For just about any guitar player, the minor pentatonic scale is the first one to learn. And even though it’s one of the more intuitive scales to play, it has enough sonic complexity that some guitarists have virtually made a career out of using it. Today, we’ll be taking a closer look at learning the minor pentatonic scale and beginning to use it.
Learning & Using Minor Pentatonic Scale
Why The Minor Pentatonic?
There are a handful of beginner guitar scales and countless more advanced scales and modes. So why start with the minor pentatonic?
If you look at a diagram of the scale, you’ll see that the root note of the first position is found on the sixth string and is the first note played. So if you start your scale fretted at the first fret, it’s in the key of F minor, if you start at the third fret, it’s in the key of G minor, etc.
If you’re familiar with barre chords, you probably are already familiar with the notes along the sixth string. Remember that all five pentatonic patterns (or “boxes”) are interconnected parts of the scale. So if you want to play the scale in F minor, you can simply start the first pattern on the first fret and play through all five. This video lesson offers an introduction to the root notes of the pentatonic scale.
Relative Majors And Minors
Similarly, the minor pentatonic scale is an excellent choice for a first scale because you can use it in pieces of music in both major and minor keys. That’s because every major key has a relative minor (and every minor key has a relative major). Relative major and minor scales are both made of the same notes; just in a different order.
For example, E minor is the relative minor of G major. So if you want to play the E minor pentatonic scale, it will work well with both songs in the key of E minor and those in the key of G major. If you want to learn more about major and minor scales and chords and how they can affect your playing, this useful video may help.
The First Box
Now we come to a breakdown of each pentatonic box and how to play it. If you’ve been taught guitar scales in lessons at all, this first box might look familiar — it’s the first scale many guitarists learn. Most first learn it in E minor (where the first note is an open low E).
To play the scale this way, first, play the sixth string open. Then, fret the sixth string at the third fret using your ring finger (or pinky, depending on hand size). You may find it helpful to play this note (and others like it) as a hammer-on, rather than having to play the sixth string once for each note.
You’ll need to play it open on the fifth string and then fret it at the second fret. Repeat that pattern on the fourth and third strings, too. For both, the second and first strings, play open and then fret them at the third fret. Check out this helpful video for a more detailed introduction to the first pentatonic box. It also includes an overview of box one of the very similar blues scale.
The Second Box
It’s a good idea to develop at least a working familiarity with the first box before you move on to the second one. You can even begin creating riffs or improvising with just one box before learning the second. After all, the whole point of learning this or any scale is being able to create music.
With that being said, the second box of the pentatonic scale is certainly a step up from the first. Though the two overlaps, box two is a lot less intuitive to play, and you’ll definitely need a finger stretch to do so.
On the sixth string, we’ll start out where we left off (playing in E minor) — on the third fret. Fret this note with your index finger, and then hammer on to the fifth fret. For the fifth string, start at the second fret and then move to the fifth.
Do the same on the fourth string. On the third string, start on the second fret and then hammer on to the fourth. And on the second and first strings, start on the third fret and then move to the fifth. For an excellent video on introduction to the second box of the minor pentatonic scale, check out this helpful lesson.
The Third Box
Now we come to the third box. The fourth, fifth, and sixth strings of this box are all fretted the same way, so it’s a great box to start with if you want to work toward building speed. But the first, second, and third strings require a bit more in the way of stretching your fingers.
To play box three in E minor, the sixth, fifth, and fourth strings are all played the same way — start by fretting on the fifth fret and then hammer on to the seventh fret. On the third string, start on the fourth fret and then move to the seventh.
Moving to the second string requires a bit of a stretch. Start at the fifth fret and then hammer on at the eighth fret. And lastly, on the first string, move from the fifth to the seventh fret again. Some guitarists elect to use mainly their index and ring fingers.
But there’s nothing wrong with using your pinky for bigger stretches like these, especially if you have smaller hands. The third pentatonic box can be challenging to get down, so it may be helpful to see it played by an experienced guitarist. For step-by-step guidance and a visual demonstration on how to play box three, check out this video lesson.
