In this free guitar lesson, I explain to you that it’s not necessary to use all five pentatonic scale patterns. Most players have particular patterns and portions of patterns they favor and use most of the time. I’m going to show you why players do this and why you should do it too.
Using Pentatonic Scale Patterns
When you initially learn the pentatonic patterns, it’s good to play through all five patterns in their entirety. You want to understand how the patterns work. Playing all the patterns also helps you get to know your way around the fretboard better. It’s a good workout for your fingers too.
But, after you learn all the patterns, you shouldn’t expect to use all of them. And I don’t think the main focus of your practice routine should be to continue to review them. Instead, your next step should be to learn how the patterns get used in music.
When you learn pentatonic riffs and solos from familiar songs, you find that players don’t use all the patterns, and they often use only a small portion of each pattern. Let me give you some examples so you see what I mean.
“Back in Black” by AC/DC makes use of the E minor pentatonic scale in the opening riff, but it only uses half of pattern one.
“Life in the Fast Lane” by The Eagles also opens with an E minor pentatonic scale riff, but this time you play only a small portion of pattern three plus a few notes from the patterns before it.
John Mayer’s “Gravity” features a lead hook played in G major pentatonic using a small portion of pattern four.
“Hey Joe” features a solo that is played almost entirely in E minor pentatonic pattern one in the 12th position.
As you can see, guitarists don’t typically play up and down complete pentatonic scale patterns when they use the scale in music. They don’t make use of every pattern either. Instead, they focus on creating something simple that sounds good and often uses only a handful of notes. You should narrow your focus like this too.
The question is, how do you know which portions of the patterns to use? You’ll figure this out when you play through all the patterns, learn how to play pentatonic parts from songs, and give yourself time to learn what works best. Let me explain what I mean.
When you play through all the patterns in their entirety, you’re going to find some patterns easier than others. Everyone’s hands are slightly different. There will be certain fingerings that feel uncomfortable to you and other fingerings that feel good. You might be uncomfortable with how a particular pattern begins, but you have no trouble playing the rest of it. This is normal and you can use this to your advantage.
For example, when you play in E minor pentatonic, you may not be comfortable with how pattern two begins because it features some long stretches. But the top of the scale pattern is much easier. Would it surprise you to know that the top portion of pentatonic pattern two gets used far more often than the bottom portion of it? It shouldn’t.
Let’s switch keys to A minor. “Breakdown” by Tom Petty features a riff that begins in pattern two and descends the scale. But instead of descend pattern two, you shift to pattern one.
The guitar solo to “Let It Be” by The Beatles is played in the relative major, C major pentatonic. It uses parts of pattern five, one and two.
The reason why “Breakdown” and “Let It Be” shift positions and use only a small portion of each pattern is because it makes the parts much easier to play. You need less fingers to play this way and you avoid needing to stretch your fingers too much.
I also think this approach to playing the pentatonic scale leads to more musical phrases. It helps you avoid sounding like you’re just playing up and down scales.
So, if you feel like you can’t play scale patterns very well, try playing only a small portion of each pattern. Focus on the positions you find to be most comfortable. That’s what most guitarists do.
And if you don’t want your lead lines to sound like you’re just playing up and down scales, learn riffs and solos from songs you like. Each song part you learn will teach you things about phrasing, timing, tone, and technique.