How To Master The Minor Pentatonic Scale
If you want to play blues lead guitar, you need to have a solid grasp of the minor pentatonic scale. This is by far the most commonly occurring scale in the blues. Every famous blues guitarist has used the minor pentatonic scale; from B.B. King, to Eric Clapton to Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Whilst these guitarists of course make use of other scales, the minor pentatonic scale provides the foundation for their playing. And if you want to play blues lead guitar, it will do the same for you too.
The good news, is that getting to grips with the minor pentatonic scale is quite straight forward. And properly understanding how the scale works will allow you to solo confidently over many of the main different keys used in the blues. You can really sound amazing as a lead guitarist whilst using nothing more than the minor pentatonic scale.
Oddly enough, I often find that the pentatonic scales are taught in an overcomplicated and confusing way. I wanted to change that, so here I’ve tried to streamline all of the information out there, and outline everything you need to master the minor pentatonic scale.
Pentatonic Scales In The Blues
The basis of most Western music is the heptatonic scale. This is a scale that is comprised of 7 notes per octave. A pentatonic scale is one that is made up of only 5 notes per octave. Pentatonic scales are ubiquitous within music and appear in all different kinds of genres. But more recently, they have come to be associated predominantly with pop, rock and blues music.
There are two types of pentatonic scale; the major and the minor pentatonic scale. Both of these are important, but the minor pentatonic scale is the more commonly occurring of the two. This is because in the blues you can play this scale over both minor and major chord progressions.
Strictly speaking, you should not mix major and minor scales. This creates dissonance, which is often unpleasant on the ear. But mixing the two when appropriate to do so (I will cover this in more detail on a future article) can create a distinctly bluesy sound. As a result, blues guitarists have been using the minor pentatonic scale over both major and minor chord progressions since the inception of the genre.
The opposite is not true of the major pentatonic scale. You can only use this over a major chord progression. It is partly for this reason that the minor pentatonic scale is so much more commonly occurring. It is also due to the fact that the blues often sounds quite sad. In simplistic terms, minor keys have a sad sound, whilst major keys have a happy sound. It is the former that appears with greater frequency in the blues.
Long story short, getting to grips with the minor pentatonic scale will set you up to confidently solo over many of the main keys used in the blues. The major pentatonic scale is of course also very useful, and I’ll cover that in more depth on my next article. But for now, here’s everything you need to know about the minor pentatonic scale:
The 5 Positions of The Minor Pentatonic Scale
There are 5 positions of the minor pentatonic scale. These positions form distinct shapes over your guitar neck, which remain the same in different keys. The only difference, is the position on the neck on which you play each of the shapes. In other words, you find the same shapes in an A minor pentatonic scale as you do in the key of B minor or D minor. The only difference is where you play the shape on the neck.
This might seem like an obvious point, but it’s worth hammering home. Because once you’ve learnt the different shapes of the scale, you will be able to move them around the neck and solo over a whole range of different keys.
Using the key of A minor as an example, here are the 5 shapes of the minor pentatonic scale you need to learn, along with their corresponding positions on the neck.
This is the easiest and most recognisable shape of the minor pentatonic scale. The shape here starts on the root note of A on the 6th string. This is the first point on the 6th string where there is the note of ‘A’, which is why this is known as the first position of the A minor pentatonic scale. When playing this scale, use your little finger to play the notes that appear on the 8th frets. This will build strength and dexterity in that finger, which is immensely useful for other areas of your playing.
Some of the most recognisable blues solos of all time were formed using shape 2. This shape was particularly popular with B.B. King, who utilised the notes on the top 3 strings in a lot of his lead guitar playing. When practicing this shape, play the first note with your middle finger and use that and your little finger to play the notes on the bottom 3 strings.
Shape 3 is a little bit trickier. This is because you have to shift your hand up one fret (a semi-tone) to account for the idiosyncrasies of your guitar’s tuning. As a result, this position is under utilised amongst a lot of players. But it is a position that is invaluable in my opinion. Getting to grips with the shape will not only help you to connect shapes 2 and 4, but it will ensure that you feel comfortable soloing across the whole fretboard.
Shape 4 is very similar to shape 1, with just minor changes needed to your finger positions on the 5th and 2nd strings. As with a number of the other shapes, make sure you use your little finger for all of those notes that are 3 frets apart. This will help get you into the habit of using your little finger, which a lot of players neglect.
Again, this final position is one of the more under-utilised shapes of the minor pentatonic scale. This is largely because the best notes to bend are played by your little finger, which is a weak finger for a lot of players. Additionally, on the top strings, you have to hit big tone and a half bend if you want to keep in tune. This again can be a bit of a challenge. But it’s definitely worth the effort!
Personally, this is one of my favourite shapes of the minor pentatonic scale. I think it’s a great position either to slide either up to, or down from, one of the other shapes. If you do have the strength to play the big bends on the top strings with your fretting hand, then they also sound brilliant.
