For this week’s blog post, we are looking at lead guitar, and more specifically the minor pentatonic scale. Everyone including acoustic guitarists will benefit from learning the minor pentatonic scale – it’s so useful.
Did you know there are 5 common shapes for playing this scale?
Well, we are not learning them all in this lesson. I actually think unless you are a very advanced guitarist and can play lead guitar seamlessly and in your sleep it’s actually mostly a waste of time to learn all these 5 shapes.
Yes, it’s controversial I know.
I often get new students coming to have lessons with me who can’t really play lead guitar, have no idea what sub-divisions are, don’t know how to play any of their favourite guitar solos, BUT know all the 5 common shapes for the minor pentatonic scale.
Oh dear. What I will do in this situation is tell them to ignore 3 of those 5 shapes for now and then take them through some fundamentals of playing lead and melodic guitar.
Minor pentatonic scale – guitar positions
Forgetting 3 of the 5 shapes, leaves us with 2. These two are VERY important and serve slightly different roles.
Shape 1 is your lower octave scale and shape 2 is your higher octave scale. This allows you to cover a larger range of notes when playing solos.
The problem with the other shapes is that they don’t encompass any extra higher or lower notes, and thus are less useful. Many of the notes are repeated at the exact same pitch.
For instance, in the key of E minor one of those shapes uses the E note at the 7th fret, 5th string and another shape will use that exact same note at the same pitch located at the 2nd fret, 4th string.
Can you see how that is less useful than playing an E note at the 7th fret, 5th string and then playing the exact same note BUT at a higher pitch at the 14th fret, 4th string?
How to read scale charts
- The horizontal lines are our strings, the top line is string 1, the bottom line is string 6
- The vertical lines are our frets.
- The blues dots are the root notes (most important notes)
- The black dots are the other notes in the scale
The root notes are very important in music and particularly in scales. The root note is the note the scale is named after.
For example, if we were to play the scale so the bottom blue note is on string 6, fret 5, that note would be A – therefore the scale would be called the A Minor Pentatonic scale.
The first shape we will learn is the standard minor pentatonic shape. It is the shape that most people learn first.
Go ahead and play the scale through from there – the 5th fret of the 6th string.
Once you are comfortable with the above typical scale, have a go at learning this next slightly more unorthodox (but still very useful) shape.
Play this shape so that the lowest root (blue) note is on the 12th fret, 5th string. If you do so, you will still be playing the A Minor Pentatonic scale, but at a higher octave – cool, huh?
This means you can use shape 1 for the lower notes in a guitar solo, and for those piercing powerful high notes step up and use shape 2.
In technical terms, both shapes use two octaves. The lower octave in shape one (which is from the lowest blue note up to the second blue note) is unique to shape one.
The 2nd octave from shape one (from the second to third blue notes) is the same set of notes as in the lowest octave of shape two.
The higher octave of shape two is unique to shape two.
This all means that we have two shapes which contain:
- One low octave (used in shape 1)
- One middle octave (used in both shapes)
- One high octave (used in shape 2)
You can see in the image below how both shapes in the same key relate to each other.
Below, we have the two shapes combined to give us what I call ‘The Essential Pattern’.
The Essential Pattern is what I drill (in nice way of course) to all my students looking to get good at lead playing.
You can see the two box shapes that we have learnt above and see how they are combined on the fretboard.
Basically, as long as you play box shape #2 a full 7 frets higher than box shape #1 you will be in the same key.
That is one easy way to look at it.
Or if you know the notes on the fretboard well, and know the root notes in the scale shapes (as shown by the blues dots above), then you can easily find the key you are in.
Once you have mastered both box shapes and can seamlessly switch between the two, then its time to learn the transitional notes as shown in orange below.
These are extra ‘Brucie bonus’ notes if you like, and should not be learned until you are comfortable with the other two shapes.
How to learn the minor pentatonic scale on the guitar
Below is how I recommend you learn the minor pentatonic scale on the guitar for maximum efficiency and minimum fuss.
- Learn box shape #1 – Get comfortable playing it in your sleep and learn where the 3 root notes are
- Learn box shape #2 – Again get comfortable playing it in your sleep and learn where the 3 root notes are
- Switch between the two shapes – Be able to improvise over a backing track doing 4 bars on each shape. At the end of the 4 bars jump to the next shape
- Learn the transitional notes for more options – these notes are great to slide between allowing for a seamless way to move from one shape to the next
- Truly learn and understand where the notes are on the 6th and then 5th string
- Combine your knowledge of the notes on the fretboard and where the root notes are in this pattern to be able to play ‘The Essential Pattern’ in every key.
Take your time learning ‘The Essential Pattern’. Do not try to rush.
Don’t just play the scale up and down. Learn lots of melodies and guitar solos that use this scale, improvise, be comfortable playing legato, vibrato and string bending within the scale.
There are limitless amounts you can do with this shape.
If you have learnt all the 5 common shapes in the past, don’t worry it’s not wasted time, keep on practising them but my advice is to prioritise this pattern for maximum benefit. For everyone else, start off by learning this pattern. Once you get this pattern down you can expand upon it some more.
