In-Depth With The Pentatonic

The pentatonic is probably the most famous scale. Good for beginners, great sounding in the hand of professionals. This lesson covers the basics on pentatonics and shows how can you turn it into a powerful tool!

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This lesson will cover three things. First we are going to take a look at the pentatonics, that famous scale you've all heard about. Second we are going to cross the pentatonics with modes and giving some tips and tricks about how to use them in different keys and modes. Third I am going to show you a weird thing I noticed when drawing some pentatonics on my notebook that might help achieving different tones and playing styles. Okay, first things first. Note: some basic knowledge on intervals and major scale building is good for this lesson.

The Pentatonic

1. Theory Pentatonic is a word made up by two words. Penta and tonic, which means it has five tones, five notes. So what exactly is a pentatonic scale? It's nothing more than taking specific 5 notes out of any major scale. Let's see the C Major scale:
C major: C D E F G A B C   *1    
C PENTA: C D E   G A   C   *2 
*1: You take off the IV(F) and the VII(B) notes of the scale, and you've got the pentatonic. *2: That means the pentatonic is the (I, II, III, V, VI) Well, then.. If the pentatonic is nothing more than the major scale with less notes, why do we even use it? It's great for beginners and it has a different sounding. They're the stronger notes of the scale.. And plus, you can get the blues scale out of it! Okay, Clow, I can make major pentatonic scales.. What about minor scales? Let's take a look at the A Minor scale:
A minor: A B C D E F G A   *1 
A PENTA: A   C D E   G A   *2 
*1:Y ou take off the II(B) and the VI(F) notes of the scale, and you've got the pentatonic. *2: That means the pentatonic is the (I, III, IV, V, VII) But honestly, memorizing two different ways of getting the notes out for a pentatonic scale can be confusing. That's why I always calculate everything for the major scale, because it will be the same thing for it's equivalent minor. See the C major pentatonic I just shown? It's just the same as the A minor pentatonic. Try doing that, do the major scale and try to find it's minor mode (or Eolic, which I'll explain later). That will also help to find the pentatonic scale for every mode, following the next part. 2. Shapes Okay, the little bit of theory gone, here's pentatonic shapes for you to practice. Don't worry about fitting them together yet, just practice and get fluent with each one, because that will make it easier to fit them together in the next part of this lesson.
 _________________________________________
| Pentatonic Box 1:  | Pentatonic Box 2:  |
| |-|x|-|x|          | |-|x|-|x|-|        |
| |-|x|-|x|          | |-|x|-|-|x|        |
| |x|-|x|-|          | |x|-|-|x|-|        |
| |x|-|-|x|          | |-|x|-|x|-|        |
| |x|-|-|x|          | |-|x|-|x|-|        |
| |-|x|-|x|          | |-|x|-|x|-|        |
*--------------------*--------------------*
| Pentatonic Box 3:  | Pentatonic Box 4:  |
| |x|-|-|x|          | |-|x|-|x|          |
| |-|x|-|x|          | |-|x|-|x|          |
| |x|-|x|-|          | |x|-|-|x|          |
| |x|-|x|-|          | |x|-|-|x|          |
| |x|-|-|x|          | |-|x|-|x|          |
| |x|-|-|x|          | |-|x|-|x|          |
*--------------------*--------------------*
| Pentatonic Box 5:  |
| |x|-|-|x|          |
| |x|-|-|x|          |
| |x|-|x|-|          |
| |x|-|x|-|          |
| |x|-|x|-|          |
| |x|-|-|x|          |
*--------------------*

