Pentatonic Scales On Guitar: An Overview

I’ll just open with this: I hate the way 99.99% of music instructors and guitar teacher introduce the idea of pentatonic scales (or scales in general, for that matter), especially on the guitar.
I think the methods they use are lazy, self-serving, and ineffective.
“Well that doesn’t seem very nice, Caleb. Why would you say that?”
I say it because, as far as I’m concerned, it’s true.
I hope that by the end of this lesson, you’ll at least be inclined to agree with me.

Why are they called “Pentatonic” scales?

… “And what is a scale anyway?”

Well, let’s start off with a scale: A scale is a group of notes that can be arranged either vertically to form chords, or horizontally to form lines.
When the notes of a scale are grouped vertically we refer to their structure as harmonic.

When the notes of a scale are grouped horizontally we refer to their structure as melodic.
So what’s the deal with pentatonic scales then? Well, a pentatonic scale is any grouping of 5 notes such that they can be arranged vertically or horizontally.
The name “penta” comes from the Greek word for “five” (5) and the name “tonic” comes from the Greek work “tonos” which means “tension” or “to stretch”.
The tension part in tonos probably refers to how strings and membranes are stretched with respect to lyres and drums.
It is also applicable to wind instruments like flutes, which “stretch” the air blown through them to different lengths to produce sounds of a higher or lower pitch.
So, a “pentatonic” scale is a grouping of notes composed of five tones.

“But What IS a Pentatonic Scale?”

Well, this is the part where I’m going to disagree with almost every other guitar teacher on the internet.

The common answer would be something like: “Here is your major pentatonic scale, and here is your minor pentatonic scale and you can play them over these chords and blah blah blah yaddy yaddy ya…”

My answer is this:

A pentatonic scale can be formed from any grouping of 5 non-repeating notes.

“Huh?” You may be asking yourself.
Well the thing is, those “major” and “minor” pentatonic scales you’ve been taught are actually the same scale.
They’re just two different Modes of the SAME scale!

Modes? Scales? What?

Imagine if you were looking to buy some real estate and the Realtor showed you a regular house, with regular rooms, and tried their damnedest to convince you that you were purchasing an apartment complex…

I’m sure you’d look at that Realtor, look at that regular house, look back at that Realtor, and say “Now I know that regular house you’re showing me is not an apartment complex.”
Now imagine that Realtor looks you in the eyes and says “But look, it has all these different doors and different windows, how is that not an apartment complex?”
You’d probably find another Realtor real quick like.
Well that’s the situation that I find myself in most of the time when I look at lesson materials involving pentatonic scales.

“Why is that?” you may ask yourself.

Because these people are trying to sell me on “multiple scales” that are actually just modes of the same scale! They aren’t offering half the value they’re claim to be and are making things twice as confusing as they need to be!

Show Me The Money!

How about I give you 5 precious gemstones instead?

These are not one scale from 5 different angles; these are 5 different scales, each shown from 1 angle.

You don’t get this kind of knowledge for free, not usually. That’s because most people out there are trying to sell you same thing 5 times! Where is the value in that?
You’re probably thinking “Well if everyone else is doing it wrong, and you know so much better, then where are your examples?”
Alright, I feel ya. Here you go:

Lydian Pentatonic (1st mode)

This cat here is one of my favorite scales of any number or variety. It is often called the “Japanese scale” and is also often subjected the evil of having each of it’s modes sold to folks as if they were different scales. They aren’t. They’re all part of this same scale, just starting on different notes of it and playing through to that same starting note again (above or below). Don’t believe me? Give it a shot on your own! (How else do you expect to learn this stuff?)

Mixolydian Pentatonic (1st mode)

I don’t (personally) know any fancy names for this scale, but I do know it’s be used by Joe Satriani in a few of his songs. It has a super groovy feel and has a space alien surfer vibe to it for sure.

Minor Pentatonic (1st mode)

This is the one, right here, that causes me so much heartache and gives other folks so many headaches.

You’ll notice I still call it the “Minor” pentatonic scale and didn’t follow the naming convention of the other scales included in this list. That’s because this scale fits over the Aeolean, Phrygian, and Dorian Modes of the Major Diatonic Scale.

