The Ultimate Guide To Guitar. Chapter I: 3 Scales - The Basics - Pentatonic Scales

author: ZeGuitarist date: 11/03/2008 category: the guide to
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Part I - Chapter 3

Scales: The Basics - Pentatonic Scales

Hi everybody again! Welcome back to the Ultimate Guide to Guitar... Chapter 3! In the last article, we learnt the basics of chords: what they are, how to play them, and some basic chord progressions. Well, today is going to be an exciting lesson for all beginners... We are going to learn how to improvise solos over those basic chord progressions!

Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Zakk Wylde... They are all known for their crazy, often improvised solos. You didn't think they just played random notes real fast, did you? Of course they don't: the notes they play in their solos are all related. They sound good together like I used to say in my previous article, about chords. Well, just as chord progressions are made up of chords that sound good together, scales are made up of notes that sound good together. That's what we are going to learn about today!

This lesson is going to be mostly practical, because it's still a little too early to explain all the music theory behind scales. I'm going to teach you how to play some simple solos over some simple chord progressions, so you can practice and get better before we get to the challenging stuff!

In this chapter, we will learn the following things:
01.What is a scale? Some basic theory on scales and the notes in them... You will have to wait for Part II (novice) for the whole story though!
02.How scales relate to chords: why one scale can be used to solo over a certain chord progression, and another scale can't!
03.The A Minor Pentatonic scale: an easy example of a scale that you are going to use for soloing!

OK! Let's get going for your first lesson in improvisation and soloing!

What Is A Scale?

We are going to start off with a simple definition of a scale in this paragraph. In the next one, you will learn why a certain scale matches a certain chord progression... After that, we are going to play our own solos!

The whole scala of pitches (frequencies of sound waves) is divided up into notes. You probably know them already:


... or sometimes:

Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Si"

All the notes are separated by a certain distance, but that distance isn't the same between every note. I'm going to express this distance in steps. Now, between C and D for example, there is a distance of two steps. If you go up only one step from C, you get C# (C sharp), which is C raised with one step (this is the same as Db (D flat) which is D lowered with one step). Another step up is D. There are two steps between every note, with the exception of E and F and B and C. Between those notes, there is only one step. Therefore, there are no flats or sharps possible between E and F, nor between B and C. E# is F and Fb is E, B# is C and Cb is B. Get it?

So, the whole scala of notes is divided into steps:

  C     D     E     F     G     A     B     C
\2st/ \2st/ \1st/ \2st/ \2st/ \2st/ \1st/

(By the way, this is the scale of C Major! See later...)

The distance between C and D is called a whole tone, the distance between E and F is called a semitone. A whole tone equals 2 semitones. This means that the scala of notes is divided into 12 semitones... Count for yourself: 2+2+1+2+2+2+1=12! These are the 12 steps that the spectrum of pitches is divided into:
  C   C#   D   D#   E   F   F#   G   G#   A   A#   B
Db Eb Gb Ab Bb

Ok, so now we know which notes exist to choose from. From these notes, we can choose the notes that sound good together. These are the notes that form a scale together... Everybody still with me?

This brings us to the definition of scales:

A scale is a combination of notes that sound good together. The scale consists of a root note and 6 other notes that sound well with that root note.

Once more, I have to disappoint you: WHY exactly those notes sound good together is for Part II (novice), when we learn all about the diatonic scales. For beginners, it's good to know that some notes go well together and some don't. In a moment, I'll give you a diagram of a scale, and you can be sure that the notes in that diagram sound good together. So, you can use it to play, without worrying about the why! That's for later... I'll give you an example though, so we can keep going! Here is the scale of C Major:


We already know that one, don't we? This is a scale that doesn't use flats or sharps, that's why I chose it, it's easier to remember... This scale is a combination of the root C and 6 other notes that sound well together with the root... That's why we call it the scale of C Major!

So, now we defined scales, I'm going to give you another definition that is very important if you want to use scales for soloing! On to the next paragraph...

How Scales Relate To Chords

In the introduction to this lesson, I told you that some scales can be used to solo over a certain chord progression, and other scales can't. This is a very important aspect of using scales in solos and improvisations! You can't just take any song and play a solo over it with any scale...

Why not? Well, chords, chord progressions and scales are all based on a certain root note. For example, the chord progression:

C Dm Em F G Am

(remember that one?)

This chord progression is based on the root of C. Why? Every chord in this chord progression is constructed of notes, and ALL of the notes in ALL of the chords in this chord progression are notes from the scale of C Major. All those chords are constructed using only the notes C, D, E, F, G, A and B taken from the scala of 12 possible notes. Get it?

