If you’ve ever heard of the “box pattern” before, there’s a good chance the topic of the conversation was the pentatonic scale.
The major scale may be the first scale you learn, but what usually follows on its heels is the minor pentatonic scale.
This is because the minor pentatonic scale is easy to learn and is also highly usable in a variety of musical situations.
So, let’s discover what the minor pentatonic scale is and how to use it.
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What Is The Minor Pentatonic Scale?
Although there are a variety of different scales, many of them tend to fall under two categories: major or minor.
A major scale usually has a happy, complete, consonant sound to it.
A minor scale typically has a dark, incomplete, sad sound to it.
And, most (though not all) scales tend to be diatonic – meaning they contain seven notes.
Pentatonic scales, on the other hand, only use five notes.
We’re going to begin by looking at the A minor pentatonic scale.
The natural A minor scale is made up of the following notes:
A, B, C, D, E, F, G.
The A minor pentatonic scale only has five notes, so we need to remove two notes to end up with:
A, C, D, E, G.
So, if you want to take any natural minor scale and turn it into a minor pentatonic scale, all you need to do is remove the second and fifth degrees.
By doing this, you end up with a “safer” sounding scale.
Not that the second and fifth degrees are bad, but the best way to utilize them is to only use them when the corresponding notes are used within the chords you’re playing over.
Because it’s so versatile, however, you can use the minor pentatonic scale in practically every genre – pop, rock, R&B, blues, funk, metal, country, jazz and more.
How Do I Play The Minor Pentatonic Scale?
When learning the A minor pentatonic scale, it’s normal to begin at the second pattern because it’s the easiest one to learn and use at different positions of the fretboard.
There are total of five patterns to learn, but that’s something we’ll be looking at in more detail a little later.
The scale is not hard to play, and you’re about to discover why it’s often called the “box pattern.”
Here’s a basic overview of the notes/frets you’ll be playing (you can also follow along with the tab below):
On the sixth string, play the fifth fret with your index finger and the eighth fret with your pinky.
On the fifth string, play the fifth fret with your index finger and the seventh fret with your ring finger.
On the fourth string, play the fifth fret with your index finger and the seventh fret with your ring finger.
On the third string, play the fifth fret with your index finger and the seventh fret with your ring finger.
On the second string, play the fifth fret with your index finger and the eighth fret with your pinky.
On the first string, play the fifth fret with your index finger and the eighth fret with your pinky.
So, it’s basically 5-8, 5-7, 5-7, 5-7, 5-8, 5-8 starting at the sixth (thickest) string and ending at the first (thinnest) string.
You can also watch this video to learn how to play this scale:
It’s important to pay attention to the root note (A) as you’re playing the scale, forwards and backwards.
There are three A notes scattered throughout this pattern, and they are located at the sixth string fifth fret, fourth string seventh fret and first string fifth fret.
You may be asking yourself why the scale pattern doesn’t begin and end on the root note and why it’s played in two octaves.
The simple answer is that it’s easier to learn the five patterns than to break them up.
How Do I Play It In Another Key Signature?
The great thing about the guitar is that most of what you learn is easily transferable across the fretboard.
All we’ve done so far is learn one pattern, but that’s all you need to be able to play the pentatonic scale in different keys.
It can be helpful to memorize the notes on the sixth string, however, because the first note of the scale is the root note.
So, in case you don’t know which note is which, have a look at this table:
Notice how A is at the fifth fret?
With the pattern we just learned, the A minor pentatonic scale begins at the fifth fret.
So, all you need to do to play the G minor pentatonic scale, for instance, is shift the entire pattern down to the third fret:
Here's the G minor pentatonic scale across the entire fretboard:
All you need to do to access the D minor pentatonic scale is shift the pattern up to the 10th fret:
And, here's the D minor pentatonic scale across the length of the fretboard:
As you can see, memorizing the notes on the sixth string makes it easy to know where to go on the fretboard to play the minor pentatonic pattern we just learned in any key.
But you may be asking yourself:
“What if I want to stay in the same key and play the pentatonic scale across the entire fretboard?”
That’s what we’re going to get into now.
What Are The 5 Patterns/Positions?
I’ve already talked about the fact that there are five patterns to the minor pentatonic scale.
So, if you want to be able to stay in one key and play across the length of the fretboard, you must learn the five patterns and shift between them.
