Pentatonic Scales-How are they used?

Using Pentatonic Scales

We will discuss the usage of the pentatonic scale and how to properly apply it for the correct effect


A pentatonic scale is a FIVE note scale.  “Penta” meaning five.

A major Pentatonic Scale consists of the notes of a major chord with the 2nd and 6th degrees added.  In other words, it’s basically a major chord with two other extra notes.

So for C major Pentatonic we would have the series of notes C D E G A (1 2 3 5 6 in scale degrees).  If you compare this to a C Major Scale (C D E F G A B) you will notice that the Pentatonic Scale removes the 4th and 7th notes of the C Major Scale.

These notes are the most dissonant within a major scale.  They sound like they have to be resolved, as they are “tense.” They are NOT avoid notes as people so often mistakenly call them.

Some Songs that use PENTATONICS?

“Amazing Grace” is a great example of a song that is uses the Pentatonic Scale for it’s melody.

How did people use the PENTATONIC SCALE in the past?

If we take a look at the blues music of the 1920’s to 1930’s we see that players employed the major pentatonic scale to a great deal.  They used the Major Pentatonic Scale with a flatted third added (Eb in this case).  So we have a set of notes C D Eb E G A.  That is the main one.

A good example is Lester Young’s solo on “Lester Leaps In” from Count Basie’s recording 1939.

You’ll see that Lester at one point plays a descending Bb MAJOR pentatonic line.  If you study a bunch of his solos (Lady Be Good is another example) you see he goes crazy with MAJOR pentatonic lines.  Louis Armstrong uses them a lot as well.

How did this evolve or change?

During the late 1940’s to 1950 we have Rock N Roll evolving.  What started happening during Rock N’ Roll is players started playing MINOR Pentatonics over the top of MAJOR chords. Think Johnny B Goode.

C MINOR pentatonic is spelled C Eb F G Bb (it is missing the D and the A above…the 2nd and 6th).

If you had a chord Change G MAJOR-CMAJOR-DMAJOR, you would have many Rock guitarists running G MINOR Pentatonic instead of G MAJOR Pentatonic over the G Major chord.  This of course produces a certain “minoring” effect over the top of a MAJOR chord.

While this does have uses and I’m certainly not saying to never use it, especially when stylistic appropriate, I AM saying it is misunderstood and misapplied.

This misunderstanding leads to guitar players playing MINOR pentatonics over everything, even over material that it sounds inappropriate on.  A good example would be to play Wildwood Flower and then try to solo using the note series C Eb F G Bb (MINOR pentatonic), now try again but use C D E G A (MAJOR pentatonic).  I think it will be REALLY apparent which sounds “correct” and which does not.

At this point someone schooled in their theory might say, what about if I think A MINOR pentatonic (Relative Minor of C), I will say, sure you can think that, as it is the same series of notes as C major Pentatonic.  However, this is where divorcing scales from chords simply does not work.  If you continuously land on A’s and don’t emphasize notes within a C chord you will still not get the “correct” sound for the song.  Thinking about the scale is not enough, I also don’t see why one would want to calculate in their head as they are playing, just know it as C Major Pentatonic and boom you are there.  One level of thinking as opposed to two.

Many players in fact think they are playing bluesy while running these Minor Pentatonics while what they are doing is not “bluesy” at all.  You are missing the 2nd and 6th degrees with the minor pentatonic, you are also now throwing the 4th back into the picture which you will have to be more careful with as it requires proper resolving.  Please check out the older blues players.

If someone wants to sound “bluesy” on say a 12 bar blues in G, then I’d start them off playing riffs developed via the G MAJOR Pentatonic with the flatted third later added. So the note series:

G A Bb B D E

For bluegrassers, take a look at your “G Run”…It goes G A Bb B D E D G….guess which scale that comes straight out of?  MAJOR pentatonic with flattened 3rd.

Another quick little known fact-It turns out that there is a different “MINOR” Pentatonic used around the world.  One that is different than simply starting your Major Pentatonic on the 6th degree.  I will discuss this and the other flatted notes such as the b5 and b7 and how to handle them next time.


Jody Written by:

Professional Musician of 27 years. I've played Banjo and Acoustic Guitar on the stages of Carnegie Hall, The Grand Ole Opry, and The Ryman Auditorium. I've also played in six different countries.

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