The First Scale You Should Perfect...
Updated: Apr 4
You may have just started learning the guitar or you may have been playing for a number of years, but the most important scale for you is still the lowly pentatonic, which is why it’s often the first one you learn and certainly the one I teach my students right away.
The chances are even if you are a beginner you’ll have heard of the pentatonic scale and if you’ve been playing for a number of years, there’s no doubt you will have. If you’re like many of us you may be on the search for something new and have spent lots of time looking at a number of exotic scales to spice up your playing, and there’s nothing wrong with this. We all want new ideas to inspire us and make our playing a little more individual.
But before you disappear down that rabbit hole, stay with me and perfect just this one scale, and here’s why:
1- It’s the simplest with only 5 notes, hence the prefix ‘penta’ meaning 5 as in pentagon.
2- It’s used in most popular genres including rock, metal, blues, country, jazz, funk and pop.
3- By moving just 1 note you can create melodic and harmonic minor sounds.
4- By adding just 1 note you can include the colour tones of the other major or minor modes e.g. the Dorian or Phrygian.
5- By adding just 1 note you can create the ‘blues scale’.
6- Using the scale as a map, you can easily learn the root chords and arpeggios all over the neck.
7- You can easily create a left and right hand tapping patterns.
Honestly, the list goes on but I’m going to stop there for now and look at some of the above in a little more detail.
The Simplest Scale
As mentioned above, it’s called the pentatonic scale as there are only 5 notes in it, and whether it’s the major or minor the patterns on the fretboard remain the same, we just start from a different root note, so once you’ve learnt the minor you can use the major and vice versa – 2 for the price of 1!
Here is the first position of the A minor pentatonic scale:
And here is the same position but seen as the C major pentatonic scale:
It’s Used in Many Genres
What do Gilmour, Slash, Zack Wylde, Albert King, and many other famous guitarists have in common?
That’s right, they all have all utilised the pentatonic scales, maybe with a few little embellishments here and there, but that’s what makes it such a great scale – it’s easy to learn and then easy to use as a reference point to jump into other sounds.
Here’s a couple of examples to get you inspired.
The Harmonic and Melodic Minor Sound
Let’s take a quick look at these scales before we go any further. Firstly, they are clearly both minor scales, which means they have the b3, but what other notes do they contain?
The Harmonic Minor:
The scale formula is: Root, 2nd, b3rd, 4th, 5th, b6th , 7th. Check out the diagram:
Now, if we ignore the yellow circles we get this:
Look familiar? It’s just the minor pentatonic scale with the b7th moved up to the natural or major 7th. If you know your minor pentatonic well, then it’s very easy to adapt it and play that natural 7th when you want that harmonic minor sound.
Here’s an example lick.
Try it out yourself against the backing track here. It's just A minor all the way through this track so it's great for trying out new ideas in that key.
The Melodic Minor
This diagram shows the melodic minor.
You can view this in two ways really: 1 – it’s the major scale (Ionian) with a flattened 3rd, or it’s the natural minor scale (Aeolian) with a raised 6th and 7th.
Its formula is: Root, 2nd, b3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th.
But importantly for us, if we ignore the yellow notes again, we get the same pattern as with the Harmonic minor scale. Again 2 for the price of 1!
Let’s briefly take a look at a couple of notes we can add to spice up the basic pentatonic rather than just moving one. We’re going to use the minor pentatonic again for this.
The Blues Scale
The amazing Blues scale is formed by just adding in the b5 (flat 5). This is commonly called the ‘Blue Note’ and sounds just great if played tastefully – you generally want to use it as a passing note, don’t hang on it.
Here you can see that all we’ve done is added one more note (yellow circle) into the mix and we’ve got a whole new bluesy / jazzy sound.
Here's another lick to try out that incorporates that Blue Note sound:
The Natural Minor and other Modes.
If we take this in another direction, we can add the colour tones associated with the natural minor and other minor modes, the Dorian and Phrygian, while at the same time avoiding the b6th which is often considered an ‘avoid’ note – again, one you probably don’t want to hang on – especially with the Natural Minor (Aeolian) and Phrygian.
Natural Minor scale:
And a lick to try out:
And here’s how it would look if we wanted a Dorian sound with a natural 6th:
Or how about a Phrygian sound with a b2?
I hope you’ve found this interesting and found the time to check out the example licks. Remember to play them along to the backing track so you can hear those sounds in context, that’s what really matters – how the notes sound against the chords you’re playing with.
Now it's your turn. Put on your favourite backing track and experiment, but most of all, have fun!
And remember, this is just a quick look at the entire concept and there’s so much more to cover. If you want to find out more, check out the other lessons available.