As modern guitarists, who primarily play contemporary music, most of us are familiar with pentatonic guitar scales in general and the pentatonic minor scale in particular.
This guitar scale, though seemingly basic, has broad applications.
Not only is it the foundation for blues and rock soloing, it also frequently shows up in country, bluegrass and jazz as well as other styles.
So, what exactly is a pentatonic minor scale?
Note: Checkout our primer article for a full step-by-step of basic guitar topics.
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Pentatonic Minor Scale Definition
In short, it’s a five note sequence that closely resembles a natural minor scale. However, two of the more cumbersome and awkward notes (the 2nd and 6th) are removed.
This makes it a bit of a “one size fits all” scale.
Since it is less specialized than other minor scales and modes, it can be more readily applied to a variety of situations.
For those of you with a more advanced theory background who might want further explanation, the 2nd and 6th degrees are what differentiates Aeolian (natural minor), Dorian and Phrygian modes.
The remaining five notes of each mode are the same and make up the pentatonic minor scale.
It becomes apparent how eliminating these notes increases the pentatonic minor scale’s application.
Adding Variety Using the Pentatonic Minor Scale
One of the ways to add variety to your playing is to take this basic pentatonic minor scale and apply it in unconventional ways. We’ll learn common ways to superimpose this scale over chords which, on the surface, don’t appear to have any kind of relationship. Let’s take a look at how this scale fits over a minor 7th chord and then look at how we can apply it in different ways to get new sounds.
Superimpose Over a Minor 7th Chord
While minor pentatonics can be used over lots of different types of chords, we’re going to focus on minor chords for the time being.
Here is a first position A minor pentatonic scale (image below).
This is the most common fingering for a pentatonic minor scale.
Below each note is indicated how that note relates to the Am7 chord:
Notice that four of the five notes in the scale are the chord tones that make up the Am7 chord (Root, 3rd, 5th and 7th).
(Note: For minor 7th chords the 3rd and 7th are generally referred to as b3 and b7. For the sake of simplicity we will refer to them as the 3rd and 7th).
The additional note (D) is the 4th or also often referred to as the 11 of the chord.
This is the most common application of the pentatonic minor scale over minor and minor 7th chords. You’ll notice that by utilizing the scale in this manner we quickly begin to get many of those sounds that are typical of rock and blues solos.
5th of the Chord
An easy way to generate new sounds is to play the minor pentatonic from the 5th of the chord.
Wes Montgomery and Pat Martino are two great examples of jazz guitarists who have often used this technique. Over Am7 that would mean that we’re going to play an E minor pentatonic scale.
Not a theory wiz and have difficulty finding the 5th of a chord?
Not a problem.
Play an A power chord (A5). Notice that it’s comprised of two notes.
One is the root, A, and the other note is an E (the 5th). You may voice or play the power chord in such a way that you’re playing several different strings; however, the only two distinctly different notes are A and E.
Below is a fourth position E minor pentatonic scale and how it relates to Am7:
If you look closely you ‘ll see that there is only one difference between the A minor pentatonic and an E minor pentatonic scale guitar tab. The C note has been replaced with a B.
We’ve lost the 3rd of the chord (the C) but now have the 9th (B). This is a commonly used embellishment or extension for many different chords.
Below you’ll find a short riff that features this note.
Record yourself playing the chord or have a friend play it while you play the riff:
It certainly gives a different feel and color.
This particular sound is utilized by lots of guitarists. Carlos Santana is a good example of how the 9th from this scale can give your lines a different harmonic effect.
B minor Pentatonic Scale and Am7 Chord
Another cool pentatonic application is to play a B minor pentatonic scale against the Am7.
This is an easy concept to apply since you’re only playing a scale one whole step (two frets) above the root of the chord.
Notice how this has an almost ethereal effect:
Used in this way, the scale gives a slightly unresolved sound that still works.
Why is this?
We’ve lost one more chord tone (the 7th, G) and replaced it with yet another extension (the 13th, F#).
By focusing on the extensions (sometimes called upper partials) of the chord, we begin getting away from the foundations of the chord (Root, 3rd, 5th and 7th). In doing so we start outlining the notes (9th, 11th, and 13th) that are only tangentially related to the chord.
Here’s a lick demonstrating this approach:
Let’s briefly summarize the approaches that we’ve covered so far:
- Play a minor pentatonic scale off of the root of the chord. (A minor pentatonic over Am)
- Play a minor pentatonic scale from the 5th of the minor chord. (E minor pentatonic over Am)
- Play a minor pentatonic scale a whole step (2 frets) above the root of the minor chord. (B minor pentatonic over Am)
Considerations and Combining Techniques
Let’s take a few moments and discuss some important things to keep in mind.
First, these techniques sometimes sound best when they’re combined.
Check out this example where I’m going back and forth between a second position A minor pentatonic and a fourth position E minor pentatonic.
This creates a really interesting effect by bringing out the differences between the scales:
Here is another example combining A minor and B minor pentatonic scales.
Because they share fewer notes, the contrast is even more pronounced:
Secondly, some of you may have read the references to first, second and fourth position scales and wondered what in the world is he referring too.
Using positions is a way of organizing the pentatonic minor scale into what are often referred to as box patterns.
Remember that minor pentatonic scales have five notes. Each note can be used to start the scale.
Consequently we have five different positions or patterns that cover the entire length of the fingerboard. A complete discussion of this is beyond the scope of this article but memorizing the five positions is well worth the time.
A good teacher can help you get these scales under your fingers and explain them in more detail.
It provides a convenient way to organize a lot of material.
There are of course other ways to organize these scales. However, using this five position method breaks the scale down into manageable fingerings which are particularly useful for superimposing them upon one another.
Applying to Higher Frets
Another useful thing to keep in mind is that these techniques sometimes work better when you’re playing higher on the fingerboard.
If another guitarist is playing chords lower on the fingerboard, playing minor pentatonic scales in the same range can sound a bit muddy and dissonant.
I typically apply these techniques by using fingerings that are at least in the middle of the neck or higher. By creating some distance between the chords and the scales the extra notes (9th, 11th and 13th) really begin to sound like extensions of the underlying harmony.
Your Own Ears
Finally, the most important thing to keep in mind is to use your own judgment and let your ears decide what sounds good to you.
Just because something is theoretically possible doesn’t always mean that you want to utilize it.
We all have differences in taste and often times things are just not aesthetically pleasing to us.
However, do bear in mind that it can take awhile for a new harmonic approach to grow on you. Work on it a little every practice session before making a final decision.
Jerry Garcia, John Scofield and Jimmy Herring are just some of the guitarists that come to mind who utilize these techniques.
Listening critically to these players as well as other world class guitarists might provide some new insights into how these ideas can be applied.
Flickr Commons Image Courtesy of Kmeron