Putting It All Together: Scales, Keys & Progressions

This is a brief introduction that goes through how the minor pentatonic scale relates to chord progressions and how to play with other musicians.

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Scales, Keys, Progressions I have struggled for a long time to be able to understand the concepts of scales, how they relate to chord progressions, and what a key really means. After taking lessons, reading books, and still feeling like a mid-thirties musically challenged learner, something finally clicked for me. Here is one of the positions of the minor pentatonic scale:
e|------------------5-8-5-------------------
B|---------------5-8------8-5---------------
G|------------5-7------------7-5------------
D|--------5-7-------------------7-5---------
A|----5-7---------------------------7-5-----
E|-5-8---------------------------------8-5--
We can tell that this scale is in A Minor for two reasons. First, let's look at knowing that the key is in A. We know this because the first note is an A note (5th fret Low E string). Whatever this note is tells us what key it is in. The next thing to keep in mind is the minor part. It is minor because of the scale. This is a minor pentatonic. Now is we were to take this same set up and move it up a whole step (two frets) then we would have a pattern that looks like this:
e|---------------------7-10-7-------------------------
B|-----------------7-10-------10-7--------------------
G|-------------7-9-----------------9-7----------------
D|---------7-9-------------------------9-7------------
A|-----7-9---------------------------------9-7--------
E|-7-10-----------------------------------------10-7--
Here we are looking at a B minor scale. Why is it B? Because the 7th fret is a B note. Wherever we move this pattern on the Low E, will make the scale in that key. So how does this relate to chord progressions and song writing. Let's take any three chords... Bm, D, & G. Let's put these togehter is a very simple chord progression of Bm (x4), D (x4), G (x4), D (x4). If this was played, you could play the B minor pentatonic scale on top of it and it works with how the mind hears music. The reason it works is because that first note was a B chord. B chord as the first relates to the B minor scale. If we take another progression, Am, C, F, Em we could play the Am scale on top of it. What helps me is to create little riffs from the scale and play it on top of the chord progression. Here is an example of a simple riff taken from the Am Scale
e|---------------------------------------
B|---------------------------------------
G|-------------5------5-------7^---------
D|--------5-7----5--7----5--7------------
A|---------------------------------------
E|---------------------------------------
This simple riff is just taking notes from the scale and playing them on top of a chord progression beginning in A. Try it out and it will flow. I know that this is a very brief introduction, but these concepts were very difficult for me to grasp but once they finally clicked, I went from someone who had played the guitar to someone who began to understand how the guitar works when it comes to music and especially playing with other musicians. Good luck!

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    TeleYankee
    You're completely right... I did mess up the B minor tab. It is not 7-11 it is 7-10. It follows the same pattern. I must have had a brain fart as I was typing it up yesterday. I'm very sorry to everyone as this was a pretty major error. I will see if I can submit a correction.
    CRNASLEEP
    And I would also add that as you are playing the Am Pentatonic scale over the above progression, with each chord change, concentrate on the note of the chord. For example, with the Am chord center around the note A, for the C chord, center around the C note, for the Em chord, center your playing around the E note. As for the F chord, I would just center around the A or C note with a possible passing F tone.
    Satanic America
    So it dosent matter what chords comes after that first chord? Since the first chord is an Am that automatically means its in the key of Am and you can use the Am scale? I thought that a certain group of chords made up the key.... this is a great explanation and makes perfect sense but I think I got confused trying to teach myself.... lol
    jazar94
    so does this mean that progressions for the key of G are based upon the 3rd fret? if so, why is open chords C? this is gonna keep me up tonight.. good lesson tho
    daniel001
    thanks my friend, im in the same place you were some time ago, but want to really understand all this concepts to improve my music comprension again, thanks.
    libertines4ever
    it's a pity that you messed the numbers up in the Bminor pentatonic scale the 11s on E B and e string should be 10s otherwise good lesson especially as you put it under the "for beginners" category and as it can be quite frustrating to urge oneself through some gigantic theory books or theory lessons on UG