Now, before we learn the other four patterns, let’s look at the scale from a bird’s eye view:
It looks a little convoluted, doesn’t it?
Not that you couldn’t memorize the entire scale this way, but it’s so much easier if we break it down into five patterns instead.
So, let’s learn the five patterns in A.
Here’s the first pattern:
The second pattern you already know, but it’s always worth reviewing – here it is:
This is the third pattern:
The fourth pattern:
And, finally, the fifth pattern:
Refer to this video if you'd like to learn these patterns in G:
Now, you may have noticed that these patterns do not cover the entire length of the fretboard.
That’s not a problem, because the patterns just repeat.
So, what follows pattern five is pattern one.
And, if you’re moving in the opposite direction, what comes before pattern four is pattern three.
Hence, you only need five patterns to cover the fretboard.
It will be necessary to memorize all five patterns to be able to shift fluidly from one to the others.
But breaking it down in this way is easier than trying to learn the scale across the entire fretboard in one go.
How Do I Use The Minor Pentatonic Scale?
Knowing how to play the scale is one thing.
Knowing how to use it in a musical context is another.
I often encourage my students to start messing around with the scale, playing the notes in any order they see fit.
But that’s just a starting point.
It’s important to start playing exercises, fills, solos and songs that use the pentatonic scale.
So, here are a few ways in which you can use this scale:
For Drills & Exercises
This is a great starting point.
When I was learning to solo, I found and came up with as many pentatonic scale exercises I could and practiced all of them.
It didn’t matter whether it was playing it forwards or backwards, in seconds or thirds, or any random pattern I could come up with.
I just played the scale in as many ways I could, over and over.
Here’s an example of a common pentatonic scale exercise:
Now, see if you can find and even come up with your own pentatonic scale exercises.
For Lead Guitar & Soloing
The pentatonic scale offers a great jumping off point for soloing in practically any key or scale.
It’s not uncommon for me to begin a solo in pattern two of the scale before I start shifting around to other patterns.
And, of course, the pentatonic scale can even be used to write entire solos.
The guitar solo to Weezer’s “Beverly Hills”, for instance, is basically just the F minor pentatonic scale (it’s simple – go and learn it).
It doesn’t matter whether you’re playing fills or solos – the pentatonic scale is a favorite among many players, whether it’s Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Angus Young, Zakk Wylde or otherwise.
Okay, so I’m sure you’re expecting an example here, too.
Here’s a basic E minor pentatonic scale solo, mostly using the second pattern with a bit of pattern one and three for good measure:
Here's the E minor pentatonic scale across the entire fretboard, in case you need it for reference:
Note that as with any other scale, the pentatonic scale can be used with any lead guitar techniques you already know – double stops, vibratos, hammer-ons and pull-offs, tapping, bends, slides, harmonics, whammy bar techniques and more.
The solo above doesn't sound like much without some bends, slides, vibratos, hammer-ons and pull-offs, so try adding a few where you see fit.
There are many riffs and songs out there that use the pentatonic scale as a starting point.
For instance: “Play That Funky Music” by Wild Cherry and “Ocean Pearl” by 54-40.
And, if you go looking for it, you can find it in plenty of music you already love – Pink Floyd, Cream, The Rolling Stones, Van Halen, Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, AC/DC, Guns N’ Roses, Mr. Big, Extreme, The Mourning Widows and others.
Even if you don’t use the scale to write an entire song (you can use it as a jumping off point), it can be a handy tool for writing riffs, fills and solos, coming up with melodies and even devising chord progressions.
It’s not exactly easy to illustrate how you might write a song using the pentatonic scale (try fiddling with it), but you’ll be glad to know I prepared an example.
Here’s a basic riff I wrote using the G minor pentatonic scale (play it funky and have fun!):
Here's the G minor pentatonic scale fretboard diagram again, just in case:
Go and have a listen to some of the songs or bands mentioned throughout this guide and try to notice when you hear the pentatonic scale (oftentimes it’s the blues scale, which is a close cousin to the minor pentatonic scale) being used.
It won’t be long before you discover how you could be using it to come up with riffs and song ideas of your own.
Minor Pentatonic Scale For Beginner And Intermediate Guitarists; Final Thoughts
If you have any desire to play lead guitar, the minor pentatonic scale is essential.
Once you learn the five patterns, you can play just about anything, just by adding additional notes in the right spots.
This is because the pentatonic scale is basically the “skeleton” framework of most diatonic scales.