A Tangent On Pentatonic Scales

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Min Pentatonic Scale

The Pentatonic Scale – 5 Sounds

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The pentatonic scale has been around for a really long time and has been exploited to great details in more songs than anyone could ever hope to calculate. It’s had a huge impact on how people look at the guitar and there is far from a shortage of opinions on the beloved scale flooding the internet. So join me in my attempt to make the pentatonic scale seem as accessible as possible.

The Pentatonic Scales

There is often a bit of ambiguity to just what the term pentatonic regards to new guitarists or people that just haven’t flirted with scales that much. The name alone tells you what it means. Penta means five and tonic means sound, so five sounds. A scale that has five different sounds is pentatonic. That’s all there is to it. Any combination of no more and no fewer than five is pentatonic by definition.

Fun fact: A common misconception is people that lump blues scales in with pentatonic scales. Blues scales actually have 6 tones

However over the years of use favoritism has shifted towards two specific pentatonic scales that will beat every other five-tone scale to the top of a Google search any day. The major pentatonic and the minor pentatonic. These two scales alone have single proven that you can take a scale with fewer tones in it and employ a greater number of feelings than you can with things like the major scale or the minor scale alone.

When looking at the scales perspective plays a big role in things. In practice scales get compared to the major scale so we’ll start there. That would be a hexitonic scale.

Major Scale

Check out the “Related Reading” Box to the right for more articles covering pentatonic scales!

[/stextbox]The major scale is composed of 7 tones with entirely major and perfect intervals. From any given starting point it has a major 2nd, a major 3rd, perfect 4th, perfect 5th, major 6th, and major 7th. Written just below is the major scale’s structure.

R: W W H W W W H

Major Pentatonic

The major pentatonic, while having a different looking structure, is the same thing interval-wise, just without the Perfect 4th or the Major 7th. The structure (listed below) gives the root a major 2nd, major 3rd, perfect 5th, and major 6th.

The bonus about this scale is if you have your major scales down all it requires is discipline to not hit the 4th or the 7th.

R: W W 1-1/2 W 1-1/2

Minor Pentatonic

The minor pentatonic is a bit different from the major scale in that it has two fewer tones and two of the remaining tones are flat. From the root the structure gives you a minor 3rd, perfect 4th, perfect 5th, and a minor 7th.

R: 1-1/2 W W 1-1/2

The bonus here is in terms of the intervals it is to the minor scale what the major pentatonic is to the major scale. It’s the same as the minor scale just without the major 2nd and minor 6th. Like before you already have this scale down if you have your minor scales down and have the self restraint to not play the 2nd or 6th.

In Practice

One might wonder how a scale with fewer tones can be used to colorize a song in more ways than a scale with more tones. The thing that fewer scale tones offers is a less specific feeling that can easily be colorized and influenced by say the chord progression it is played over. Playing a minor pentatonic melody over a major chord, for example. Or maybe a major pentatonic melody over a minor chord. Or even the expected minor pentatonic over minor chord and major pentatonic over major chord. Each offers unique feelings that have been tastefully exploited time and time again. The options are endless and they’re just sitting around waiting on you (yes, you) to get to it and make it all shine. So get to it.

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Kyle Smitchens

Kyle Smitchens is the Guitar-Muse Managing Editor, super hero extraordinaire, and all around great guy. He has been playing guitar since his late teens and writing personal biographies almost as long. An appreciator of all music, his biggest influences include Tchaikovsky, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Steve Vai, Therion, and Jon Levasseur of Cryptopsy.

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