Five Positions of the Pentatonic Scale for Guitar

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Five Positions of the Pentatonic Scale

guitar fretboard
Martin Philbey | Getty Images

This lesson will be important to you if:

In the following lesson, you'll learn to play the major and minor pentatonic scale in five positions, all over the guitar fretboard.

What are Pentatonic Scales?

The pentatonic scale is one of the most commonly used scales used in music. The pentatonic scale is used both for soloing, and for basing song riffs around. Guitarists with an interest in learning to play lead guitar must learn their pentatonic scales.

A pentatonic scale consists of just five notes. This differs from many "traditional" scales, which often have seven (or more) notes. The fewer number of notes in the pentatonic scale can be helpful to the beginner guitarist - the scale omits some of the "trouble" notes found in traditional major and minor scales that can end up sounding wrong if not used properly.

Major vs. Minor Pentatonic Scale

One of the beauties of the pentatonic scale on guitar is that the major and minor versions of the scale have the same shape, they're just played in different locations on the fretboard. This can be tricky to understand at first, but will become clear with practice.

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Minor Pentatonic Scale on One String

Minor Pentatonic Scale on Sixth String

In order to learn the minor pentatonic scale patterns all over the guitar fretboard, we must first learn the scale on one string.

Start by picking a fret on the sixth string of your guitar - let's try the fifth fret (the note "A"). Play that note. This corresponds to the first note on the bottom left of the accompanying diagram. Then, slide your finger up three frets, and play that note. Then, move up two frets, and play that note. And, then move up two frets again, and play that note. Now move up three frets, and play that note. Finally, move up two frets, and play that note. This last note should be the octave of the first note you played. If you counted correctly, you should be at the 17th fret of your guitar. Once you've done this, try playing back down the fretboard, in reverse order, until you arrive back at the fifth fret. Keep doing this until you can play the scale pattern by memory.

Congratulations... you've just learned the A minor pentatonic scale. Strum an A minor chord... it should sound like it "fits" the scale you just played. Now, try playing the scale again, except this time, when you get to the 17th fret, try playing up the scale one note higher. Since the first and last notes of the pentatonic scale are the same note (an octave up), you can just begin repeating the pattern to play further up the string. So, in this case, the next note of the scale would be up three frets, or all the way up to the 20th fret. The note after that would be at the 22nd fret.

You can use this pattern to play the minor pentatonic scale anywhere on the guitar fretboard. If you started the scale pattern on the third fret of the sixth string, it would be the G minor pentatonic scale, since you started the pattern on the note G. If you started the scale on the third fret of the fifth string (the note "C"), you'd be playing the C minor pentatonic scale.

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Major Pentatonic Scale On One String

major pentatonic scale on one string

Learning the major pentatonic scale is easy once you've learned the minor pentatonic scale - the two scales share all the same notes! The major pentatonic scale uses the exact same pattern as the minor pentatonic scale, it simply starts on the second note of the pattern.

Start by playing the fifth fret of the sixth string (the note "A"). Play that note. Now, we're going to use the pattern we just learned for the minor pentatonic scale, except in this case, we'll start on the second note from the pattern. So, slide your finger up the string two frets to the seventh fret, and play that note. Now, slide up two frets, and play that note. Slide up three frets, and play that note. Then, slide up two frets, and play that note (you'll note that we're now at the end of the diagram above). Slide up three final frets, and play that note. You should be at the 17th fret (the note "A"). Now, play the scale back down the fretboard, until you arrive again at the fifth fret. You've just played an A major pentatonic scale. Strum an A major chord - it should sound like it "fits" with the scale you just played.

You should spend time playing both the major and minor pentatonic scales. Try strumming an A minor chord, then playing the A minor pentatonic scale up the sixth string. Then, play an A major chord, and follow it with the A major pentatonic scale.

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Pentatonic Scale Position One

Pentatonic Scale Position One

The first position of the pentatonic scale is one that may look familiar to some of you - it looks very similar to a blues scale.

To play the minor pentatonic scale, start with your first finger on the fifth fret of the sixth string. Play that note, then put your fourth (pinky) finger on the eighth fret of the sixth string, and play that. Continue to play the scale, being sure to play all notes on the seventh fret with your third finger, and notes on the eighth fret with your fourth finger. When you've finished playing the scale forwards, play it in reverse.

Congratulations! You've just played an A minor pentatonic scale. The scale we played was an A minor pentatonic scale because the first note we played (sixth string, fifth fret) was the note A.

Now, let's use the exact same scale pattern to play an A major pentatonic scale, which has a totally different sound. To use this pattern as a major pentatonic scale, the root of the scale is played by your fourth finger on the sixth string.

So, to play the A major pentatonic scale, position your hands so that your fourth finger will play the note "A" on the sixth string (which means your first finger will be at the second fret of the sixth string). Play the scale pattern forwards and backwards. You're now playing an A major pentatonic scale. Strum an A major chord - it should sound like it "fits" with the scale you just played.

