Posted by: worshipguitarguy | January 26, 2007

Making the Most of Practice: The Pentatonic Minor Scale

Scales are a ton of fun.  Some musicians would rather get a root canal than sit around and play mindless patterns for hours on end.  After all, scales by themselves don’t make cool music, unless you’re trying to play Doe a Deer from the Sound of Music Soundtrack.  But scales do serve an important purpose.  All that mindless noodling around for hours on end do things to you, even if you never realize it. 

So how do these mindless patterns help you?  Well first, it subconsciously programs in the sounds of different notes you can work with while playing.  It’s much like learning a new language.  You can learn the words in your head, but until you program those words in your subconscious, you’ll always be thinking about what you’re saying instead of communicating freely.  The same holds true with learning scales.  Every time you go up and down that fretboard, you’re programming in musical ‘words’ so you can recall them without thinking when you’re playing.  So to start this programming process out, let’s take a look at one of the most common scale forms in rock guitar, the pentatonic minor.

The Pentatonic Minor Scale:  First of all, the pentatonic minor scale get’s it’s name from the fact that it only has five notes in it, (unlike the concert major scale which has seven.)  The pentatonic minor scale is used throughout the world, in many forms of music, but it’s particularly known as the scale which forms the foundation of American blues music.  In time, it made it’s way into modern rock based music, with a huge boost from guys like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Page. 

Now here’s the Pentatonic Minor scale:

pentatonic-positions.gif

E Minor Pentatonic Position 1 MP3
E Minor Pentatonic Position 2 MP3
E Minor Pentatonic Position 3 MP3
E Minor Pentatonic Position 4 MP3
E Minor Pentatonic Position 5 MP3

How to Read This Diagram:
This may look confusing at first, but it is actually real simple.  These five positions show you how to play the scale over the entire neck.  (After going 12 frets, the scale positions begin repeating again.)  To understand how the positions tie together, if you look at the bottom of one position, and the top of the subsequent position, you’ll see that the pattern shape is the same.  Those notes are the ones the two positions have in common. 

For example, let’s take the Pentatonic Minor scale in the key of E.  Starting with position 1, since we know a guitar is tuned to E, then the scale begins with open notes.  Position 2 begins on the third fret, (the first note on the low E string), Position 3 begins on Fret 5, Position 4 begins on Fret 7, and Position 5 begins on Fret 10.  At the end of Position 5, you’re on Fret 12, so you go back to Position 1 and start over again.    (In the key of G, position one starts on the third fret, the key of A begins on the fifth fret.)

The red dots indicate the root note of the scale, in the case of E minor, the dots would be all the E notes.

How to Practice Scales:
If you’re fairly new to the idea of learning scale positions, here’s something I’ve done (and still do.)

Start on a Monday and learn position 1.  Then on Tuesday, work on memorizing position 2, while briefly reviewing position 1, Wednesday learn position 3, and review the other two briefly.  Keep following this pattern until you get to the weekend, and use what practice time you do have to go back over and review all five positions. 

Thoughts on Practice:
Shredders Beware:  80’s guitarists give us bad examples of how to approach learning scales.  When you start learning scale patterns, don’t make it your goal to see how fast you can play them.  Instead grab a metronome, set it to 80 bpm or so, (or lower!) and slowly go through each note, up and down the scale.  Instead of speed, focus on hitting each note cleanly, and minimizing the amount of work you do with both your right and left hands.  When picking the notes, focus on using both downstrokes and upstrokes, while making sure your picking hand is moving as little as possible.  With your fretting hand, focus on keeping the notes as clean as possible and try to make your finger and hand movements as efficient as possible.  This means keeping your fingers fairly close to the fretboard as you move through the notes so you have small distances to travel between notes.  The key to speed in playing is great technique, once you get technique down, you’ll notice that your speed will come effortlessly.  Don’t believe me?  Take a look at one of the best shredders of all time, Eddie Van Halen.  If you YouTube him, you’ll notice that on crazy solos, at times he barely looks like he’s playing. 

