Pentatonic scales as well as the whole concept of scales, have gotten a bad rep in the past few years. Among music scholars, many find that the pentatonic scale is a shortcut for guitarists. In fact, depending on your definition of scale, this view may or may not be true.
Let’s start with a definition of scale. Simply put, a scale is a collection of notes, sequentially in ascending or descending order. Usually a list of notes within a scale defines a key, or tonal center. The argument that the pentatonic scale may be considered “not a scale” is rooted from the fact that we may be simply taking the diatonic scale, otherwise known as the major scale, and simply deleting the dissonant notes. The major scale incorporates only whole steps or half steps between adjacent scale tones. This creates two half steps in that scale, which show up between scale degrees 3 and 4, as well as between scale degrees 7 and 8. The most popular version of the pentatonic scale deletes the 4th note and the 7th note, therefore leaving us with a 5-note pitch collection which tends to be easy to hear and sing, as there are no half-steps in the scale.
For guitar players, this makes for fairly easy fingerings for the “scale”, yielding two notes per string when we play in a 4-5 fret hand position. The notes of the pentatonic scale don’t explain everything, as a C Major Pent scale could be yield melodies that work in the C Major tonality as well as the F Major tonality, as well as the G Major tonality, among others. It’s for this reason that we may want to add more notes, or even use parallel pentatonic scales within a musical example in order to please the listener’s ear. That said, many examples of pentatonic scales can be found in Celtic music, Hungarian folk music, West African music, African-American spirituals, Gospel music, Folk music, Jazz, Blues music, Rock music, as well as in the compositions of classical composers such as Debussy, Chopin, Dvořák, and Stravinsky. More pentatonic composition can be found in the jazz compositions of Art Tatum, Chick Corea, and Herbie Hancock. The pentatonic scale is far from a “rock guitar scale”.
That’s a lot of reading. Let’s get some of this on your instrument. We’ve already said that the pentatonic scale is the major scale with the 4th and 7th notes removed. Below are the 5 unique fingerings of the scale on the guitar. Each fingering starts on a different scale degree. We’ll use the key of C, with the scale fingerings starting on the G note, the A note, the C note, the D note, and finally the E note.
Take particular notice of the roman numeral fret/position markers. These pentatonic fingerings correspond with the CAGED method of chords, and with their corresponding major scales. Assuming you’ve read my previous articles on the CAGED chords, then you should know where the roots of these pentatonic scales are. In the A Form scale, look for the A Form barre chord right in the middle of the scale fingering. Do this with the other forms, too. The G Form barre chord in the G Form scale, The E Form barre chord in the middle of the E Form scale, etc.
One way we can tell that this scale is not only to make things easier for guitar players is to see that musical pioneers on varied instruments have also made great use of the pentatonic scale. As forementioned, Herbie Hancock, Debussy, John Coltrane, etc. Saxophonist extraordinaire Jerry Bergonzi wrote a whole book on the uses of pentatonics. One of his many patterns and formulas for playing the pentatonic has also been heavily used by guitarist Jimmy Herring. The pattern ascends the pentatonic pattern, skipping the 2nd note down, then ascending from the 3rd note to the 4th note, skipping back to the 2nd note that we had missed, and continues the cycle from the 3rd note down. This never seems to identify in words very easy, so check out the example with tablature below:
Learn this pattern using all 5 pentatonic fingerings. Go slowly to get the idea of the pattern (skip down, step down, skip up, step down). This will really help solidify your finger knowledge of the patterns, and give some great useful pentatonic licks, to boot.
This one may be a bit more accessible and popular. It’s certainly been used often by Jimmy Page, among others. Again, work this pattern out for all five pentatonic fingerings, and then we can work them through other keys later. Have fun with pentatonics!