Once you're comfortable with the fingering, try sliding back and forth between the A minor and A major versions of the scale using this mp3 of a 12-bar blues in A as your background rhythm track. The minor scale sounds more blues-y, whereas the major pentatonic has a more country sound.

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Pentatonic Scale Position Two

Pentatonic Scale Position Two

Here is why it was important to learn the pentatonic scale on one string. We're going to learn how to play the pentatonic scale in the "second position" - which means the first note in the position is the second note in the scale.

We're going to play the A minor pentatonic scale in the second position. Start by playing the "A" on the fifth fret of the sixth string. Now, slide up three frets on the sixth string, to the second note of the scale (the eighth fret, in this case). The pentatonic scale pattern appearing on this page begins here.

Play the first note of this pattern with your second finger. Continue playing the pentatonic scale pattern as outlined in the diagram. When you've reached the top of the scale, play it backwards. Be sure to follow the fingering outlined above, and to memorize the scale as you play it.

You've just played an A minor pentatonic scale, in second position. Getting comfortable with playing this scale can be tricky - although it's an A minor pentatonic scale, the pattern starts on the note "C", which can be disorienting at first. If you're having trouble, try playing the root note, sliding up on the sixth string to the second note, and playing the second position pattern.

To use this pattern as a minor pentatonic scale, the root of the scale is played by your first finger on the fourth string. To use this pattern as a major pentatonic scale, the root of the scale is played by your second finger on the sixth string.

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Pentatonic Scale Position Three

Pentatonic Scale Position Three
In order to play the third position of the minor pentatonic scale, count up to the third note of the scale on the sixth string. To play an A minor pentatonic scale in the third position, start at "A" on the fifth fret, then up three frets to the second note of the scale, then up two frets to the 10th fret, where we'll begin to play the above pattern.

Begin the pattern with your second finger on the sixth string. This is the only pentatonic scale pattern that requires a "position shift" - when you reach the second string, you'll need to shift your hand up one fret. When you play back down the scale, you'll need to change position again, when you reach the third string.

Play the scale forwards and backwards, until you've memorized it.

To use this pattern as a minor pentatonic scale, the root of the scale is played by your fourth finger on the fifth string. To use this pattern as a major pentatonic scale, the root of the scale is played by your second finger on the fourth string.

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Pentatonic Scale Position Four

Pentatonic Scale Position Four
In order to play the fourth position of the minor pentatonic scale, count up to the fourth note of the scale on the sixth string. To play an A minor pentatonic scale in the fourth position, start at "A" on the fifth fret, then count up three frets to the second note of the scale, then up two frets to the third note of the scale, then up two frets to the 12th fret, where we'll begin to play the above pattern.

Play this scale slowly and evenly, backwards and forwards, until you've memorized the pattern. Strum an A minor chord, then play this fourth position of the A minor pentatonic scale... the two should sound like they "fit".

To use this pattern as a minor pentatonic scale, the root of the scale is played by your first finger on the fifth string. To use this pattern as a major pentatonic scale, the root of the scale is played by your fourth finger on the fifth string.

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Pentatonic Scale Position Five

Pentatonic Scale Position Five
In order to play the fifth position of the minor pentatonic scale, count up to the fifth note of the scale on the sixth string. To play an A minor pentatonic scale in the fifth position, start at "A" on the fifth fret, then count up three frets to the second note of the scale, then up two frets to the third note of the scale, then up two frets to the fourth note of the scale, then up three frets to the 15th fret, where we'll begin to play the above pattern.

Play this scale slowly and evenly, starting with your second finger, backwards and forwards, until you've memorized the pattern.

To use this pattern as a minor pentatonic scale, the root of the scale is played by your fourth finger on the sixth string. To use this pattern as a major pentatonic scale, the root of the scale is played by your second finger on the fifth string.

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How to Use Pentatonic Scales

Once you've memorized the five positions of the pentatonic scale, you'll need to begin exploring how to use them in your music.

One of the best ways to start becoming comfortable with a new scale or pattern is to try and create a few interesting "riffs" with that scale. So, for example, try creating a few guitar riffs using the G minor pentatonic scale in the third position (beginning on the 8th fret). Strum a G minor chord, then play with the notes in the pattern until you find something you like. Try doing this for all five positions of the scale.

Using the Pentatonic Scale to Solo

Once you get comfortable using the pentatonic scale patterns, you'll want to try and start incorporating them into your solos, to allow you to solo in one key all over the fretboard of the guitar. Try sliding from note to note in the scale, or bending notes, to help find inspiration. Find a few riffs you like in positions you're not used to playing in, and incorporate those into your guitar solos.

For practice, try using different A minor pentatonic scale positions to solo over this mp3 of the blues in A. Then, try using the A major pentatonic scale positions to solo over the same audio recording, and note the difference in sound.

Experimentation and practice are the key here. Spend lots of time learning this, and take your guitar playing to the next level!