Using The Major Pentatonic Scale
When taking on new guitar students, I often find guitarists know only a pattern or two of the minor pentatonic scale. Frequently, they don't know that there is also a MAJOR version of this scale – and the fingering patterns are the SAME as the minor version! Obviously, you'll need to start the patterns on a different note as the makeup of the two scales is different, but once you figure out where to start each pattern to make it either major or minor you have effectively doubled your musical vocabulary!! In their relentless drive to learn new and “hipper” ideas, guitarists often cast aside pentatonics as being too simple. I would argue that one just needs to work on the phrases and lines they come up with using these “simple” scales. Once you get into a deeper application of pentatonic scales and how to “substitute” them to create a myriad of modal tonalities - that will keep you busy creating new sounds and phrases for a good while.
The major pentatonic is comprised of (from the root note) the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 6th intervals. Using A as our root note, the A major pentatonic scale has the notes A, B, C#, E, and F#. If you compare A major pentatonic to A minor pentatonic (formula is 1,b3, 4,5 b7), you might notice an interesting relationship to how the forms sit on the fret board. If you start at the root form of A minor and move all the forms of the minor down 3 frets (a minor third interval; first pattern of A minor pent starts on the A note, move it down three frets and it becomes the 5th pattern of A major pent starting on F#) you have effectively converted minor to major! You may also notice that the 2nd pattern of minor becomes the first pattern of major (the whole “deck” is shuffled one spot so 1st pattern of minor becomes the 5th pattern of major, 2nd pattern of minor becomes the first pattern of major and so on) – another little tip to help you memorize the major pentatonic. Of course, you can reverse the above and convert major to minor. This relationship and your understanding of it will become more useful and apparent as you start to improvise using both major and minor pentatonic scales.
Here is a little info about the tonality and usage of major pentatonic versus minor; we're just going to scratch the surface for now. The most obvious use of major pentatonic scales is over a major chord with the same root, or over a diatonic progression with the same root (A major over the chords in the key of a major). The tonality of the scale has a certain sweetness to it (thanks to that major 3rd and perfect 5th intervals, and how they contrast with the non-chord 2nd and 6th intervals). You can hear that tonality by playing the follow example:
Contrast the sweet tonality in the above example with a similar figure played using the A minor pentatonic. In this example, you get a very melancholy vibe due to the A minor triad being outlined.
As you become more fluid and versed with your pentatonics, you can “play through” the chord changes of a progression by matching the scale to each chord as they change. A classic example is the Allman Brother's song “Blue Sky” where both the harmony parts and the majority of note choices in the solos are comprised of notes from the E major and A major pentatonic scales (the solo section is over the repeating chords E major and A major).
I have included diagrams of the five “box” patterns of the A major pentatonic scale. I am a huge proponent of practicing them as follows:
• Play through the forms ascending and descending
• Memorize where the root notes are in each form. If you don't know your notes all over the fret board this will be incredibly helpful in gaining that knowledge!
SUPER IMPORTANT – play the five forms through the Circle of Fifths. Use your metronome and ascend and descend a pattern through all 12 keys. As you get more proficient at this, challenge yourself to USE A DIFFERENT PATTERN each time you change keys. (pattern one for A major, pattern 3 for E major, pattern 2 for B major, etc.). This will prepare you to play “through” changing chords in a progression by being able to quickly identify and play different scales “on the fly.”
Consider this; if you can't play ALL of the scale forms in ANY key immediately on command, then you don't really know the scale!!
About the Author: Charlie Long is a professional guitarist and instructor living in St. Louis, Missouri, USA. If you are interested in super-charging your guitar playing, learn more about the best guitar lessons in St Louis with Charlie