The Pentatonic Scale & How to Play It on Guitar

Do you know what a pentatonic scale is? This article teaches you what it is, and provides some exercises for beginners.

Scales are a crucial part of refining your guitar skills. With practice, you familiarize yourself with positioning along the neck and hone your finger movements. They’re the building blocks for creating melodies, harmonies, and solos. 

So what is a pentatonic scale, and how do they work? Here’s everything you need to start identifying and playing them.

What is a scale?

In music, a scale is a series of notes arranged by pitch. If the notes are structured in an increasing pitch, we call it an ascending scale, and if the notes decrease in pitch, we refer to it as a descending scale. 

Generally, scales span an octave and are octave-repeating, meaning you can transpose the same pattern at a higher or lower octave. That’s because the sequence of a scale is determined in part by the interval between notes. For instance, if you’re playing a scale in the key of G, the following notes will be A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. The most common scales are major, minor, modes, whole tone, chromatic, and pentatonic scales.

Scales are essential for improving your skills. They help you improvise and learn your favorite songs. Scales alone aren’t enough.

Check out our blog Guitar Chords for Beginners and start playing them now!

Major and minor scale

A minor scale is generally a scale with minor third and seventh notes, making them sad or melancholy. With a major scale, we flip the rule–you play a major third and seventh. Major chords sound brighter and happy.

With scales, the possibilities are endless.  Countless scales are available because you can create various moods, atmospheres, and tonal characteristics. 

What is a pentatonic scale?

Basic scales use seven notes, whereas a pentatonic scale only encompasses five notes. Penta means five. Tonic means tone–five tones. Because there are fewer notes, the pentatonic scales are ideal for beginners. 

And just like regular scales, you can break the pentatonic into two variations: the major and minor scale.

Pentatonic scales on Guitar: box patterns.

Before diving into some major and minor pentatonic scales, you need to know about box patterns and how they work.

Box patterns are diagrams that map out a particular scale. In a given box pattern, you see–unsurprisingly–a box. The box represents the neck of your guitar. The top line represents the bottom E (thinnest) string, and the bottom line is the top E (thickest) string.

The look and information provided vary depending on where you find your box patterns. The examples we’re providing you with are from Check them out for additional box patterns!

In the examples below, the circles indicate where you position your fingers. Some diagrams number the circles to tell you which finger to use.

  • 1 – Index finger
  • 2 – Middle finger
  • 3 – Ring finger
  • 4 – Pinky

Depending on the box you’re looking at, some of the circles are shaded or colored. Those are the root notes of the scale. The root note is the home of the scale. In other words, they tell you which note kicks off and ends the scale. Lastly, the ‘*’ indicates the starting fret. 

Major and minor pentatonic scale.

On the surface, the distinction between major and minor chords or notes lies in the sound they create. There’s a technical reason for this. 

You can think of the pentatonic scales as skeletons of the standard heptatonic scales. Instead of playing seven notes, you only play five. By removing notes from the scale, you’re changing the spacing between notes. 

Similarly, differentiating a major from a minor scale lies in the intervals between the notes. 

Major pentatonic

The major pentatonic scale contains five notes from the major scale. You remove the fourth and seventh degrees when playing a major pentatonic scale. In a major pentatonic scale, you play the root, major second, major third, perfect fifth, and major sixth. 

Examples of the pentatonic major scale

Here are some major pentatonic scales you can practice. 

In position one, the root note is a low E string on the fifth fret. These examples span two octaves. In the pentatonic scale, there are only five notes. In position one, if you count from the first root note, there are five notes until the next root or octave. 

pentatonic scale

Before playing the entire pattern, practice playing a single octave. Once you’ve got the flow down, practice ascending and descending the pattern.

pentatonic scale

Minor pentatonic

In a minor pentatonic scale, you play five notes of a minor scale. In this case, you remove the second and sixth degrees. Generally, a minor scale has a minor third and seventh. For instance, when playing a minor pentatonic scale, you play the root, minor third, perfect fourth, perfect fifth, and minor seventh. 

Examples of the pentatonic minor scale

Below are some minor pentatonic scales you can practice on. Notice that the pattern is always the same regardless of the key you play in–it simply shifts along the neck. Take a look at positions one and four. Following the root note on the tenth and fifth fret, the pattern is the same.

pentatonic scale
pentatonic scale

If you want to see more major and minor pentatonic scales, check out

Scale your guitar playing.

Scales play a pivotal role in developing your skills. They make improvisation easy and help you navigate and master finger movements along the neck.

There’s a lot that goes into learning an instrument. It can be tough to know how to proceed when you’re just starting. Feeling like your progress is essential. If you’re feeling a bit lost or are searching for a way to optimize your lessons, Simply Guitar is the perfect tool. The app offers digestible lessons that you can work on practically anywhere. Give it a try today.