How to Play the Pentatonic Scale on Guitar: Major and Minor Pentatonics

What is the pentatonic scale?

The pentatonic scale, named for its simple five-pitch structure, is one of the most prevalent scales in guitar. Songs such as Santeria, Free Bird, Blue Sky, and Wish You Were Here all make use of the pentatonic scale.

Like standard seven-pitch scales, the pentatonic scale can be either major or minor. The minor pentatonic scale has a darker, sadder quality to it while the major pentatonic feels lighter and more upbeat.

What notes are in the major pentatonic scale?

C Major pentatonic scale on piano/keyboard
The C Major pentatonic scale on keyboard

The major pentatonic scale follows the same pattern regardless of its starting point:

  • Tonic (starting note)
  • Major Second
  • Major Third
  • Perfect Fifth
  • Major Sixth
  • Perfect Octave

That’s one octave of the pentatonic; you could continue playing upwards until the fretboard or keyboard ran out. If you aren’t familiar with the intervals above, we recommend reading our guide to musical intervals.

Keep in mind that, although there are six notes in one octave of the pentatonic scale, there are only five pitches (the sixth note is an octave above the tonic, and so is the same note).

Example: C Major Pentatonic Scale

Let’s look at a specific example: the C Major pentatonic scale. Following the pattern above, we find that the scale goes like this:

  • C (Tonic)
  • D (Major Second)
  • E (Major Third)
  • G (Perfect Fifth)
  • A (Major Sixth)
  • C (Perfect Octave)

Pretty simple, right?

C Major Pentatonic Scale
C Major pentatonic scale

Second Example: A Major Pentatonic Scale

Let’s look at another one, this time a bit more complicated: The pentatonic scale for A Major. Since this key has some sharps (F#, C#, and G#, specifically), we’ll have to remember to account for these.

Here’s the scale:

  • A (Tonic)
  • B (Major Second)
  • C# (Major Third)
  • E (Perfect Fifth)
  • F# (Major Sixth)
  • A (Perfect Octave)

Or, on the musical staff:

A Major Pentatonic Scale
A Major pentatonic scale

What notes are in the minor pentatonic scale?

The minor pentatonic scale follows a different pattern than its major counterpart:

  • Tonic
  • Minor Third
  • Perfect Fourth
  • Perfect Fifth
  • Minor Seventh
  • Perfect Octave

Example: A Minor Pentatonic

Let’s apply this pattern with A as the starting note to find what the A minor pentatonic scale looks like.

  • A (Tonic)
  • C (Minor Third
  • D (Perfect Fourth)
  • E (Perfect Fifth)
  • G (Minor Seventh)
  • A (Perfect Octave)
A minor pentatonic scale
A minor pentatonic scale

Using Relative Minor to Find Pentatonic

Alternatively, you can think of the minor pentatonic as following the same pattern as major pentatonic from a different starting point. For instance, the chart below shows two octaves of the C Major pentatonic.

C Major Pentatonic

Notice that the C Major pentatonic scale naturally forms an A minor pentatonic scale, right in the middle. That’s because the notes in both of these scales (C, D, E, G, A) are the same. The only difference is that that A minor starts on A, whereas C Major begins on C.

Every major key has a corresponding minor key with the same notes, which is called its relative minor. You can find this key by dropping three semitones. For instance, A is three semitones below C, so it’s the relative minor.

This gives you another way to find the notes in the pentatonic minor. You can follow the minor pentatonic pattern, or just follow the major pentatonic pattern for the note three half-steps up.

How to Play the Major Pentatonic Scale on Guitar

Playing the pentatonic scale on guitar is quite easy in its most basic form, but it’s rather complex when you try to play more than an octave.

You can play the following pattern from any fret of the guitar and it will produce a major pentatonic scale. The example we’ve provided begins on the 8th fret, making it a C Major pentatonic.

C Major Pentatonic scale guitar fretboard
C Major pentatonic scale

To play this pattern, begin with your third finger on the 8th fret (or whichever fret you want to start on) and continue to use it for all 8th-fret notes. Use your index finger to play all notes on the 7th fret, your ring finger for the 9th, and your pinky for all 10th-fret notes.

This is typically the first major pentatonic pattern guitarists learn, as it’s one of the easiest ones to memorize and play through quickly.

How to Play the Minor Pentatonic Scale on Guitar

The minor pentatonic scale is even easier on guitar, at least in this position. You only need to use your index, pinky, and ring finger to play this scale.

We will once again be starting on the 8th fret (C), which means that the scale below is a C minor pentatonic.

C Minor pentatonic scale guitar fretboard
C minor pentatonic scale

To play this minor pentatonic scale shape, begin with your index finger on the 8th fret. Theoretically, you could even barre the entire 8th fret, although this isn’t best practice.

Use your fourth finger for any 10th-fret notes and your pinky for any 11th-fret ones. As mentioned earlier, you won’t even need your middle finger, so give it a rest.

How to Practice Pentatonic Scales

For the best results when playing pentatonic scales, as with anything in music, start slow. At first the motion of your fingers while playing a pentatonic scale will feel unnatural, especially that of your pinky finger.

Play along with a metronome or keep rhythm in your head, and when you’ve perfected a certain pentatonic pattern at a specific speed, quicken the pace by a small margin.

Continue to do this until you’re able to play the scales as fast as desired.

Once you’ve learned the shapes above, move on to the more complex pentatonic shapes. The Guitar Lesson’s guide to pentatonic shapes is a great place to start.

Remember that this isn’t an overnight process. Unless you’re a prodigy, you won’t perfect any scale pattern in a day, or likely even a week. If you keep drilling, though, you’ll continue to steadily improve.

Garrison Bates
Garrison Bates loves music. He started playing and learning piano at age four and guitar at eleven. He began studying music theory when he was young and especially enjoys rock 'n' roll, old country, and folk music.
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