Pentatonics And Modes

1. Modes I'll give a brief explanation on modes, so you know what you are crossing over with the pentatonics. What exactly are modes? They are different scales that derive from the Major Scale. They are, in order:
I  : Ionian (the major scale)
II : Dorian                  
III: Phrygian                
IV : Lydian                  
V  : Mixolydian              
VI : Eolic  (the minor scale)
VII: Locrian
Let's take a look at it in a scale, the C Major:
   C major:    |C|D | E |F |G|A | B |C|
---------------|I|II|III|IV|V|VI|VII|I|
That means the C is the Ionian root, the D is the Dorian root, the E is Phrygian and so on. The G Mixolydian, for example, is nothing more than the C major scale starting on the G.
 G mixolydian: |G|A | B |C|D | E |F |G|
---------------|V|VI|VII|I|II|III|IV|V|
So how are you supposed to improvise if someone plays a progression in the key of G mixolydian? Or F lydian? You play the C major scale starting on the key you want. And that is true for every other scale. 2. Pentatonics Crossing Over With Modes How the hell do I know what's the pentatonic, for example, for the D Mixolydian?! All you gotta do is find which one is the Ionian(or Eolic if you prefer) for the D Lydian, which is the A major(or F# minor). Why do you learn a bunch of pentatonic boxes? If it's just one scale, why does it have five boxes? That's because those five boxes cover the whole fretboard. Yeah, that's right, you practiced the pentatonic scale across the whole fretboard a bit before in this lesson. But how are they connected? That's simple. Where one box ends, the other one starts. Because pentatonics also have modes. So if you start off the Ionian shape on a pentatonic scale, the next shape that will follow it right up is the Dorian. You can't call them "pentatonic box 1" or "2" anymore, since you know they are actually modes. Here's how they are called:
Locrian-Ionian   -> Pentatonic Box 1
Dorian           -> Pentatonic Box 2
Phrygian-Lydian  -> Pentatonic Box 3
Mixolydian       -> Pentatonic Box 4
Eolic            -> Pentatonic Box 5
But Clow.. You just told us that we are supposed to take the IV and the VII notes off the major scale to obtain the major pentatonic scale, right? 3. Shapes Right. It happens that those notes are the Lydian and the Locrian root notes of the major scale. How can we call a box Locrian-Ionian or Phrygian-Lydian, then? That means you'll have to practice those boxes again, now with the Lydian and the Locrian notes! Here's a chart with every note degree. And with the numbers it gets even easier to see where they fit together:
Locrian-Ionian Box:
|---|(1)|---|-2-|
|---|-5-|---|-6-|
|-2-|---|-3-|*4*|
|-6-|---|*7*|(1)|
|-3-|*4*|---|-5-|
|*7*|(1)|---|-2-|

Dorian Box:
|---|-2-|---|-3-|---|
|---|-6-|---|*7*|(1)|
|-3-|*4*|---|-5-|---|
|*7*|(1)|---|-2-|---|
|---|-5-|---|-6-|---|
|---|-2-|---|-3-|---|

Phrygian-Lydian Box:
|-3-|*4*|---|-5-|
|*7*|(1)|---|-2-|
|-5-|---|-6-|---|
|-2-|---|-3-|*4*|
|-6-|---|*7*|(1)|
|-3-|*4*|---|-5-|

Mixolydian Box:
|---|-5-|---|-6-|
|---|-2-|---|-3-|
|-6-|---|*7*|(1)|
|-3-|*4*|---|-5-|
|*7*|(1)|---|-2-|
|---|-5-|---|-6-|

Eolic Box:
|-6-|---|*7*|(1)|
|-3-|*4*|---|-5-|
|(1)|---|-2-|---|
|-5-|---|-6-|---|
|-2-|---|-3-|*4*|
|-6-|---|*7*|(1)|
* 1- Ionian root; 2- Dorian root; 3- Phrygian root; 4- Lydian root; 5- Mixolydian root; 6- Eolic root; 7- Locrian root 4. Tip If you're using a 6-string guitar with 24 frets, you can only have 2 notes in the same string (I'm not counting open strings). Like two F's on the high-E string, 1st fret and 13th fret, or on the G string, 10th fret and 22th fret:
Fretboard:
E|-F-|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|-F-|---|
B|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
G|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|-F-|---|---|---|---|
D|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
A|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
E|-F-|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|-F-|---|
   1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9   10  11  12  13  14 

E|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
B|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
G|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|-F-|---|---|
D|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
A|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
E|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
   15  16  17  18  19  20  21  22  23  24
That means you could start on, for example, a phrygian note in a string and build the box from there since you can find it in only one box per string. For example, the Lydian in the C major scale, which is the F, in the D string:
Mixolydian Box:
|---|-5-|---|-6-|
|---|-2-|---|-3-|
|-6-|---|*7*|(1)|  Pay attention to the !4!
|-3-|!4!|---|-5-|
|*7*|(1)|---|-2-|
|---|-5-|---|-6-|
That means that everytime you hit a Lydian note on the D string, you are on the Mixolydian box. What about, I don't know, the Phrygian note, if I hit it on the G string?
Locrian-Ionian Box:
|---|(1)|---|-2-|
|---|-5-|---|-6-|
|-2-|---|!3!|*4*|  Pay attention to the !3!
|-6-|---|*7*|(1)|
|-3-|*4*|---|-5-|
|*7*|(1)|---|-2-|
Now you're on the Locrian-Ionian box. You can figure out the rest yourself. Those little tricks help you see the whole fretboard covered with the scale you want faster. Great, now that you've practiced those patterns, you can move them to play in any key. You're still thinking pentatonics, but what you've got there is the whole major scale to play with in a different style! Practice, practice, practice!

