Making Sense Of The Pentatonic Minor Scale

Read Time 3 Minutes

Minor-Pent-FrontIn this exclusive excerpt from Guitar-Muse columnist Scott Collins’ new book, The Fretboard Visualization Series: The Pentatonic Minor Scale, you’ll learn how to visualize the Pentatonic Minor scale across the fretboard so you can play it in any position.  It’s an easy, intuitive and fun way to learn scales and will help you become a more well-rounded player.

Understanding “The Box” Pentatonic Shape

Guitar teachers normally present Pentatonic Minor scales with a fingerboard pattern that looks like this:

Example 1
E Pentatonic Minor – Click to Enlarge

This “box” pattern works fine, but to get into other registers of the scale (i.e. lower and higher notes), you’re going to have to break out of that pattern.  The way I was taught to do this involved learning every inversion of the scale (i.e. being able to play the scale in any position and starting from any note of the scale), but that methodology was confusing and it was difficult to adapt that method to other keys.


I had a breakthrough when I realized that my difficulty in playing in any position together came from trying to see the guitar as a series of six-string shapes.  In examining the fretboard shapes I came to the realization that:

The guitar is three sets of strings, tuned in 4ths.


That might not sound like a radical assertion, but for me, in terms of performance implications, it was!  Looking at a guitar as three sets of strings with a uniform tuning means that any shape on one of those string sets will produce the same sound on the next string set.


In other words, the guitar is a set of modular two-string shapes that all interlock together.


Visualizing this idea saved me time learning how the shapes fit together on the fingerboard.


Step 1: Start With Two Strings

The first step is to see how the scale sits on a two-string set and then adapt it to positional playing.  To start this process, I’ll demonstrate playing E Pentatonic Minor using only the E and B strings.

Note: I strongly recommend that the following examples be practiced with a metronome, with strict alternate picking (or i-m for fingerstyle players), and (initially) played over either an E minor chord or a bass note E to hear the harmonic context for the scale.

Two-String E Pentatonic Minor Patterns


Pattern 1
Click to Enlarge
Pattern 2
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Pattern 3
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Pattern 4
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Pattern 5
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Step 2: Putting the patterns together positionally

Now here’s where this gets cool –

If the patterns start on the low E string, D string or B string, this same pattern sequence connects in a linear fashion across all the two-string sets.  Here’s the initial two-note-per-string pentatonic form:


E Pentatonic Minor
Click to Enlarge

The two-string pattern starting on the E and A strings is Pattern # 1.

E and A Pattern 1
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The pattern on the D and G strings is Pattern # 5.

D and G Pattern 5
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The pattern on the B and E strings is Pattern # 4.

B and E Pattern 1
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In other words, as you ASCEND in pitch across the strings the two string patterns DESCEND by number (and vice-versa).  This is true of any set of related two-string patterns.


Step 3:  “Seeing” a scale across the entire fingerboard

Using this two-string interlocking pattern idea, I’ll demonstrate all of the positional pentatonic fingerings of E minor starting with the open position.


E Pentatonic Minor Open Position
(Pattern 1 – Pattern 5 – Pattern 4)
Click to Enlarge



E Pentatonic Minor 3rd Position
(Pattern 2 – Pattern 1 – Pattern 5)
Click to Enlarge


E Pentatonic Minor 5th Position
(Pattern 3 – Pattern 2 – Pattern 1)
Click to Enlarge


E Pentatonic Minor 7th Position
(Pattern 4 – Pattern 3 – Pattern 2)
Click to Enlarge


E Pentatonic Minor 10th Position
(Pattern 5 – Pattern 4 – Pattern 3)
Click to Enlarge


To review, the “big picture” visualization tips here are:

  • As you ascend a scale in position – the pattern numbers descend across two-string sets.
  • As you descend a scale in position-  the pattern numbers ascend across two-string sets.

This two-string approach is can be applied to any scale or mode! (for those of you interested in learning more, I explain tis visualization process in greater depth in my Melodic Patterns and Chord Scale books.)

Next steps:

  • As a starting point, work on getting the patterns under your fingers and associating the sounds with those fingering patterns so you can access them instantly.
  • While playing through the patterns, I recommend playing them over different chords to hear.  Try playing it over an E minor 7, D minor 7 or a C major 7 chord.

You’ll find more harmonic, melodic and technical options for this scale (as well as a tutorial on sweep picking pentatonics) in my Fretboard Visualization book, which not only demonstrates how to “see” the scale all over the fingerboard, but also shows how to use the scale in a variety of contexts and apply it to making any scale more musical.




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Scott Collins

Scott Collins is the author of the pedagogical/reference series, <i>The GuitArchitect’s Guide To:</i> and several e-book titles that include: <i>An Indie Musician Wake Up Call</i> and <i>Selling It Versus Selling Out</i>. His playing is inspired by a wide range of western and non-western music, and, as a performer, he specializes in real-time composition.

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