Minor Pentatonic Positions (And How to Break Out of Them)

Beginner lesson on all the positions of the Minor Pentatonic scale plus a bonus lick to "break out of the box."

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Beginnings of a Rockstar: Minor Pentatonic Scales

The almighty minor pentatonic scale: the 5 notes (penta = 5) that make up the bulk of your favorite solos, riffs and lines across a multitude of genres (especially Blues and Rock). It's usually one of the first scales, if not the first, that guitarists learn and there's a good reason for that.

The scale contains only 5 notes instead of the 7 that form a "full" major/minor scale. This alone makes the shapes "finger friendly" and it takes out the intimidation a bit out of soloing and applying them right away. Another great aspect of the minor pentatonic scale is the bare bones approach to the notes. It basically strips the "fancy notes" of a full minor scale and leaves you with the essential ones.

When playing the minor pentatonic against a minor chord or a progression in a minor key, these 5 essential notes will sound great against the chords 99% of the time and won't sound dissonant or "step on them" harmonically speaking. But don't begin to think that just because there's only 5 notes that it's limiting.

Today we'll be looking at the 5 basic shapes and positions for the scale. It's pretty common to see them being played in what are known as "box positions." With this method, the scale is played in a range of 3-4 frets across all 6 strings. This is a vertical approach with the scale being played in a specific spot of the fret board creating a box-y look to the scale. With these 5 positions, not only will you have ample ammunition to play cool licks and solo, but also you'll be exploring the whole fret board.

The approach we'll be taking for these scale shapes is a one-finger per fret approach. Like I stated before, we play the box positions on a 3-4 fret range on the fret board so we will assign one finger to play al the notes that are on one particular fret. For example, one of the positions is played all between the 5th and 8th fret. We'll use our index finger for all the notes played on the 5th fret, the middle finger for all the notes on the 6th fret, the ring finger for all the notes on the 7th fret and our pinky for all the notes played on the 8th fret. This accomplishes 2 things:
  1. We work out and use all of our fingers
  2. And more importantly, it keeps our hands from moving unnecessarily. If we only used 1-2 fingers, we would constantly have to move our hand around to play in this cluster of 3-4 frets.
We'll be working with the A minor pentatonic scale today (one of the most common keys on guitar based songs). Let's get right into it.
E|------------------------------------------0---3 
B|----------------------------------1---3--------
G|--------------------------0---2----------------
D|------------------0---2------------------------
A|----------0---3--------------------------------
E|--0---3----------------------------------------
E|------------------------------------------3---5 
B|----------------------------------3---5--------
G|--------------------------2---5----------------
D|------------------2---5------------------------
A|----------3---5--------------------------------
E|--3---5----------------------------------------
E|------------------------------------------5---8 
B|----------------------------------5---8--------
G|--------------------------5---7----------------
D|------------------5---7------------------------
A|----------5---7--------------------------------
E|--5---8----------------------------------------
E|------------------------------------------8--10 
B|----------------------------------8--10--------
G|--------------------------7---9----------------
D|------------------7--10------------------------
A|----------7--10--------------------------------
E|--8--10----------------------------------------
E|-----------------------------------------10--12 
B|---------------------------------10--13--------
G|--------------------------9--12----------------
D|-----------------10--12------------------------
A|---------10--12--------------------------------
E|-10--12----------------------------------------
E|-----------------------------------------12--15 
B|---------------------------------13--15--------
G|-------------------------12--14----------------
D|-----------------12--14------------------------
A|---------12--15--------------------------------
E|-12--15----------------------------------------
So now you're armed with the basic pentatonic knowledge to take over Blues and Rock solos worldwide. While I'm excited for you, there is one fun bonus concept I wanted to include that I believe is important. As I've stated before, and as you've experienced by now, these are separate, "boxy" shapes that keep you in a specific area of the fretboard.

Once you've mastered these shapes, you can break out of these pentatonic "boxes" and play these notes all across the neck. Instead of playing the minor pentatonic scale vertically, you'd be playing them horizontally. The key to this is to take small sections of each shape, find strategic spots to move to the next shape and slide in and out of them. The last thing will be looking at is an extended shape (or extensive lick if you wish to think of it that way) that takes us from the 3rd fret all the way up to the 14th fret. This concept is something I have ingrained in me as much as the box shapes themselves. It's so much fun and adds a little extra flare to your solos.
E-------------------------------------------------- 
B-------------------------------------------8--10--
G-------------------------------5---7--/9----------
D-----------------------5---7----------------------
A-----------3---5--/7------------------------------
E---3---5------------------------------------------
E-8--10---8---------------------------------------- 
B------------10---8-------8-/13--------------------
G---------------------9----------14--12----------14
D----------------------------------------14--12----
A--------------------------------------------------
E--------------------------------------------------
Well there you have it. We've touched on the foundation of pentatonic knowledge plus the secret to take over the fretboard with them. The Internet is scattered with backing tracks in A minor that you could use these over so go have fun. I hope you guys enjoyed the lesson and I'll see you next time.

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