Learning scales might sound boring, especially if you’re a new guitarist. But mastering scales is key to being a great lead guitarist and improviser. And for many players, both the major and minor pentatonic scales are the best way to jump into scales. Today, we’ll take a look at the C major pentatonic scale and some of the best ways to learn it.
The C Major Pentatonic Scale: What You Need to Know
1. It’s All Relative
For many guitarists, the minor pentatonic scale is the first scale they learn on guitar. But you may not realize that the same scale patterns are also used for the major scale.
That’s because every major key has a relative minor key. That key is a minor third away from the tonic (the root note) of the major key. In this case, the relative minor key of C major is A minor. The C major scale and the A minor scale are made up of the same notes, just in a different order.
The C major pentatonic scale is C/D/E/G/A, while the A minor pentatonic scale is A/C/D/E/G. These scales may seem a little short. That’s because the prefix “Penta” means “five,” so each scale contains five notes. However, the pentatonic patterns on guitar are the same for A minor and C major. Check out this video for a general introduction.
2. Understanding The Pentatonic Boxes
You may hear guitar instructors reference something called “pentatonic positions” or “pentatonic boxes.” This might be a little confusing — after all, the scale is a continuous stretch up the guitar neck. But in order to make learning, playing, and finding notes on the scale easier, guitarists have divided the scale into “boxes,” or smaller patterns.
All of the boxes connect — the end of one is the beginning of another. You can see that connection in this picture. In order to take you through the C major pentatonic scale, we’ve also divided it into the five different boxes below. This video lesson also gives you a useful preview of all five pentatonic boxes.
3. Mastering Box 1
The first box of this scale is likely the easiest to master. And if you’ve started learning any scales at all, it may be a familiar pattern. To play this box, start at the sixth string. Play an open low E followed by a G (third fret of the sixth string).
On the fifth string, play an open A followed by a C (third fret). On the fourth string, play an open D followed by E (second fret). You’ll need to apply the same pattern to the third-string — an open G followed by an A (second fret).
The second string is a little different — you’ll play the root note (C) at the first fret and then a D (third fret). Finally, the first string is a repeat of the sixth string — an open E followed by a G at the third fret. For a visual representation, check out this video — it shows you diagrams and a demonstration of all five pentatonic boxes (positions).
4. Moving On To Box 2
As we mentioned earlier, the last notes from the first box are the first notes of the second box. That means that the notes closer to the tailpiece of the guitar become the first notes of this box. So on the sixth string, you’ll pick up where you left off — play a G (third fret) followed by an A (fifth fret).
On the fifth string, play a C (third fret) followed by a D (fifth fret). On the fourth string, you’ll need an E (second fret) followed by a G (fifth fret). And on the third string, play an A (second fret) followed by a C (fifth fret). For the second string, play a D (third fret) followed by an E (fifth fret). And lastly, on the first string, play a G (third fret) followed by an A (fifth fret).
If you’ve watched many tutorials on the pentatonic scale, you may see instructors play through the scales with incredible speed.
And if you’ve just started learning, seeing someone play that way can be discouraging. But speed comes with lots of practice. Don’t force it — as you get more familiar with the scale patterns, you’ll eventually be able to play through them quickly without really thinking about it. But speed drills can also help — this video introduces you to a few useful ones.
5. Playing Box 3
Now we come to the third box. This one is fairly similar to the first box we played through. It doesn’t require a whole lot of hand stretching, so it’s a good one to practice when you’re first starting to build speed.
For this one, we’ll pick up where we left off — on the sixth string, play an A (fifth fret) followed by a C (eighth fret). On the fifth string, play a D (fifth fret) and then an E (seventh fret). For the fourth string, play a G (fifth fret) and an A (seventh fret). On the third string, play a C (fifth fret) and then a D (seventh fret).
You’ll need a slight hand stretch for the first and second strings. On the second string, play an E (fifth fret) and a G (eighth fret). Then on the first string, play an A (fifth fret) followed by a C (eighth fret).
As you play, periodically take some time to check your technique. This video (below left) highlights some of the common technique mistakes that might be holding you back. It also covers how to fix them.
One thing to keep in mind as you go: many players get so caught up in memorizing the boxes that they forget the actual point of the scale. You want to be able to actually use the scales to create music.
