Everything You Need To Know About The Major Pentatonic Scale
One of the best things you can do to improve as a blues guitarist is to learn the major pentatonic scale.
Most blues guitarists have a good grasp of the minor pentatonic scale and it’s various shapes (if you don’t, then fear not – I cover everything you need to know about the minor pentatonic scale here)
Having knowledge of this scale is important, as the minor pentatonic is one of the most widely used scales in the blues. It features in some of the best guitar solos of all time and is used by many of the most famous blues guitarists including B.B. King, Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Yet despite its versatility, you can’t solely rely on the minor pentatonic scale. This will limit your musical vocabulary and your playing will become stale and repetitive.
The first step to improving your musical vocabulary is to learn the major pentatonic scale. My lead guitar playing totally changed when I properly got to grips with it.
In essence, understanding and using the major pentatonic scale will double your musical vocabulary. It will make your blues guitar soloing more varied and interesting and will allow you to mix both the minor and major pentatonic scales in your solos. And it is here that the magic happens.
Mixing the different pentatonic scales over a major chord progression will add colour and variety to your solos. It will open up a whole new palette of notes that you can choose from and will totally transform your lead guitar playing. Just listen to some of most iconic blues guitar solos that mix the two – Crossroad (Live at Winterland), All Right Now and Red House.
With that goal in mind, here is everything you need to know about the major pentatonic scale.
The 5 Shapes Of The Major Pentatonic Scale
Just like the minor pentatonic scale, there are 5 shapes of the major pentatonic scale. The great news is that these are not new shapes at all. In fact they are exactly the same shapes as those that appear in the minor pentatonic scale. The only difference is that they appear in different positions on the fretboard.
In even better news, there is a simple trick to remember these positions. In any given position, all you have to do is slide your fretting hand down 3 frets. This will shift you from the minor to the major pentatonic scale. In other words, the notes you’re playing will change, but the shape will remain the same. For an in depth explanation on the minor pentatonic, check out my last article here. But to refresh your memory on the 5 shapes of the minor pentatonic scale (shown here in the key of A minor), they are as follows:
The shapes of the major pentatonic scale are exactly the same. They just appear in different positions on the neck. So sticking as we did last time in the key of A, the 5 shapes of the major pentatonic scale are as follows:
This first shape appears in the same position as position 1 of the minor pentatonic scale. But you’ll notice that the shape of the major scale is the same as shape 2 of the minor pentatonic scale. This is one of my favourite positions of the major pentatonic scale. Try adding in the C# at the 6th fret on the 4th string when you’re soloing using the minor pentatonic. It will add some variety to your solo and produce a beautiful bluesy sound.
Shape 2 presents a lot of interesting opportunities for mixing the minor and major pentatonic scales. Just look at the notes that appear on the top 2 strings. These overlap with those that appear in shape 2 of the minor pentatonic scale. Once you’re familiar with the shapes of both scales, you can add colour to your soloing by shifting between the two shapes with little chromatic runs.
This shape is often neglected amongst players, as a result of the shift you have to make with your fretting hand on the upper strings. But don’t let this put you off. The notes on the G and B strings offer some great opportunities for producing beautiful B.B. King style blues licks.
Personally, I find shape 4 a little trickier to use effectively in the major pentatonic. But that isn’t to say you shouldn’t try! There are lots of nice licks to be found in this shape, and you can transition between shapes 3 and 5 by sliding up to, or down into this position. When practicing this scale, make sure you use your little finger on the D and G strings. This will build strength in your little finger and get you in the habit of using it properly.
Shape 5 is the easiest and most recognisable shape of the major pentatonic scale. It mirrors shape 1 of the minor pentatonic scale, but is just 3 frets lower. Again make sure that you are playing this shape using your little finger. Use it on the low E, B and high E strings, where there are 3 frets separating the notes.
How To Use The Major Pentatonic Scale In Blues
Unlike the minor pentatonic scale, there are two main rules you should follow if you want to solo effectively using the major pentatonic scale. These are as follows:
1.) You can’t use the major pentatonic scale when you play in a minor key. Don’t try, because it will not sound good.
2.) You want to avoid playing the major pentatonic scale over the IV chord of a 12 bar blues progression. This is particularly the case if the IV chord is a dominant 7 chord like A7, D7 etc. This is because the major pentatonic scale contains certain notes that clash with those in the IV chord. This creates dissonance, and not in a pleasant bluesy sounding way.
