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The Pentatonic Minor scale is a musical scale commonly used by guitarists. The name, "Pentatonic", derives from the stems "penta" meaning five and "tonic" meaning tones. In the case of the Pentatonic Minor, the five "tones" (or notes) are taken from the Natural Minor scale.

Natural Minor vs. Pentatonic Minor

The Pentatonic Minor scale is arguably the most heavily used scale in all of modern music. Although guitarists should learn the scale in all positions of the neck (there are five different patterns), one pattern gets used considerably more often than the others. That pattern is:

Pentatonic Minor Scale - Common Pattern

Unfotunately, people don't use consistent names for the patterns of the Pentatonic Minor scale. I've seen the above called "Pattern 1," "Pattern 2," and "Pattern 4." Undoubtedly, somebody, somewhere calls it "Pattern 3" and somebody else is calling it "Pattern 5." Fortunately, the name matters little; it's the pattern itself that's important.

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When the above pattern is applied to the 12th position (i.e. the 12th fret), the resulting scale is the E Pentatonic Minor (assuming standard tuning). This scale and pattern alone accounts for a massive number of rock guitar licks and solos. Below are a couple examples.

This first example is a lick that Slash repeats several times at the end of the Sweet Child o' Mine's solo (GnR tunes down a 1/2 step and therefore this is really Eb Pentatonic Minor).

Repeated Sweet Child o Mine Lick

Next is an ascending run toward the end of Jimmy Page's solo in Good Times, Bad Times. Notice how this run is just a sequence applied to the above pattern.

Ascending Run From Good Times Bad Times

Once you become familiar and comfortable with the Pentatonic Minor scale, you'll find it to be a valuable addition to your guitar-playing arsenal. Transcribing guitar music (i.e. figuring it out by ear) is always easier when you know the key and scale(s) that are being used. With so many songs based around the Pentatonic Minor scale, often you can just identify a few notes and immediately recoginize one of the Pentatonic Minor patterns. From that point forward, you know a set of notes that are highly likely to show up in the remainder of the solo or lick.

Additionally, knowledge of the scale is a valuable asset when improvising or writing songs. Some may consider the scale cliche. But there's a reason why so many people use the scale - it sounds good! So, if you judiciously incorporate it into your improvising and/or song writing, chances are it's going to sound good - especially if you make practicing the scale part of your normal routine and develop a level of technical comfort with the scale.

From a musical perspective, there are some interesting characteristics of the Pentatonic Minor scale. Firstly, it incorporates the two most powerful intervals of the octave, namely the perfect 4th and the perfect 5th. Of course, every scale has a root. Therefore, with just the root, 4th and 5th, we have three of the five notes. Almost all scales have a third in order to establish major vs. minor tonality. So if we pick one note to include between the root and the 4th, it makes sense for it to be the minor 3rd. If we were to choose the major 3rd, we would have a full major third interval between the first two notes of the scale and the second two notes would be consecutive - that would be odd. The addition of the final note between the 5th and the ocative is chosen similarly such that it is a minor third above the 5th and a whole tone (2nd) below the octave. In many ways, this is a logical way to divide up an octave into five notes.

Another aspect of the Pentatonic Minor scale that's nice for guitar players is that 3 of the five notes are spaced a whole tone apart. This means that three of the notes can be bent up a whole tone (a very common bending interval) and land on another note in the scale.

Knowledge of the Pentatonic Minor scale is also important because of its relationship to other scales. One example of such a scale is the Pentatonic Major scale. Just as the Natural Minor scale shares the same notes as it's relative Major scale, the Pentatonic Minor shares the sames notes with it's relative Pentatonic Major scale. To get the Pentatonic Major scale, you just take the minor 3rd of the Pentatonic Minor scale and make it the root. This means once you learn all five patterns for the Pentatonic minor, you've also learned all the patterns for the Pentatonic Major (nice...).

Another example is the Blues scale. The blues scale is constructed by taking the Pentatonic Minor scale and adding one more interval, the flatted 5th. This gives three chromatically spaced notes: 4th, flatted 5th, and the 5th. Since most rock music evolved out of the Blues, the Blues scale is an important scale to know. In particular, Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin was especially fond of the Blues scale. For example, the riff to Heartbreaker was constructed directly from the Blues scale, flatted 5th and all.

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