Perhaps you're a beginner or a rhythm guitar player, and you want to explore the art of soloing. If so, learning how to solo with pentatonic scales will instantly transform you into a lead guitar player! Too often, even experienced guitarists lack a complete understanding of how to construct major and minor pentatonic scales and how to use them effectively. So, the intent of this lesson is to provide insight for both inexperienced and experienced guitar players.
To gain a better understanding of how to solo with pentatonic scales, let's begin with a brief review of fundamental music theory. All major and minor scales are built by connecting a series of whole steps (W) and half steps (H) in a non-variable pattern. Termed diatonic scales, each scale must include all seven letters of the musical alphabet, and the notes must alternate line, space, line, space, etc. (or the reverse) on the musical staff. The pattern for constructing all major scales is WWHWWWH. The pattern for all natural minor scales is WHWWHWW. The key signatures for every major and minor key are dictated by the construction of these two important scale patterns. By the way, lower case letters should be used when referencing minor keys or scales, but from here on, upper case will be substituted.
Oddly enough, the importance of the natural minor scale is seemingly lessened or often ignored in the discussion of music theory. That’s baffling really, as this form determines the key signature. But, for whatever reason, the harmonic and melodic minor forms (which are alterations of the natural minor) are deemed more worthy of consideration. And, in many regards, rightfully so, but . . .
So, what are pentatonic scales? Derived from the Greek word ‘pente’, meaning five, pentatonic scales are abbreviated major and minor scale forms. They contain only five of the seven notes which comprise the complete scale. Major pentatonic scales use the first, second, third, fifth and sixth degrees (notes) of the major scale -- the fourth and seventh degrees are left out. Minor pentatonic scales include only the first, third, fourth, fifth and seventh degrees of the full natural minor scale.
Although the relationship between the natural minor scale and its pentatonic derivative is evident, the preferred method for analyzing altered scale formations requires comparison to its major scale counterpart. For example, an A major scale contains the notes A, B, C#, D, E, F# and G#; the A minor pentatonic scale, however, has no sharps and includes the notes A, C, D, E and G. You can see that both the third and seventh degrees of the A major scale must be flatted to form an A minor pentatonic. This formula works for every key! Obviously, knowing the key signatures for every major key will greatly enhance your understanding of how to solo with pentatonic scales.
There’s just one more short theory topic to address, and then you’ll see how all of this fits together. That’s when the fun starts and you can apply this knowledge to begin playing lead guitar with pentatonic scales!
Every major key has a ‘relative minor’ key, which means that both keys have the same key signature and their respective scales contain exactly the same notes. The same holds true for the abbreviated pentatonic scales as well. From the tonic (root) of a major scale, go up to the sixth note – that will be the letter name of the relative minor key. Or, going down three half steps from the tonic yields the same result. The latter may be a better choice for associating and playing pentatonic scale patterns on the guitar.
Using the aforementioned scale formulas, you’ll find that a major pentatonic scale in the key of C major contains the notes C, D, E, G and A. A minor pentatonic in the key of A minor contains the notes A, C, D, E. and G. There’s no difference – they’re exactly the same! So, it makes sense that every pentatonic scale pattern on the guitar can be used to solo in two different keys. And, it really works that way! Herein lies the beauty of pentatonic scales – they are truly universal scales! Now, it’s time to have some fun and learn how to solo with pentatonic scales!
Please check part 2 of How to solo with pentatonic scales lesson