Relax:  When you get in stressful situations, your body tenses up and your muscles become tight.  When practicing scales, you’re putting your hands under strain, (if you’re not used to this) and that stress is counterproductive.  While practicing, work on releasing the tension in your picking and particularly your fretting hand.  As you program your hand to let go of that tension, you’ll notice that things feel much easier to play. 

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Responses

  1. Great post, Gerry! Eddie rules… or ruled… I dunno what he’s up to now. Firing Michael Anthony?!? What the heck?

  2. Another great post!

    This will come in very handy with the kids I am *trying* to teach. Pray for me. LOL.

  3. Speaking of Eddie and great guitar technique, here’s a cool site I came across the other day. The greatest guitar solos in history, along with links to the videos (mostly YouTube). You may not agree with the choices here, but there are some greal solos represented, and watching these can give you a great education in how the “pros” do it.

    http://cityrag.blogs.com/main/2007/01/100_greatest_gu.html

    Thanks Worship Guitar Guy! I love your site and have gotten some valuable insight. Keep it up!

  4. I was one of those rare people that actually enjoyed learning and playing scales. Although I’ve gotten away from it recently, I used to start off every practice session by playing every scale I knew, in every key. So much so, that now when I write solos for my band, I often use a specific scale pattern as opposed to trial and error methods of writing a lead part. We have a song called “Now or Never” and the first lead part is in a major scale pattern while the second, longer solo is the first variation of the pentatonic scale with some rhythmic changes. What I’ve learned from scales is that, not only are they a great tool to use in limbering up your hands, but it’s also a wonderful mental tool in song writing. Good post, G :0).

  5. Most of the great earth-shattering rock riffs in history are based on the minor pentatonic scale…

    Eric – yeah, me too. It didn’t really all open up for me until I learned how to connect the different patterns… once I got there, and could really move freely up and down the neck, everything came together.

  6. as i’m working my way through fretboard logic se, i already knew the scales, but it’s always good to get some motivation to stick through it.
    so… thanks

  7. Very good article G, I see that many people share my opinion as well! 😛

  8. Great post…question from this beginner. How does one move from one shape to the next? I assume with hitting the root not of the next shape first?

    Thanks

  9. I too would like to know how to move from one shape to the next. Anyone care to enlighten allen and myself??

    Thanks,

  10. Hey guys, see if this makes sense.

    Take Diagram 1 and Diagram 2 for examples. Look at “frets” 3 and 4 on Diagram 1, then compare them to “frets” 1 and 2 on Diagram 2. The note diagrams between the two are identical. (I use the term frets loosely, because the actual frets played on change depending on which key you’re in.)

    Applying this, let’s do it on just the low E string, in the key of G. On diagram 1, the first two notes will be on the third and sixth frets. Now transition to position 2, the first note on the low E is again on the sixth fret, and the next note is on the eighth fret. Position 3 would be the eighth and tenth, position 4 is the tenth and thirteenth, position 5 is the thirteenth and fifteenth.

    • I wish i could understand this. I,ve read countless explanations and i cannot get it!

  11. These are what I call the “safe notes”. They are very inside sounding. You can’t play a wrong note just perhaps not the best choice for the chord of the moment, but evey note is diatonic to the key you are in. The minor pentatonic is a minor seventh arpeggio plus one note (4th) so it works great over a minor chord. The major pentatonic works great over a major chord or Major sixth or 6/9 plus of course the major seventh chord even thought there is no seventh in the scale. As far as switching patterns just move your hand into the new pattern. It’s going to sound a little different because you have the same notes but in a different order. Still, there are no “sour” tones.
    Try going up one pattern and down the next and so on. Or vice versa. Try 3 and 4 note patterns as well as intervals in the scale. 3rds, 4ths and 5ths are great.
    hope this helps.
    ECB

  12. hey man thanks for sharing..look what that guitar at the top looks really cool..what is it? pls answer i have to know..

    • It looks like a ’52 Reissue Telecaster.

      Very nice guitar.

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