Make sure you can play the essential pattern in your sleep, can improvise and jam with it in multiple keys and then consider learning the other box shapes – but only do so if or when you ever feel like this pattern isn’t enough.
Believe me though, you can play some mesmerising guitar with the above pattern alone!
Download a free wall chart of ‘The Essential Pattern‘, print it out and stick it up next to your guitar to help you learn it inside out.
This is actually pretty brilliant. You’re “tricking” people into learning four of the shapes without actually realizing it. Well, five if you can visualize how to wrap it around again. But thinking of it as just two shapes with transition notes seems much easier. Very cool.
Thanks Leisha! Glad you have found it so useful. Yep, learning the two shapes and then the transitional notes is so much easier. It allows you to get on with the actual playing of the awesome parts that use the scale right away rather than spending lots of time trying to remember it!
Amantes do Rock says
Great content on my site also write about it.
I will watch over your work.
What are some well known guitar solos that use this scale?
Hey Billy, there are hundreds. Most of the old school blues stuff by legends such as B.B. King and similar artists use this scale. A lot of classic rock players such as Angus Young, Tony Iommi used it a lot too. `Paranoid` is a great example.
Love they logic and the way this is laid out. Are there similar charts for major pentatonic and blues pentatonic? Is minor the main stay?
Thanks Ron. I tend to use the minor scale much more than the Major scale, but yes, you can definitely use the same principles for any scale. I`ll create a chart showing the Major pentatonic scale in a future post. Thanks for the comment!
Great article Danny! I’ve read a couple of other articles about the pentatonic, and they have all appeared to be all-over the place. Not very nice, no, but you’ve managed to explain it so that one could understand it. Not only that, now, learning it also appears to be doable after reading your text. Maybe because you cut away all the intermediate stuff and instead focused on the basics. Which is nice. Thanks!
Hi Linus, Thanks for the comment. I totally understand what you`re saying. When I started out I used to buy Total Guitar, a great magazine but it always assumed you knew the basics, was very frustrating. I always aim not to make the mistake those guys did and explain things properly so thanks for letting me know you found this useful.
Thor Camargo says
Ok so I think this information is incredibly valuable – but I’m having a hard time putting this into practice – especially when we get into the transition notes.
Could someone link a video that shows some examples and breaks down how to use the shapes and transitions?
Hi from down under.
Great article- thanks. Would appreciate the Major scales.
Cheers, I will get on it. 🙂
Thanks for this great post. I’ve been jamming with a print out of this pattern next to me for some time, it’s been a wonderful learning tool.
I too would love to see a similar post about a major scale.
All the best,
When do I learn it?. I am learning strumming soul and fingerpicking. ?
Hi Cherry, you can learn it when you are ready for it. It`s never too soon to give it a crack. You can then add it to your playing and go over it regularly to keep on top of it. 🙂
Danny , you nailed it for me .. ! ! ! ! …finally a concept that ignores all the overwhelming but helpful stuff online. You have “cut to the chase” and provided a logical concept to work towards – rather than information overload. To have the Kahunas to state that it is actually OK to use the 2 similar shapes of the 5 is commendable. I was struggling with learning all 5. I can now see the relationships more clearly and where the roots are. Thanks for the epiphany …
What Frets are your patterns on…
You can play them on any fret, John. As long as box 2 is 7 frets higher than box 1 as shown in the `Essential Pattern` diagrams they will be in the same key and will work fine.
Chris Roper says
I’m the last person to cause trouble….but here we go!
Your boxes seem to be at odds with “other” boxes I’ve come across.
Box ! matches But “your” box 2 is “their” box 3. “Their” box 3 is as “your” box 2 and “their box 2 lies in between with the root on the second string.
……or is it me?
Thank you and cheers,
Dan Thorpe says
Hi Chris, no problem. You are right that many others use different numbers for the box system. In this example, I was referring to box 1 and box 2 in relation to the diagrams and not what others call them. Other people would have a box in between my box 1 and 2, which would make this box 2 and therefore what I called box 2, become box 3.
There are 5 box shapes to use overall but the two in my diagram are the most useful and practical in my experience.
Hi Dan, I have just started to learn the A minor pentatonic. And I like your approach very much. But I have one question: What fingers should I use when I play box 2? Especially at the end on the high e string, there are three notes to play.
Thank you very much.
Dan Thorpe says
Hi Andreas, thanks, that`s great.
Ideally, you would play the notes on the high E string with the index, ring and pinkie. This could be a massive stretch so if you can`t do it, just move your hand as you travel up the neck.
As a bonus, you could also play these notes index, pinkie and pinkie again which wouldn`t give you much speed but could work when sliding up to the higher note.
Good luck and feel free to experiment with which fingers give you the most fluency.
Hi Dan, thanks. At the beginning, it seemed to be impossible for me to use the pinkie. Hence, I asked. But now, after a couple of weeks, it’s no problem anymore.
Dan Thorpe says
Awesome, glad to hear it, Andreas! Goes to show, good proper practice, goes a long way. Well done!
Wow…As Leisha already explained this is a great ‘Trick’ for learning the other patterns just by adding the transitional notes. I’ve spent years struggling with this and you have just opened my eyes with this explanation. I have also tired this in Gm and Fm using the same approach and it sounds great….thanks again!