So, the logical consequence is: we are going to use the scale of C Major to solo over this chord progression! Simple isn't it?

Note: more than one scale matches with every chord progression. For example, this C Major chord progression goes well with the scale of C Major, but also the scale of A Minor. Why? That's, again, for later... Sorry! We'll just stick with the easy answer now!

Some terminology before we start playing: The chord progression and the scale both use the root note C, so we say that this chord progression is in the key of C. For a song in the key of C, we use the scale of C Major to improvise over it. Isn't that convenient? In a moment, I'm going to give you an A Minor chord progression, and we are going to use the scale of A Minor to play solos over it! Exciting!

The A Minor Pentatonic Scale

Enough with the theory! (Well, for now...) Let's get to the playing! I'm going to give you a backing track first, and then I'll give you the diagram of the scale you are going to use to play over that backing track. Here's the tab of the backing track:

The backing track is a typical 12-bar blues progression: 4 bars Am, 2 bars Dm, 2 bars Am, 1 bar Em, 1 bar Dm, 1 bar Am and finally 1 bar Em. (Note: If you have no idea what bars are, check the appendix of this article...)
I have also made 2 audio backing tracks of this tab: 1 version is the slow (60bpm) version with a triplet feel rhythm (Note: see appendix to learn about triplets and triplet feel rhythm), the other version is a faster (120bpm) version with regular rhythm.

A Minor Backing Track - Slow
A Minor Backing Track - Fast

Download these! If you follow these links, a player will show up and play the track for you... We are going to have a lot of fun with these tracks!

The backing tracks are in the key of A Minor. That means, we can use the A Minor scale to play solos over them! I'm going to give you the diagram of that scale, so you can start playing. Only, we're not going to use the entire A Minor scale... We are going to leave some notes out, so that the shape is easier to remember! Remember, we are going to learn all the scales anyway in a couple of weeks...

The A Minor scale consists of 7 notes: the root and 6 other notes. If we leave out the 2th and 6th note, we only have 5 notes left... The scale we have now is called the A Minor Pentatonic scale. Penta stands for 5, the five notes in the scale (as opposed to the regular diatonic scales with 7 notes). This is the scale we are going to use for soloing over the backing tracks! We are going to use 3 positions to play notes from this scale. Every position, or box, is a pattern on your fretboard showing the location of the notes in the A Minor Pentatonic scale. So, every box contains the same notes, only in different positions on the neck.

Box I is in the 5th position, and is the box we are going to use most:

Box II is in the 8th position:

And finally, box III is in the 12th position:

On these 3 images of the fretboard you can see where the notes in the A Minor Pentatonic scale are located, in the different positions. I've given the root notes a different color so you can distinguish them from the other notes...

Now here comes the good part! With the notes in this scale, you can do anything you want! Just let the backing track play, and just do WHATEVER you like with the notes in the scale! The scale is in key, so you don't have to worry about playing the wrong note, because there are none! Anything you do with this scale, over this backing track, will sound good!

I will first demonstrate this by giving you some examples of what you can do with these scales. Then I'll leave the rest to you, but I will give you some pointers about how to memorize and play this scale properly.

A. Examples Of A Minor Pentatonic Solos

So now you have a backing track, you have a scale, and we want to play solos. But you don't feel very creative right now, or you want somebody to at least let you hear an example of how to improvise over this backing track, before you want to try it yourself. I can perfectly understand this, and that is why I created an example solo for you guys to check out.

I tabbed the solo out for you:

As you can see, I used all three boxes of the A Minor Pentatonic scale. The first 4 bars use Box I, the next 4 bars use Box II, the next 2 bars use Box III and the last 2 bars go back to Box I.

I played this solo over both the slow and the fast backing track, so there's 2 examples for you: a slow solo and a fast one. Check them out here:

A Minor Pentatonic Solo - Slow
A Minor Pentatonic Solo - Fast

As you can hear, the solo sounded good over this backing track. I just wanted to illustrate how anything you play will sound good, as long as what you play is in key with the song or backing track!

Ok, now you had your example, it's your turn!

B. Improvising in A Minor Pentatonic

I can't really help you improvise better. Improvisation is letting your creativity speak with the notes that are provided to you. It's only up to you what you do with them... However, I can give you some useful pointers on memorizing and playing the scales easier!