As you go, work on using each scale in a musical sense. You can create shorter riffs and even practice over backing tracks. Backing tracks like these are easy to find for free online — just make sure they’re in the right key. This track (above right) is a great example of an acoustic rock backing track in the key of C major.
6. Adding Box 4
The fourth box of the C major pentatonic scale doesn’t feel quite as natural to play. That’s not really a bad thing — it ends up doubling as a mobility exercise. For this one, start out with a C on the sixth string (eighth fret) followed by a D (tenth fret). On the fifth string, you’ll need an E (seventh fret) and a G (tenth fret).
On the fourth string, you’ll need an A (seventh fret) and a C (tenth fret). Then for the third string, play a D (seventh fret) and an E (ninth fret). On the second string, play a G (eighth fret) and then an A (tenth fret). And finally, on the first string, play a C (eighth fret) and then a D (tenth fret).
Especially with more complex pentatonic patterns, committing them to memory can be a challenge. Everyone memorizes patterns differently, but there’s one memorization method you should avoid. Trying to memorize the layout of patterns on a chart or piece of paper might seem like it would be helpful at first.
However, this method doesn’t really transfer to the fretboard very well. Plus, if you’ve ever tried to memorize something just by looking at it written out, you already know that this method is an especially boring one. If memorizing the patterns is stressing you out, check out this helpful video for some memorization tips.
7. Mastering Box 5
Now we come to the fifth box of the scale. This is another one that poses a bit of a challenge to play. Playing on the higher strings involves a bit of a hand stretch, and if you have smaller hands, you may need to slide them slightly down the neck as you play.
To play this last pattern, start on the sixth string with a D (tenth fret). Follow that with an E (twelfth fret). On the fifth string, play a G (tenth fret) and then an A (twelfth fret). On the fourth string, start with a C (tenth fret) and then play a D (twelfth fret). The third-string is where you’ll need a bit of a reach — play an E (ninth fret) followed by a G (twelfth fret).
On the second string, play an A (tenth fret) and then a C (thirteenth fret). Lastly, on the first string, play a D (tenth fret) and E (twelfth fret). Once you’ve gotten the hang of this last box, you’ve completed your introduction to the pentatonic scale. But if you’d like a little more guidance on some of the best ways to learn and use the scale, check out this helpful video.
8. How Do You Commit The Boxes To Memory?
As we mentioned earlier (and as you likely already know), different guitarists will likely find that different methods work best when it comes to committing scales to memory. The boxes we’ve mentioned are one of the most widely used methods of memorizing and using the pentatonic scales. But some guitarists have found ways that work even better for them. For instance, this resource presents a simple alternative to the pentatonic box system.
Usually, people find memorization easier if they have a real understanding of the material. And one way to really understand the boxes is to be able to find the root note in each one. Practice starting and ending on the root note (in this case, C) as you play through. Being able to really use the material will help as well.
Try learning some basic pentatonic licks. Some teachers and guitar magazines even teach pentatonic licks designed to help you memorize the patterns. You can even create your own — this is a great first step to becoming comfortable improvising. If you want some more tips on how to develop your improvisational skills, check out this helpful video.
9. Connecting Everything
Learning the pentatonic scale in portions does have a downside — it makes it more difficult to think of the scale as a cohesive unit. For many new players, becoming comfortable connecting the boxes poses an even bigger challenge than memorizing them in the first place.
Make sure you don’t shy away from this challenge — once you start connecting all the shapes of the C major pentatonic scale, the magic really starts. One way to get comfortable with connections is to familiarize yourself with the spaces where the boxes overlap. It’s also important to remember that the patterns always appear in order.
So once you reach box five, box one will appear again. Don’t rush to connect all five boxes at once — even just connecting two at a time will really pay off. You didn’t memorize all five boxes in a single day, so don’t push yourself to instantly connect all of the boxes, either! This video lesson offers some more guidance to help you work on connecting the boxes.
Want to Learn More?
You can get pretty far teaching yourself how to play guitar, but as you move into more challenging concepts, having a structured learning program at your disposal works wonders. There’s an online course for almost every learning style — some rely heavily on videos, while others include more text-based resources. Plus, you’ll get the benefit of expert-designed courses without ever needing to leave the comfort of your home.
Whether this is the first scale you’re learning or you already have a few under your belt, we hope that this list has helped you better understand the C major pentatonic scale and discover ways to use and master it. What do you think? Did we leave out anything important? Let us know in the comments, and please don’t forget to like and share if you found it useful!