Whether you’re just starting out with learning how to solo, or even if you are more advanced, the minor and major pentatonic scales will typically be some of the most common scales you will play.
They are pretty much the most important scales you can kickstart your soloing techniques with. Once you get them under your belt, you’ll recognize that there are countless classic solos that use them, from Stairway To Heaven to Back In Black.
Pentatonic scales are simple because, unlike most other scales or modes, they contain only five notes each (“penta” = five, in case you were wondering). They are very flexible because each of the five notes typically can sound good with any chord in the key you are playing in.
You’ll hear them used in a wide range of music. Minor pentatonic scales are very popular in the blues and rock genres, and a fair amount of classic country tunes is thanks to some major pentatonic workouts!
One thing that makes the major and minor pentatonic scales unique is the fingering patterns. The notes themselves are different, but the note layout on the neck is exactly the same. The only real difference is that the major fingering pattern starts three frets lower on the neck than the minor one does.
Let’s look at the key of A to kick things off, but keep in mind that everything we are talking about can be translated to any other key.
Do you notice the similarities? The only real difference between major and minor (other than the position of the box on the neck) is which notes in the patterns are the root note (the root note is the “primary” note in any key).
Since the fingering patterns are the same, you should approach playing them in the same way. The basic pattern spans four frets, so always use one finger per fret. For example: with the E minor pentatonic use your first finger to play the E note on the 12th fret on the low E string, and every other note on the 12th fret on all of the other strings.
Follow the same for all of your other fingers, playing only the notes on the frets that match up with your fingers. You’ll find that you won’t use your second finger at all (since there are no notes on the 13th fret on any of the strings).
This pattern is one of the easiest to play so it presents a great chance for you to practice other techniques.
Try using alternate picking to go from the lowest note all the way to the highest note. Start slow and deliberate and take care to make sure each note rings out the way it should. Bending and vibrato both work great on the unwound 3rd, 2nd, and 1st strings as well.
Since there are only two notes per string, this pentatonic pattern is perfect for practicing hammer-ons and pull-offs. This is particularly true when playing on the low E and the high E where you would be using your index finger and your pinky. Developing strength in your pinky is often overlooked by beginning players – take every chance you can. Trust us - it’ll make your playing much easier in the long run.
Some of the most popular rock, blues, and country songs ever recorded have used major and minor pentatonic scales (some even use both in the same song, just to mix things up). They are relatively easy to learn and should be a basic staple of your guitar vocabulary.
As you are going along, pay attention to how they all sound in relation to the root note. Once you get familiar with how they work (it shouldn’t take long), then the next step is to try playing over chord changes and see where you can go.
A great place to start here is using a minor pentatonic over a 12-bar blues pattern. Just for reference, in the key of A that is an A chord, a D chord, and an E chord.
Take the time to really get a feel for how pentatonic scales can enhance your playing. You won’t regret it!