The most effective way to use the major pentatonic scale, is to combine it with the minor pentatonic over the course of a 12 bar blues progression.
As you may be aware, the most common 12 bar blues progressions are made up of the I, IV and V chords.
So if we stick with key of A major, the chords that are most likely to occur in a 12 bar blues are A7 (I), D7 (IV) and E7 (V). Over this chord progression you can mix the minor and major pentatonic scale in the following ways:
A7 (I Chord)
Both the minor and major pentatonic scale will sound great over the I chord. You can use either scale over this section of the 12 bar blues or mix the two. This will take a bit of getting used to, but is one of the best ways of adding colour and variety to your lead guitar playing.
D7 (IV chord)
When the progression changes from the I chord to the IV chord, you should stick to the minor pentatonic scale. This is because there are certain notes within the major pentatonic scale that clash with those in the IV chord. In the key of A major for example, the major pentatonic scales contains the note C#. This note clashes with the C note in the D7 chord and produces a dissonant and unpleasant sound.
E7 (V Chord)
In a standard 12 bar blues progression, you have much less time to play over the V chord. Typically there is only one bar of the chord for you to play over before the progression moves back to the I chord. So it can feel like the chord stops almost as soon as it has started. Having said that, I think the V chord is a great place to mix the minor and major pentatonic scales. Working your way down the neck of the guitar can work well over the V chord. And if you mix the minor and major pentatonic scales, you can introduce an element of chromaticism. This is a bit of a departure from standard blues, and will give your playing a nice jazzy feeling.
The above is of our course just a guideline. There are innumerable different ways to mix the minor and major pentatonic scales. Experiment and find what works best for you. Hopefully though, these suggestions will help to give you a blueprint you can use whilst you’re getting to grips with the different scales.
Beyond The Shapes Of The Major Pentatonic Scale
Although the shapes of the major pentatonic scale are the same as in the minor scales, you can’t play the same phrases in both scales and expect them to have the same effect.
We have already established that when you shift one of the shapes of the minor pentatonic scale down 3 frets, you move from the minor to the major pentatonic scale. The implication of this is important to understand. Because although the shape of the scale is the same, the notes within it are not.
You need to know what these new notes are, so that you are able to target particular notes within your solo to produce a particular affect.
Have you ever wondered why some guitar solos sound amazing, even though the notes and phrases within the solo are quite simplistic? It is because certain notes and phrases sound good over certain chords. When the chords change, the notes that sound good over those chords also change.
Learning which notes sound good over any particular chord or chord change is difficult. It is one of the major factors that separates decent blues guitarists from truly amazing blues guitarists.
There is enough subject matter there for a whole other article (As well as a lifetime of practice!) But for the purpose of this discussion, you need to know that this is why you can’t just copy the phrases you use in the minor pentatonic, when you’re playing the major pentatonic scale.
Instead you have to learn where the notes are within the shapes of the major pentatonic scale. A big part of this is developing your ear. Start by jamming along to blues backing tracks. After a while you will start to learn which phrases work well in both the minor and the major pentatonic scale. But to help you on your way, below are the shapes of the major pentatonic scale, with their respective root notes highlighted:
The crucial point to take away here is that whilst the root notes remain the same in both the minor and the major pentatonic scales, all of the notes around them change. This is why you have to change your finger patterns and phrases when you’re using the major pentatonic scale.
Some Closing Thoughts…
In my opinion, learning the major pentatonic scale is the first step to becoming a much better and more versatile blues guitarist. It will greatly increase your musical vocabulary, which will make your playing more interesting and varied.
Not only will this make your lead guitar playing sound much better, it will make your playing more enjoyable.
Take your time to get to grips with the ideas outlined here. The shapes of the major pentatonic scale are not as familiar as those of the minor pentatonic. There are also a few rules you need to follow when you use this scale. To gain a full understanding of how you can use it effectively, really focus on it during your practice. I outlined my practice routine for the minor pentatonic scale in more detail here. I followed the same routine when learning the major pentatonic scale and it really helped. Give it a go and see how you get on.
If you have any questions about any of the above, drop them in the comments or send me an email on [email protected] and I’m happy to help.