In-Depth Pentatonics

1. Theory I was just checking some stuff on pentatonics once on my notebook while bored, and I ended up finding out something kind of interesting. For example, let's take the C major scale again:
   C major:    |C|D | E |F |G|A | B |C|
---------------|I|II|III|IV|V|VI|VII|I|
Ok, the A is the Eolic note, so it's the Minor Scale. It's pentatonic would be A-C-D-E-G-A. That is, how I said before, the same as the major scale without the Lydian and the Locrian root notes. Now let's take a look at a different scale.. Let's say I got the minor scale of the Dorian note:
   D minor:    |D | E |F|G | A |Bb|C|D |
---------------|VI|VII|I|II|III|IV|V|VI|
and then it's pentatonic: D-F-G-A-C Now I'll get the minor scale of the Phrygian note:
   E minor:    |E | F#|G|A | B |C |D|E |
---------------|VI|VII|I|II|III|IV|V|VI|
and then it's pentatonic: E-G-A-B-D Note: Pay attention, I'm not getting the Dorian scale, or the Phrygian scale.. I'm getting the minor scale of the Dorian root on the C major scale, and the same with the Phrygian root. Did you notice? The minor pentatonic of the Dorian has the F, which is the Lydian of C.. The minor pentatonic of the Phrygian has the B, which is the Locrian of C. What happens if you add up all those pentatonics? You get the whole C major scale! The same also happens with the major pentatonic of the Lydian and the major pentatonic of the Mixolydian, adding up respectively, the Lydian(logically) and the Locrian.
   F major:    |F|G | A |Bb|C|D | E |F|
---------------|I|II|III|IV|V|VI|VII|I|
and then it's pentatonic: F-G-A-C-D
   G major:    |G|A | B |C |D|E |F# |G|
---------------|I|II|III|IV|V|VI|VII|I|
and then it's pentatonic: G-A-B-D-E 2. On The Fretboard - Let's take a look at the fretboard with the A minor pentatonic:
Fretboard:
E|---|---|-x-|---|-x-|---|---|-x-|---|-x-|---|-x-|---|---|
B|---|---|-x-|---|-x-|---|---|-x-|---|-x-|---|---|-x-|---|
G|---|-x-|---|---|-x-|---|-x-|---|-x-|---|---|-x-|---|-x-|
D|---|-x-|---|---|-x-|---|-x-|---|---|-x-|---|-x-|---|-x-|
A|---|---|-x-|---|-x-|---|-x-|---|---|-x-|---|-x-|---|---|
E|---|---|-G-|---|-A-|---|(B)|-C-|---|-D-|---|-E-|(F)|---|
   1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9   10  11  12  13  14 

E|-x-|---|-x-|---|---|-x-|---|-x-|---|-x-|
B|-x-|---|-x-|---|---|-x-|---|-x-|---|---|
G|---|---|-x-|---|-x-|---|-x-|---|---|-x-|
D|---|---|-x-|---|-x-|---|---|-x-|---|-x-|
A|-x-|---|-x-|---|-x-|---|---|-x-|---|-x-|
E|-G-|---|-A-|---|(B)|-C-|---|-D-|---|-E-|
  15  16  17  18  19  20  21  22  23  24
You can start a whole new minor pentatonic box (that means Eolic) at the D and at the E, Dorian and Phrygian respectively. You can start a whole new major pentatonic box (that means Ionian) at the F and at the G, Lydian and Mixolydian respectively. Test them and see how it sounds, adjust them to your style, use the boxes you like the most or just mix them all for the whole C major scale!

