Mastering The Pentatonics – Part 1
September 7, 2008 by Lee
The Guitar Rut! … I’m sure most of us guitarists have been in the same situation at some point. We enter the world of lead guitar, learn the minor pentatonic scale, some licks, get the technique down quite well and just as we start sounding pretty good we hit a brick wall! At this point most of us reach the same conclusion.. The pentatonic scale is too limited, we need to learn something new. What else is there if we have learnt the scale quite well and can play it in all five positions. Well I can tell you now that if you are in this situation then I guarantee the pentatonic scale is not your problem.
If you really don’t like the sound of the pentatonic scale then who am I to argue however if you want to sound like all the other rock and blues guitarists then it’s time to rethink your belief in the pentatonics because in these two genres the pentatonic dominates. This doesn’t mean outside notes or other scales never get used but if there is one scale you should master for these styles then the pentatonic it should be.
There is a huge difference between just knowing the pentatonic scales and actually mastering them. This takes time and effort but the the result will pay off in dividends. Knowing the minor pentatonic in all five positions is not really knowing the scale. What we are going to do in this lesson is break it down, rip it apart and put it all back together again. Knowing the five positions is certainly something you should have at your disposal but now’s the time to start thinking about using the scale differently.
This lesson doesn’t contain any practical examples but all the ideas can easily be put to practical use by making your own exercises and just generally jamming around with each idea. The real goal here is to practice each idea enough times until you can say that you always know where you are on the neck at any given moment. Once you reach this point you should find you are thinking less about the five scale patterns and more about just the scale and it’s notes.
If you are in a guitar rut then don’t underestimate just how much you can improve by playing around with the ideas that follow. I don’t want to fill the lesson with loads of text trying to convince you so if you haven’t done so already then I suggest reading through some of the topics in the articles forum. Some of them have a lot to do with these lessons but I try to keep them in a separate area where possible so that we can keep our focus more to the points of the lesson.
Although this lesson is concentrating mostly on the minor pentatonic it’s very important to understand the difference between the major and minor pentatonic scales in more detail than just moving the pattern up or down by three frets. Check out the lesson about major / minor scale differences for a gripping read! .
Okay, enough talk, let’s get to it…
The five common pentatonic shapes
The five common shapes for the minor pentatonic scale are shown below. There is no real standard for numbering the positions but it’s most common to refer to position 1 as the one that starts on the sixth string root note. This is shown here as the F minor pentatonic to make it easier to view all five patterns across the neck as a whole.
These five shapes are very useful and you should spend some time practising and getting to know them well. It’s important to think of these as five separate patterns, don’t allow yourself to make use of them by counting along the fretboard to reach each position. In a moment we will be looking at ways to associate these patterns with chord shapes but for now just use the root notes as your starting point for each shape, the following example shows the best way to do this.
Both the minor and major pentatonic scales rely on the same five positions so unless you learn them as individual entities then you might find that all your ideas will sound the same whether you are trying to create a major or a minor sound as mentioned earlier. To overcome all these problems we need to delve deeper into each shape so that they can be applied more creatively. The very least you should know is the location of the root notes for each shape, these will be different for minor and major within the same pattern and of course none of this will be helpful if you cant find the notes on the fretboard very quickly so if you don’t already know them, now is the time to start learning them.
Minor Pentatonic Root Notes
Major Pentatonic Root Notes
Note that some of the notes are shaded lighter, these notes shouldn’t be viewed as the starting note. In other words when learning these patterns, always start from the root note even if it isn’t on the sixth string otherwise you will have a hard time trying to find them quickly. The best method is to start from the root note, work backwards through the shaded notes and then back to the root before continuing on with the rest of the scale pattern. For example you could practice position two for A minor pentatonic like this..
Position 2 – A minor Pentatonic
The chords inside each pattern
Another useful method of familiarising yourself with each of the five pentatonic patterns is to associate them with chord shapes just like the CAGED system does with the major scale. If you have been playing guitar for a long while then you quite likely know the common open major, minor and bar chords. Even though it’s common for guitarists to know where to find the 5 and 6 string bar chord shapes across the neck it’s not so common for them to know the C, D and G shapes.
The diagram above shows the notes on the fifth and sixth strings up to the twelfth fret without the enharmonic tones (sharps and flats ). These are the common notes used to find the five and six string bar chords. I’m sure many of you know this already but I’ll give a brief explanation just in case.
The moveable five string bar chords are based on the open A form chord shape. The root note on the fifth string is the reference point (indicated by the arrow), you can move the whole shape along the neck and whatever note that lands on is the new chord. For example the images below show how the five string A form chord can be major or minor and moved along to form C major and E minor chords.
The six string moveable bar chord is based on the open E form and the example below shows how they can be moved to form G major and C minor.
What makes these two moveable shapes so common is simply because it’s easy to use the index finger to create a bar, and act just like a capo would by moving the nut further up the neck. The C, D and G forms aren’t so common because they involve more complex fingering patterns but with practice these fingering patterns can be mastered. However even if you think they are too difficult or feel that you don’t have any need to practice them it’s still quite important that you learn them, even if you can’t play them, the more you can visualise chord tones across the neck the better your playing will become.
C, D and G major open chord forms
C major form moved to create a D major chord
D major form moved to create an A major chord
G major form moved to create a C major chord
The D minor form is also a common chord shape that can easily be moved, here you can see how it is moved to make a G minor chord
Make sure you learn to recognise the C and G forms as moveable chords but don’t despair if you can’t get your fingers to play them, just make sure you know them anyway. I won’t show them moved along as this should be obvious by now.
All of these chord forms have the root note in more than one place and you should avoid learning to recognise them from the bottom two or three strings only. Here they all are again but this time associating them with the other root notes that they contain. All of these things take time to learn but don’t overlook them, the effort will pay off in dividends even if at this moment in time you can’t possible imagine how this can improve your ideas. Once you know them you will find yourself thinking differently about the way you play whether you are using pentatonics or not.
The Other Root Notes
Knowing all of these root note positions can help quickly locate chord shapes and similarly help you find the notes on the fretboard if you already know the chord positions.
If you already know that the 10th fret on the second string is an A then it’s easy to find the D form chord for A major
Using the five string (A form) bar chord notes as a guide on the third string and vice versa
Another thing you should make yourself familiar with is how the chords overlap. The CAGED chord shapes each share at least one note on at least one fret. For example take a look at how the C form chord and D form chords overlap in the A major positions.
The diagram below shows the overlap parts for all of the CAGED forms in A major and minor.
So what’s all this got to do with the pentatonic scales?
In case you might be wondering how any of this stuff can be useful and what has it got to do with pentatonic’s, well it’s all about being able to visualise the fretboard as an entire unit for any given chord, note or scale. Flying up and down the neck with ease is all about knowing where you are at any moment and not counting frets or using mnemonics. It can be hard to convince people that knowing all of this is necessary but the fact is it isn’t as hard to learn as it all might seem, once you start doing it, it can all come together quite quickly as you start to see common patterns emerging… but there’s still more to come!