  • Something very important to understand is playing in position. In order to develop strength in all of your fingers for playing solos, it is important that you use all of them. Therefore, you are going to assign every finger to a certain fret, a certain position on the neck. For example, Box I is in the 5th position, and the notes in the box are located on fret 5 to fret 8. You are going to assign your index finger to fret 5, your middle finger to fret 6 (though there are no notes on the 6th fret in Box I!), you ring finger to fret 7 and your pinky to fret 8.
    If you have to play a note on a certain fret, you are going to use only that finger that is assigned to that fret! For example, to fret the low E string at the 5th fret you use your index, to fret that string at the 8th fret you use your pinky. If you do that for every note in every position, your hand can stay nicely in place, you are letting your fingers do the work. Playing in position may seem tiring at first, but later on you'll be glad that you built up strength in your fingers!
  • In order to memorize the boxes, especially Box I, just play them over and over again, going from the lowest string to the highest and back. The best practice, however, is just playing and improvising along with the backing tracks. You will not only learn the position of the notes in the boxes, but also to be creative with them and improvise your own solos!
And finally a little tip to help your solos sound more interesting: change boxes often! Don't play in Box I all the time without moving your hand around... Switch regularly, so you can alternate between lower notes and higher notes! This will sound a little more complex than always the same notes in the same position...

Anyway, just have fun playing and improvising with these scales! You'll get better and better quickly and soon, we'll be doing the more advanced stuff...


I hate to let you guys wait. I like to know the whole story behind everything too. But it's just a LOAD of information and it's better to give it to you piece by piece, instead of trying to make you swallow the whole thing at once... But anyway, I hope you will have fun playing around with these scales and backing tracks! I really enjoyed making this lesson and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do...

Next lesson.



This appendix is for you if you don't know anything about the musical terminology like bars, eighth notes, triplets, time signature, ... I used a couple of musical terms like this in this lesson and I will continue to do so (well, I need to!). Here's a quick guide to the most important terms in music theory that you need to remember!

1. Time signature: every piece of sheet music begins with this: 2 numbers on top of each other. The top number indicates how many counts there are in a bar (a small piece of the music sheet between two vertical lines, here they are numbered in red). In this case, there are 4 counts in every bar, so you count 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4- etc. The bottom number shows the value of the note each count represents. In this case, each count represents a quarter note (see 2). If there are 4 counts in a bar, and 1 count represents a quarter note, 4 quarter notes fit in a bar (or 2 half notes, or 1 whole note, ...) Get it? Other often used time signatures are 3/4, 2/4, and 6/8.

2. Quarter note: a full circle with a stick on top (but no flag) represents a quarter note. It's called quarter note because it's a quarter of the value of the longest note in music notation, which is the whole note (11).

3. Quarter pause: a pause with the same duration as a quarter note.

4. Eighth note: represented by a full circle on a stick with a little flag on top of it. If there's another eighth note next to an eighth note, the flags will be connected to form a bridge between the notes. An eighth note is only half as long as a quarter note.

5. Eighth pause: a pause with the same duration as an eighth note.

6. Sixteenth note: represented by a full circle on a stick with 2 flags. They can connect to adjacent sixteenth notes like eighth notes do. A sixteenth note is only half as long as an eighth note, and 4 sixteenth note are as long as a quarter note.

7. Triplets: if you see 3 eighth notes with a bracket above them reading 3, they are not eighth notes but eighth triplets. This means, they are not half as long as a quarter note but only 1/3rd, so 3 of them fit into a quarter note instead of 2.

8. Half note: represented by a hollow circle on a stick. A half note is twice as long as a quarter note.

9. Connected notes: if 2 identical notes (not necessarily of the same duration, but the same pitch) are adjacent, they can be connected as shown. The second note isn't played separately anymore, you just hold the first note longer.

10. Dotted note: a dot placed to the right of a circle representing a note, means you add half of the value to the duration of the note. In this case, a half note is dotted. You now take half of its value, which is a quarter note, and add it to the original value. A dotted half note is 3 times longer than a quarter note, because it is in fact a half note and a quarter note.

11. Whole note: represented by a hollow circle, not on a stick. This is the highest value of duration in music notation. It is 4 times longer than a quarter note.

12. Whole pause: represented by a small rectangle hanging from the 2nd horizontal line from the top. If it's a small rectangle resting on the 3rd horizontal line, it's a half rest.

13. Triplet feel rhythm: a special rhythm often used in blues. You replace all the eighth notes with triplets, as shown in the picture: the first eighth note becomes a triplet quarter note, and the second eighth note becomes a triplet eighth note. It gives a different rhythmical feel to the song. (This is difficult to explain through words! But check out the backing tracks: the slow one uses triplet feel rhythm, the fast one doesn't. Try and listen to hear the difference!)
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