In music, a scale is a series of notes played in ascending and descending fashion. Scale notes make patterns on the fretboard, which guitarists finger and pick position to position. Guitar players use scales to play melodies, riffs, solos, and bass lines.
There are countless types of scales that can be played on guitar, but familiar genres of music like pop, rock, blues, and country primarily use pentatonic and major scale patterns. Of these two types of scales, the five-tone pentatonic is the simplest to play, and so is good for getting started with riffing and jamming.
The pentatonic scale has a major and minor form. Because of its prevalence in blues and rock, the minor pentatonic is usually what guitarists learn first.
Pentatonic Scale Patterns
The minor pentatonic scale consists of the scale degrees 1-b3-4-5-b7. In the common key of E minor, this includes the notes E-G-A-B-D. There are occurrences of these notes located all over the guitar fretboard. Guitarists learn the locations of these notes by breaking up the guitar neck into segments called positions. In each position the scale tones form a pattern on the fretboard grid, which guitarists memorize and play through back and forth. You see one of the patterns made by the E minor pentatonic notes in the figure below.
In the diagram above, the E minor pentatonic scale begins on the open 6th string, E, and then continues until all related notes, including those in the next register, have been played in the position. You actually end up playing the scale in two octaves, plus a G note in a third octave. This is always how guitarists cover a position with a scale. Follow the guitar tab below to completely ascend and descend E minor pentatonic pattern one in the first position.
Pentatonic Scale Fingerings
As far as fingering goes, you’re free to fret the scale notes with whichever finger or fingers feel most comfortable to use. In this position, where open strings are utilized, you can get away with fretting notes with just one finger. As you use the scale to play riffs and melodies, your fingerings will be determined by how the part moves through the pattern, and what types of techniques are in use.
Pentatonic Scale Songs
Two of the most familiar and easiest pentatonic scale songs to play are “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd and “Susie Q” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Both open up with guitar parts that utilize the E minor pentatonic scale pattern above. “Wish You Were Here” is played on a twelve-string guitar and mixes a simple scale melody with open chord shapes. You can play the same part on a regular six-string guitar. You can even skip the chords and just focus on the pentatonic melody. “Susie Q” opens with a pentatonic scale riff that features hybrid picking, but you can simplify the part and just focus on the main pentatonic lead line.
In this free guitar lesson you have just scratched the surface with playing and using the E minor pentatonic scale. The notes of this scale can be played in various positions on the neck, with each one forming a unique pattern. Many more songs feature prominent E minor pentatonic riffs and solos including “Back in Black” by AC/DC, “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix, and “Good Times Bad Times” by Led Zeppelin, just to name a few.
Free Guitar Scales Preview
You can learn more about the pentatonic scale plus related guitar theory in the Fretboard Theory video instruction featured on this website.
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