5th – 6th notes of a major scale

Minor Pentatonic

Consists of the same 5 notes of a major pentatonic scale but its tonic (first note of the scale) is 3 semitones below the tonic of the major pentatonic scale. For example, the C major pentatonic (C – D – E – G – A) has the same notes as the A minor pentatonic (A – C – D – E – G), but arranged differently. The first note or tonic of the A minor pentatonic scale (=A) is 3 semitones (half steps) lower than the first note of the C major pentatonic scale (=C). It uses the 1st – minor 3rd – 4th – 5th – minor 7th notes of a scale.

Why a new player should perk up and learn those scales

First of all, the pentatonic scale is something that you can learn almost immediately and yet will take you the furthest. It has fewer notes than other scales, yet it plays nice with them all.

Second, by learning pentatonic scales, you get a better understanding of how scales — and all musical pieces in general — are formed. With this understanding, your playing will improve by leaps and bounds.

Finally, the reason guitarists (and any musician, really) should learn scales is that they are groups of notes that sound really good together and can be used to make up both solos and melodies.

The benefits of knowing your scales

The better you know your scales, the more versatile of a player you become. Even if you are playing a song with a totally different scale at its base, you can play the parts of the pentatonic scale right over the top and it will still sound great. This is because the pentatonic scale is the foundation for literally every other scale out there!

What does this mean to you as a budding guitarist? It means that you will have a built-in improvisational hack. Practicing your scales — slowly at first — will ingrain the patterns and “feel” of each key into your brain. Do you want to be “that player” who can accompany anyone, anywhere? Know your scales!