What’s the difference between a major and minor scale?
Before you think “yeah..boring”.. I am not talking about moving the pentatonic scale up or down three frets, in fact I’ll go as far as saying I’m against teaching this method of relating the two scales. It’s a handy trick but if you don’t fully understand it then using this method will result in all your licks and scales sounding minor when they should be sounding major.
A major scale is a major scale and should sound like one. Likewise the minor scale should sound like a minor scale. If you have spent most of your time practicing with the standard minor pentatonic shapes then it’s a safe bet to assume that if you want to go from A minor to A major pentatonic by shifting down three frets then you will sound like you are playing F# minor and not A major. Let’s take a deeper look at it and see how these scales are constructed from the major scale.
The notes in any major scale are numbered from one to seven starting from the root note. So for example here are the notes and their related scale numbers using the C and A major scales.
The major pentatonic contains all the notes from the major scale apart from the 4th and 7th and the minor pentatonic uses all the notes except for the 2nd and 6th, however the minor pentatonic also flattens the 3rd and 7th notes. This gives us two scale spellings to work with.
Major pentatonic = 1, 2, 3, 5, 6
Minor pentatonic = 1, b3, 4, 5, b7
Side note: The natural minor scale is also viewed in relation to the major scale and uses all seven notes of it but flattens the 3rd, 6th and 7th scale degrees. Therefore the minor pentatonic can also be viewed as being the same as the natural minor scale with the 2nd and 6th scale degrees omitted.
Using these formulas we can easily work out which notes are contained in the major and minor pentatonic scales. Using C and A as examples we can work out the following.
Notice how the C major pentatonic and A minor pentatonic share the same notes but just have different starting points. Therefore any major pentatonic scale will contain the same notes as those found in it’s relative minor counterpart and vice versa, for example ‘A’ is the relative minor of C major so A minor pentatonic will have the same notes as C major pentatonic and F# is the relative minor of A major therefore F# minor pentatonic scale will contain the same notes as A major pentatonic and so on.
It is for this reason that simply using the same scale shape three frets up or down can change a minor pentatonic scale into a major pentatonic scale.
C minor / Eb major pentatonic
By choosing a different starting note this could be a C minor or Eb Major pentatonic scale…
… move the whole shape down three frets and it becomes a C major or A minor pentatonic scale
However, it’s important not to think of these two shapes as being exactly the same scale but more of a lucky coincidence for memorising patterns, even though the same notes are used they should both sound very different in their use. This is a hard thing to grasp for beginners but it makes more sense as you gain more experience, either way, I’ll attempt to put some kind of short but logical explanation to it.
The moveable nature of scale patterns on the guitar unfortunately forces you into thinking about things that you might not have taken notice of had you learnt to play a piano instead of guitar. For example you know that A minor and C major pentatonics can be played as identical scales in the same position so how can they possibly be two different things?. The answer to this is in the way you play with the scale. If all you do with a scale (like most beginners) is run your fingers sequentially up and down the pattern then you aren’t very likely going to make an A minor pentatonic sound any different to a C major pentatonic and if you already have a bunch of minor pentatonic licks in your repertoire then there’s a good chance that you aren’t making it sound like C major at all.
Making two identical scale patterns sound different from each other takes some experience and a lot of listening before it makes some kind of sense, we encounter the same problems when trying to understand modes and even some fairly experienced guitarists struggle with this very subject so don’t worry if it takes time for any of it to sink in.
First things first, I’m sure you would agree that no matter what scale we use for a solo there is no need to play every note of that scale within every bar of the solo, you might hang on just one bent note for an entire bar (or longer) maybe use a three note lick repeated for a few beats or whatever. The point being that when you play a solo you are often just picking notes or licks out of that scale pattern to make phrases, not just running backwards and forwards through the entire scale pattern for the whole solo. The actual choice of those notes you pick out of the scale is what makes all the difference.
A better way to understand this is to think about a full seven note major scale, let’s say C major. I’m quite confident that you agree we don’t need to play all seven scale notes all of the time. Okay now pick up your guitar and play these three minor pentatonic scales.
A minor pentatonic at fifth fret
D minor pentatonic at 10th fret
E minor pentatonic at twelfth fret
I’ll guess I can remain fairly confident that you agree these three scales don’t sound identical, in fact they all sound very different from each other. Now take a look at the C major scale notes below and you’ll see that all three of those pentatonic scales (as well as their relative majors) all use notes from the C major scale.