The End

Well, if you've read to this point, you've got some pretty good ideas for the pentatonic now... But it's no use if you can't apply them somewhere. Practice boxes in every key! Build a few progressions in different modes and try them with the pentatonic, with the extended boxes or even compose a few licks with the mixed pentatonics! No one can give you everything you need to become a guitar god in a lesson, you gotta try it for yourself and never stop practicing! Cheers. - Clow

34 comments sorted by best / new / date

comments policy
    clow539
    @Livingtime: the eolic mode is the same as the minor mode.. so its a bit rarer to hear "eolic"
    MalakianMania
    Awesome lesson, but the last bit of it where you went into the various modes real deeply got a bit confusing.
    Livingtime
    i've never heard of the eolic mode before?? is it real the name sounds real? i'm confused
    XxblaxicanXX:D!
    So im guessing memorizing scales and modes would be helpful before going on to this lesson, very educational thank you im into metal and shred and im sure I can work this in there.
    patrickodang
    omg this is soooo confusing. i mean you wrote it very well. but i just started learning pentatonic scales.. was all this really confusing to you too when you first started learning it?? when does it get easier to understand?
    vexor7
    wow very good lesson this is the first time ive ever really understood the simple linking of all the modes thanks a lot
    clow539
    @patrickodang: yes, it was really confusing lol some isolated days I had an enlightment and started understanding something.. thats how it happens. you'll never absorb all the information in one take
    nuvano
    this is great I could never understand how people could link those scales like that but now that I see that some have similar frets it makes so much sence
    clow539
    that is true, Sechter.. in portuguese its called Elico, so I got it confused. It's name is Aeolian.
    Romper Stomper
    yea you gotta practice practice practice and read this type of thing several times.....also, learn the scales it helps a lot.
    rowan dust
    it's really very good lessons for me..longtime ready i want to know abt that..but i'm still confuse to practice abt 5boxes.i don't know where to start on the fretboard?it's depend on root key?so how abt for 5string root?
    mustafallica
    dude this is confusing, i have so many questions now !, cool story though this is helpful :d, but i needa memorize my scales first and modulations before i move to penta stuff....argh
    HeyPetray
    Extremely educational. This will require a few readings, to say the least. Still, I trust the content is accurate - it makes more sense now than ever.
    freakstylez
    There's something I'm confused about. I understand that the major pentatonic scale is a major scale sans two notes, but why are those two notes added again when you started covering modes? You never really explained it, you just kind of said "practice the scales again, with these notes added"--at least so far as I could understand. I just need a little clarification, I guess. That, or I get caught up in details.
    clow539
    Major scales get their modes on each and every note of the scale, so if you are crossing it over with the pentatonics, you've actually got to play those extra notes. To be honest, you're not playing only pentatonics anymore, but you're thinking with pentatonics, and maybe adding some of its sounding to the whole mode.
    clow539
    Sorry guys! For this sentence "All you gotta do is find which one is the Ionian(or Eolic if you prefer) for the D Lydian, which is the A major(or F# minor).", I meant D Mixolydian!
    johnisme
    wow, i had been searching for years for something that explained modes how i could understand them...., and this finally explained them for me thank you
    JBEADAM
    This answered a lot of my questions. very good. You should do more lessons, mate.
    Demarkos
    i will have to re read this over again very educational infact it breaks soloing down to child play lol
    fivefiveFIVE
    good lesson man, still trying to wrap my head around it all but I am most certainly progressing thanks to your efforts!
    clow539
    yes, you can use any combination of notes in all the boxes. you just got to make sure they are in the correct order (yes, you'll need the 2nd and 3rd in between the 4th if you want to use it, but that doesnt mean you have to hit notes in the 2nd and 3rd to reach it), and the one with the root note is where you need it (that means the root note must be the key you're in) if you actually take a closer look at the boxes, they are the same five notes repeated through the whole fretboard. its good to end your licks or phrases with strong notes, but that comes with practice and ear training. otherwise, it sounds unnatural. eventually, it becomes second nature to find the boxes without looking too much for the root note or going down the boxes. just practice! good luck
    dragondail
    There is just one thing i can't understand. If i start with the 1:st shape with F as the root note and then go on to the second shape, is the second shape still in F? And if yes, does this mean that i can play all these shapes in F, if i started with F as root note? And, can i put together a solo with box 1 and 4 and they are both in the key of F? Or do i need box 2 and 3 between them? Sorry if it sounds weird, i hope you understand.
    dragondail
    above I just realised that i wrote F but let's change it to G or something else in the minor pentatonic scale.
    HeyPetray
    It seems that music theory has everything to do with relativity. If I play the pentaBox 5 (Eolic) starting with the open E string, I'm essentially playing the E minor pentatonic scale, right? When I get to the bottom (G) of that box, I could play PentaBox 1 (Ionian) beginning with A (5th fret, E string)and this would mean I was playing a different mode, but in the same key of E minor? I'm sure it's something I can learn from rereading, but if you could point out any flawed thinking, I'd appreciate it. Great Lesson!