The Pentatonic Minor Scale

This covers the following topics:

Why a minor Pentatonic minor works.

How a minor Pentatonic minor works.

Where to play a Pentatonic minor.

Who uses a Pentatonic minor?

How to carefully craft solos using the pentatonic minor.

What is a pentatonic?

Pentatonic minor scales should not be a mystery.  A pentatonic minor scale is not something somebody came up with one day and said, “Here everybody is the pentatonic minor scale!” and therefore it was.

The pentatonic minor is actually a DERIVATIVE of the minor scale, but can be considered as being related to the major scale if that is all you have as a reference.

For the purpose of demonstration I will present it in two ways: as related to the major scale and the minor, as I understand that some of you may only have knowledge of the major scale at this point.  So here’s the example as it relates to the major scale first:

For example: the major scale in the key of C is:  C D E F G A B C   (7 tones)

To derive the minor we flat the 3rd , 6th and 7th scale degrees.

Therefore C minor scale is C D Eb F G Ab Bb C

Five tones making up the pentatonic, C, Eb F G Bb are a subset of the minor scale.

Why these five tones?

The tones are chosen using  the 1st 3rd an 5th intervals, making up the C min triad and adding in the 4th  and 7th .

Another way to choose the 5 tones if you have a knowledge of relative minor keys:


First, start with the major scale and stack perfect 5th intervals above the tonic, C.

Notes:    C           G               D           A            E

Intervals:  5 tones    5 tones   5 tones      5 tones

Arrange them into one scale and you get:  C D E G A

Arrange them to the relative minor (Am) and you get A C D E G, the Am pentatonic scale, which is 3 frets lower on the guitar ( a minor 3rd) than C pentatonic.

How and where do I play the pentatonic scale on the guitar?

There are five pentatonic patterns found on the guitar.  See Mike’s pentatonic video for fingering patterns that are a much more thorough explanation of them than I can mention here.

Why does the pentatonic scale work over I-IV-V (rock) and ii-V-I (jazz) progressions so well? (a ii– V – I progression is the most common in easy to play jazz.)

The tones found in a pentatonic scale are COMMON to each scale.

For example lets take the 3 scales in the key of c that make up the ii-V-I progression:

I – C: C D E F G A B C

ii – D min:  D E F G A Bb  C

V – G: G A B C D E F# G

Thus, The 5 tones in the pentatonic: A C D E G  are common to each scale.

Tones that my “clash” or cause dissonance (sound out of tune) are eliminated.  These are F# and Bb.  The five tones that are left will sound good “no matter what”.  There are better ways to craft a solo by adding notes that we ill get to in the next article but for now just go ahead and play these as much as you want and you will never hit a bad note.

They also can work over I-IV-V progressions where the tonal emphasis is based mostly on the 1st and 5th of the scale (power chords or blues progressions) and the third is missing from the chord.  This gives the improviser the opportunity to create tension and resolution using the scale and therefore to some extent imply the tonality of the overall progression as being indeed minor.

Now lets take a look at the I_IV V progression:

I – C: C D E F G A B C

IV – F:  F G A Bb C D E F

V – G: G A B C D E F# G

Thus, The 5 tones in the pentatonic: A C D E G are also common to each scale.

Again, tones that will sound dissonant have been eliminated.

Play these common tones right over a power chord or blues progression it will give you a “bluesy” or “heavy” sound.

Hey wait! Minor pentatonics sound lousy over a major progression where full chords are being played…Logic tells us they should sound right because they contain common notes, but they sound lame!  What’s going on?


Well first consider that you are playing a minor scale over a major progression.  Your starting and ending notes will make it sound minor even if the tones are technically the same as major.  This causes a lot of confusion for beginning players.   But here’s a more in-depth explanation to clear it up.

Consider these major triads:  I= CEG, IV= FAC, V=GBD

For the I triad (CEG) 3 tones from the scale are common to the chord, leaving only 2 others, D and A for color.  Too bad the D and A are suspensions (tones that don’t create a “tension that begs for resolution” that’s essential to add power to an improvisation). Its like playing a chord, or at best a suspended chord, over a chord.  Lame.

For the IV triad (FAC) Again 3 tones are from the scale, one is a suspension (D), that’s 4 out of 5 neutral notes.  Lame.  The remaining note (E) is the major seventh from the IV chord, which just sounds weird.

For the V triad (GBD) 2 tones, G & D are part of the triad. 3 tones, C, E & A  are suspensions.  That gives us 5 out of 5 lame tones. This is definitely not a very powerful selection of notes to play over the chord.

Where can I find good examples of pentatonic minor playing?

A good heavy example is like Black Sabbath.  A good blues example is Stevie Ray Vaughn.  But there are many others that play the same style that can provide great examples of songs that you can play the pentatonic major scale along with.