The Fourth Box
Compared to the second and third boxes, the fourth box isn’t all that difficult to master. On the sixth and fifth strings, you’ll need to start at the seventh fret (when playing in E minor) and hammer on to the tenth fret. The fourth and third strings are simpler to deal with — just start on the seventh fret and move to the ninth.
In this pattern, the second string is the only real irregularity. You’ll need to fret it first on the eighth fret and then on the tenth. And finally, you’ll need to fret the first string the same way you did the sixth and fifth strings; start at the seventh fret and move to the tenth. This video lesson offers some tips and guidance for playing the fourth box.
As you learn the different pentatonic boxes, you may find that you want to start connecting them as you go.
Alternatively, you might prefer to master each box independently before moving to connect them. It all depends on your learning style. Repeatedly practicing the patterns can only get you so far. Playing quickly and accurately is certainly important, but you’ll need to understand how all five boxes connect (and repeat!) to really use them in your playing.
The Fifth Box
Now we’ve come to the last of the minor pentatonic patterns. And luckily, the fifth box is relatively straightforward. In fact, it just might be the most straightforward of all. To play this one (again in E minor), we’ll pick up where the fourth box ended. You’ll want to fret on the sixth and fifth strings at the tenth fret and then at the twelfth.
On the fourth and third strings, fret first at the ninth fret and then at the twelfth. And finally, on the first and second strings, fret first at the tenth fret and then at the twelfth (just like with the fifth and sixth strings).
For guidance on how to play this box, check the video lesson. It’s tempting to think about the fifth box as being the “last” of the pentatonic boxes. But it’s not the end of a line; the first box simply starts up again where the fifth box ends. This resource will introduce you to some uncommon minor pentatonic guitar licks if you’re ready to begin putting the boxes together.
Putting It Together
Breaking the pentatonic scale into the five boxes might be convenient for learning, but it does make it a bit challenging to connect them to play the scale as a whole. Improvising is a good way to do this, but even before that, work on connecting the boxes in practice — not just in a diagram.
A lot of that connection has to do with basic familiarity with the scale itself. Look for overlaps between boxes, and of course, practice playing the boxes as a connected whole up and down the neck.
One of the best ways to get very comfortable with putting together the pentatonic scale is to make sure you know exactly where you are on the fretboard at all times.
This can be a challenging thing to master, but it’s well worth the time. Once you’re basically familiar with the entire scale in a given key, try choosing one note anywhere on the fretboard and play the scale either up or down the neck from there. If you want some more tips on connecting the boxes, this helpful video is a helpful introduction.
Learning To Improvise
One of the best things about knowing any guitar scale is that you can use it to improvise along with just about any song. And as far as the pentatonic scale goes, you don’t even need to know the entire thing (all five boxes) to start improvising.
Learning to improvise may seem like an intimidating venture, but the best way to do it is to start. You just need to select a backing track in the key you want to practice in. This resource can help you get started. You may find it useful to practice with each box individually before connecting the boxes.
Remember that the key of the scale needs to match the song or backing track you’re playing with. If the song is in a minor key, make sure you play the scale in the same key. If the song is in a major key, play the scale that corresponds to that key’s relative minor. This useful site lets you look up some of your favorite songs to find what keys they’re in.
Don’t be afraid to start with basic patterns; the more you practice, the more comfortable you’ll be with improvising. And as you get more comfortable, you can work on connecting the boxes as mentioned above. This helpful video introduces you to improvisation using the A minor pentatonic scale.
Ready to Learn More?
Especially if you’ve previously focused mostly on rhythm playing, discovering how to learn to play a scale can be an adjustment. And as you may have discovered on your guitar journey thus far, having an experienced player explain something can make all the difference in the world. Taking an online guitar course is a great way to receive expert guidance — both when it comes to learning new scales and following a structured plan. As an added bonus, online courses follow your schedule, and they cost a fraction of what in-person guitar lessons would.
Learning the minor pentatonic scale can be a challenge, but it paves the way for learning scales and modes. It also will help you to better understand and use the fretboard. But what do you think? Have we left out any important tips for learning the scale? Let us know in the comments, and please don’t forget to like and share if you found it useful!