Locrean Pentatonic (1st mode)

This guy is just plain mean sounding. Give it a go and tell me it doesn’t just sound like you’re getting ready for something dark and nasty!

Ionian Pentatonic (1st mode)

This scale is beautiful and is probably my second favorite of these gems. I recall hearing it in a 311 song from back in the 90’s (I can’t remember the name of the song, but give this scale a go on your guitar and see if you can’t figure it out for yourself).

Don’t Settle For Less!

See those five scales up there? Yeah, those are five UNIQUE scales.
Those are not rooms of the same house and I’m not some Realtor trying to convince you that they’re seperate apartments in a complex.
Those are each a house of their own.
Each of those scales contains 5 modes within them.

Each of those scales has chords and scale fragments within them.
There is value in those scales and knowledge to be gained if you’re brave enough to explore them and see what is hidden within.

9 thoughts on “Pentatonic Scales On Guitar: An Overview

  1. Michelle Reply

    Oh wow…talk about a quick guitar lesson. Very intriguing, Caleb. I was more able to grasp the ‘idea’ once you introduced the real estate analogy.
    You are right though, based on your interpretation…as are most things in life – how one person interprets it – as they say – to-maaa-to or to-may-to…LOL..I could not resist!
    I now a musician friend of mine, I will share this article with him and I am sure he will have a viewpoint too.
    All the best.

    • Caleb Post authorReply

      Thank you Michelle, I appreciate the kind words!
      Music theory was how I got into Group Theory (Algebra) and all the other fun stuff I’ve learned.
      It reminds me of that old story where people are touching an elephant on different parts of it’s body and all having a different sensory experience as a result. They are all correct, but only with respect to some local distribution of vectors.
      You’ve gotta “zoom out” to really see the elephant for what it is, and then you can’t be touching it anymore!

  2. Marian Florinel Condruz Reply

    Reading your topic was a real pleasure for me… I used to play guitar
    but I never really study it. I understood more after reading and I got this
    feeling – the need to play guitar again.
    I don’t have one anymore, but thanks for the making me remember …

    • Caleb Post authorReply

      Thank you Marian!
      I am very happy to know that my article had a positive influence on your perspective.
      I am self taught in my knowledge but I can read, write, and compose now.
      Just like building a business, it takes time and perseverance, but the payoff is totally worth it!
      If you pick up a guitar again and this article had even 0.0001% to do with it, I’ll be extremely happy!

  3. Nate Stone Reply

    Thanks for the very swift guitar lesson, I must admit I’m not musically gifted in the slightest, I actually came to your site to get an idea of guitar ideas for my brother. I always hear him go on about his scales hence driving me to take a quick looks. I’m going to get my brother to check your site out, I think he will gain a fair bit of benefit from it!

    • Caleb Post authorReply

      Thank you Nate!
      I’m glad you found some value in this article and I hope your brother does as well!
      You’ve inspired me to write even more now; I also have brothers who play music and they motivate me to learn more and improve every day.
      I’ll try and get more content up more consistently, I have so much information to share and I’m excited at the prospect of folks like you and your brother reading it!

  4. Arun Sabharwal Reply

    Great work Caleb. The information shared by you on the pentatonic scales and modes, is really second to none, as are all your real estate presentations. I have read a lot of blogs and e-books, all of which have been outstanding value with lessons but they do not even come close.

    • Caleb Post authorReply

      Thank you for your kind words Arun; you flatter me! haha
      I’m grateful that you were able to find some value in this article.
      Comments like yours help to keep me motivated!

  5. LT Turner Jr Reply

    Hello Caleb – I guess I am that – .1% of music instructors that believe that the major and minor pentatonic scales are really one in the same, just different modes. I didn’t quite go into that much detail with my piano students in their beginning lessons. However, I did share with them that ever major has a relative minor. In the same regard with pentatonic scales for example, A minor pentatonic has identical notes with C Maj pentatonic just in a different order , etc.

    Love your real estate analogy, that was great and a neat way to get the point across to us readers! Got any videos or recordings of you playing the scales? I can play them on the piano, but always nice to hear them on guitar from a guitarist. I only know a few chords (hmmmm Cmaj, Am, Em, and G maj) on the guitar and definitely no scales. Ha ha!:)

    Thanks for the refreshing pentatonic lesson here!

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