In this free guitar lesson, I’m going to show you how the major scale contains six different pentatonic scales. Knowing this will help you understand the construction of scales, keys, and how you might want to change pentatonic scales over chords.
C Major Scale
I’ll begin in the key of C using the notes from the C major scale.
C D E F G A B
If we look at the scale formula for the C major scale, it’s 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 or root, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th.
C Major Pentatonic Scale
When you remove the 4th and 7th scale degrees, you’re left with just a root, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 6th or C D E G A. This creates the C major pentatonic scale and these notes can be played in different positions on the fretboard using various patterns.
A Minor Scale
Back to the full C major scale, it’s relative minor is A minor. If I use the C major scale notes but start on the 6th degree and play A to A, I create the A minor scale.
A B C D E F G
When I use A as my starting point, the structure of the scale changes. Now, the intervals are root, 2nd, ♭3rd, 4th, 5th, ♭6th, ♭7th.
A Minor Pentatonic Scale
If I now remove the 2nd and ♭6th, I get the A minor pentatonic. This scale’s formula is root, ♭3rd, 4th, 5th, ♭7th or A C D E G. These notes can be played in different positions on the fretboard using various patterns.
Relative Major and Minor Pentatonic Scales
So, you see that there are two different pentatonic scales in the major scale, one for the relative major and another for the relative minor. In this case, they are C major pentatonic and A minor pentatonic. These two pentatonic scales are also considered relative major and minor. They share the very same notes. The difference is in the starting position, or which note you use as the point of resolution.
But, wait. There’s more!
Six Different Pentatonic Scales
You can actually build a pentatonic scale for each of the first six degrees in the major scale. The tonality of each pentatonic, that is, whether it’s major or minor, is in direct relation to the chord quality of each scale degree when you harmonize the scale to make chords.
In my theory course, Fretboard Theory Chapter 5, I show you how to stack the notes of the major scale to create chords. When you do this in C major, you get the following chords.
C Dm Em F G Am Bm♭5
Not only does the C major scale contain the notes to build all these chords, but it contains the notes to build a pentatonic for each of the first six chords.
We already covered the major pentatonic that stems off the first chord, C. Next, the second is Dm. The D minor pentatonic follows the formula for the minor pentatonic scale, which is root, ♭3rd, 4th, 5th, ♭7th. These notes are D F G A C and they too are contained within the C major scale.
Moving on, the next chord in the key is Em and you can also play an E minor pentatonic scale with all of its notes being found in the C key’s major scale. From here, you can play F major pentatonic for the F major chord, G major pentatonic for the G major chord, and A minor pentatonic for the Am chord. The seventh chord, Bm♭5, is not typically used and you cannot build a complete pentatonic scale from it, so I’m leaving it out.
To review, you can play a pentatonic scale for each of the first six chords in the major scale. In the key of C, the six chords and pentatonic scales are:
Six pentatonic scales in C major
- C major pentatonic scale C D E G A
- D minor pentatonic scale D F G A C
- E minor pentatonic scale E G A B D
- F major pentatonic scale F G A C D
- G major pentatonic scale G A B D E
- A minor pentatonic scale A C D E G
As you can see, all of the notes from all the different pentatonic scales are notes found within the major scale. And this is true for all keys. So, whether you play in the key of C or D or G or whatever, the major scale always contains the notes of six pentatonic scales corresponding to the first six chords in the key.
Now let’s talk about applications.
When you use sales over chords in the key of C, you have a few options. First, and assuming the tonic chord in the music is C, you can play the C major pentatonic or the full C major scale over the whole chord progression regardless of how the chords change.
As an example, I play a little bit of “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan in my related video lesson. This song features a chord progression that climbs up the C scale.
Even though the chords are changing, I can still use the C major pentatonic by itself to play lead lines.
Your second option is to change pentatonic scales over each chord. This approach is more difficult because you need to switch scales and position yourself in a different pattern for each chord. Whether to change scales and stick in only one scale is a matter of preference. You choose to do what you think sounds in each piece of music you play over. Generally speaking, the most common approach is to stick to one scale. Staying in one scale is easier and often sounds better. Changing scales can sometimes sound too busy. But both approaches are used at times.
For example, The Beatles “Let It Be” uses a handful of chords in the key of C but the guitar solo sticks to just the C major pentatonic.
“My Girl” by The Temptations features the chords C and F and the song’s riff moves between the C major pentatonic and F major pentatonic to follow the chords.
In Jimi Hendrix’s cover of “Like a Rolling Stone,” he plays a mixture of chords and scales by embellishing the chords with licks from their corresponding pentatonic patterns.
So, as you can see, the major scale contains five different pentatonic scales. There is a pentatonic scale for each of the first six chords in the major scale. The tonality of each pentatonic scale corresponds to the chord quality of each chord. There are three major pentatonic scales for the major chords 1, 4, and 5. And there are three minor pentatonic scales for the minor chords 2, 3, and 6.
Typically, players stick in the one pentatonic scale that corresponds to the primary key, but sometimes players will follow a set of chord changes by switching pentatonic scales for each chord. When you switch scales like this, you’re technically still in key because all of the pentatonic scale notes are found within the parent major scale.