Visually, this final shape of the minor pentatonic scale is nice and symmetrical, so it should be quite easy to remember.
A Recap Of The A Minor Pentatonic Scale
If you put all of these shapes together, then you end up with the following 5 shapes in the key of A minor:
The notes outlined in red are the root and octave notes, respectively. In the key of A minor, these are all the notes of ‘A’. These notes would be different if you were playing in a different key (more on this below).
Moving Beyond These 5 Shapes
You may have noticed that the 5 shapes outlined above don’t cover the whole fretboard of your guitar. In the key of A minor, position 1 starts on the fifth fret, and position 5 ends on the 17th fret. So what do you do outside of those 5 positions?
Luckily, the answer is pretty straightforward. You just play the next shape along in the sequence. In other words, once you’ve played shape 5 in the A minor pentatonic scale, you just move back to shape 1. This time though, you will be starting on the 17th fret (an octave higher than you played it before).
Likewise, the shape before shape 1 is always shape 5. So if we stick with our A minor pentatonic example then we can see that shape 5 appears twice – once at the 15th fret (as shown above) but also once starting on the 3rd fret, as shown below:
In this way, once you have a basic understanding of the different shapes of the minor pentatonic scale and how they fit together, manoeuvring around the fretboard becomes quite easy.
The biggest challenge for me when I first started learning the minor pentatonic scale, was how to apply the different shapes of the scale to different keys. It’s great to be able to solo effectively in A minor (which always seems to be the key used when people are explaining the minor pentatonic scale), but it isn’t so great if you want to solo in a different key.
Applying These Shapes To Different Keys
Fortunately, moving the shapes around to play over different chord progressions is also pretty straight forward. You just need to memorise the notes on your 6th string. These are shown below:
Once you’ve memorised the notes that are highlighted above it is simple to apply the shapes of the A minor pentatonic scale to a different key. You just have to follow these 3 easy steps:
1.) On the 6th string, find the root note of the key you’re playing in. In other words, if you are playing in the key of C minor, find the note of ‘C’ on your 6th string. If you are playing in the key of B minor, find the note of ‘B’ on your 6th string, and so on.
2.) That note will be the first note of the first position (or shape) of the minor pentatonic scale.
3.) Once you’ve established where shape 1 is found in any given key, you can use that to inform where the other shapes will appear on the fretboard.
Let’s apply this to the key of C minor. In this key, you would play shape 1 of the minor pentatonic scale starting at the 8th fret. Position 5 would start at the 6th fret, and position 2 would start at the 11th fret. In the key of B minor, position 1 would start at the 7th fret, whilst for D minor it would start at the 10th fret, and so on.
In short, once you’ve found out where position 1 is, you can quite quickly work out the shapes that appear on either side of it. And you can apply this trick to any key.
Putting It All Together…
I cannot stress enough how important it is to have a solid grasp of the minor pentatonic scale. It will provide you with the foundation to becoming a brilliant blues lead guitarist.
Understanding how this scale works and how you can apply it to different keys will unlock your fretboard. As soon as you understand the concept, you’ll be able to ‘meander’ around the neck of your guitar and put together interesting guitar solos.
The key point here, is understanding the concept. I would urge you to take the time to grasp these ideas properly. There is a lot to take in here. And if the minor pentatonic scale is totally new to you, all of this information may feel a little overwhelming.
Try not to get too worried about it. It is much better to take a little longer learning the minor pentatonic scale – but to properly understand it – than it is to rush in and fail to grasp the concept fully.
Practicing The Minor Pentatonic Scale
To crack the minor pentatonic scale, I solely focused on it for about 2 weeks. These were the steps I took to really grasp the concept:
– To start with, I played the minor pentatonic shapes up and down the neck, in each of the different positions in A minor. For the most part I played these scales along with a metronome.
– Once I had a solid grasp of the scales and positions of the A minor pentatonic scale, I put on an A minor blues backing track.
– At first, I started playing the A minor pentatonic scale over the backing track. I moved up and down the neck between each of the different positions.
– Once I had that nailed, I started improvising over the backing track using the A minor pentatonic scale. My aim here was to ‘meander’ across the fretboard and move between each of the different positions as much as possible. This helped me get familiar with the different shapes of the scale across the neck.
– After I felt comfortable soloing in A minor, I repeated the process in B minor and C minor etc. I did this until I was familiar with the different positions of the minor pentatonic scale in these alternate keys.
The process may sound a bit dull and long winded, but in fact it was a lot of fun. For the most part I was just jamming along to a backing track and engraining the concept in that way.
If you’re finding it tricky to remember each of the shapes and apply them in different keys, give this a go. I think it will really help you.
But if you’re still struggling, or if you have any more in depth questions on the subject please do let me know. Drop a note in the comments section, or send me an email on [email protected] I’d love to help!
Also, make sure you keep your eyes peeled for next time. I’ll be covering the major pentatonic scale, it’s different shapes and how you can use it in your blues lead guitar playing.
Good luck guys!