C Major scale C, D, E, F, G, A, B
- C Major pentatonic C, D, E, G, A
- D minor pentatonic D, F, G, A, C
- E minor pentatonic E, G, A, B, D
- F Major pentatonic F, G, A, C, D
- G Major pentatonic G, A, B, D, E
- A minor pentatonic A, C, D, E, G
This shows us just one example of how we can pull different tonalities out of one scale by being careful with our choice of notes. If you were to play a few bars of a solo or a lick in C major without once playing the notes B or E you wouldn’t suddenly think you actually played an F major pentatonic scale for those few bars, yet by omitting the B and E you are left with the notes C, D, F, G, A which could all be considered as a part of a C major scale, an F major pentatonic or D minor pentatonic. It’s the way you make use of them that creates the tonal centre or the overall flavour of the sound. Making this tonal centre reflect in your playing takes experience and a good ear but knowing some theory basics can help you understand it a lot better.
Pentatonic scales are only five notes but the same idea applies so hopefully this outlines the idea of thinking about C major pentatonic and A minor pentatonic as being two separate scales, there is no problem with using the same shapes but you need to be careful how you use them. If you have spent a lot of time playing in the key of A minor using the minor pentatonic box shape then chances are a lot of your ideas and licks have a minor flavour to them especially as the minor pentatonic box shape so closely resembles the barred 6 string A minor chord.
Lets take another look at the standard A minor pentatonic box shape and have a think about the notes contained within it (A,C,D,E,G). The basic A minor chord (triad) contains the notes A, C, E and an Amin7 chord contains the notes A, C, E, G so it’s very easy to make this scale sound with a minor flavour.
Notes in the A minor pentatonic
There are a few things that strengthen a tonal centre. We know the notes A, C, E make an A minor chord so it’s fairly obvious that if you play these three notes alone then the sound you create will sound like an A minor chord. The A to C interval is what really nails home the minor sound because it is the minor third interval so if you play these two notes consecutively and often then you are already creating an A minor flavour with just these two notes.
If you are forcing the notes A, C and E to stand out and dominate while playing the A minor pentatonic scale then you will be creating an A minor tonal centre. You can make these notes stand out in a number of ways, playing them on the downbeat, accenting or adding expression to them and hanging on to them with longer duration than the other notes will all help to make them stand out more than the other notes. Starting and ending a phrase on a certain note will also try to make that note feel like a home note therefore ending your phrases on any of the chord tones should help to always sound like they are meant to be there.
The standard minor pentatonic box shape lends itself quite nicely to almost forcing you to play with a minor sound if you are not careful because it places the notes in convenient positions for your fingers to easily gravitate to the minor chord tones. If we take the A note away from the shape you will see that we end up with a shape that would make it hard for your fingers to flow across naturally but at the same time limit your options for creating an A minor sound. The index finger tends to get used as a kind of anchor and isn’t as often used for expressive notes or notes of longer duration but right under your index finger are the three C major chord tones C, E, G grouped together.
A minor pentatonic with the root note omitted and C Major chord tones under index finger position
Practicing the A minor pentatonic scale without the root helps to force you into playing with a C major tonal centre. After spending some time doing this your ear will become more accustomed to the major sound and after a while you’ll find you can put the A note back in and use it more as a passing note rather than a dominating one but try to avoid too many hammer ons and pull off’s between the A and C because this creates the A minor third interval.
Because the index finger in many players tends to produce the least dominating and expressive notes, using the major pentatonic position below will also help you to getaway from the A minor sound but again, try to avoid too much consecutive playing of the A to C on the third string if you want to it to sound more like C major than A minor.
Hopefully this has given you some ideas of ways to make two identical scales sound different by being careful with note choice. Practice these ideas often because it’s a very important step towards making your solos sound much more musical and one you should spend a lot of time experimenting with. If you are not used to playing like this then I’m sure it sounds like a lot to have to think about while you are in the middle of a solo but don’t let that worry you, the main thing is to just be aware of it and let experience take it’s course. You don’t need to be thinking like a calculator when you are playing but experiment with these ideas often enough and you will be training your ear and subconscious to eventually get used to playing like this naturally.