Major and Minor Pentatonic Scales and When to Use Them

Pentatonic scales can be heard in all types of music from blues and rock to jazz and country. They are a great tool to start out with if you want to learn to improvise or start writing your own solos. I won’t cover the theory behind pentatonic scales in this lesson, as this lesson takes a more practical approach towards learning and using pentatonic scales. That said, to get the most out of pentatonic scales, you will want to understand some of the theory behind pentatonic scales and when to use them.

Below are the most common fingering patterns for the major pentatonic scale and the minor pentatonic scale.

You may have noticed that the two scales (major and minor) have identical fingering, except for the fact that the roots are found at different locations. This makes learning the major and minor pentatonic scale easy! The reason for this is that each major scale (pentatonic in this case) has a relative minor scale that contains the same note.

  • Example: The A Minor Pentatonic Scale is the relative minor of the C Major Pentatonic scale. Both scales contain the same notes, and are only differentiated by which note the scale begins on (if you are playing the scale from root to root) or whether you are emphasizing the major or minor root in your playing (if you are using the scale for a more practical purpose such as a solo).
  • Even with no knowledge of music theory, it is simple to find relative major and minor notes using your guitar. As you could probably figure out from looking at the scale patterns, the relative minor note is simply 3 frets below the major note. For example: find a C on your guitar (let’s use the 8th fret on the 6th / low-E string for this example). If you want to find the relative minor of C Major, slide down 3 frets to the 5th fret, and you will find that A Minor is the relative minor of C Major. To find the relative major of a minor scale, simply reverse this process by sliding up 3 frets.

When to Use the Major / Minor Pentatonic Scales

  • Playing over Major Chords
    • Major pentatonic scale (example: use C Major Pentatonic over a C Major Chord)
    • Minor pentatonic scale for a “bluesy” sound (example: use C Minor Pentatonic of a C Major Chord)
  • Playing over Minor Chords
    • Minor pentatonic scale (example: use A Minor Pentatonic of an A Minor Chord)
  • Playing  over Dominant 7thChords
    • Major pentatonic scale (example: use C Major Pentatonic over a C7 chord)
    • Minor pentatonic scale (example: use A Minor Pentatonic over an A7 chord)
  • Playing in a specific key
    • Major Key: pentatonic major or pentatonic minor scale
    • Minor Key: pentatonic minor scale

Note: I have only mentioned a few basic chord types because this is an introductory lesson but the pentatonic scale can be used over many more chord types. If you are interested in how to use pentatonic scales over other types of chords there are resources all over the web, or you can feel free to ask me for more information in the comments section.


  • You will want to know the notes on the fretboard (especially on the 6th / low-E string) so that you know what key you are playing your major/minor pentatonic scale in, and also, so that you are able to locate relative major/minor notes. If you are not comfortable with this you may want to take a look at my fretboard diagram.
  • Become comfortable playing the pentatonic scales. The goal is not only being able to play the scales up and down, but being able to use the notes from the scales to create unique solos / sequences.
  • Although there are general rules for when each scale should be used (i.e. which scale should be played over a specific chord type), do not be afraid to experiment. You may create some interesting sounds by using scales in non “traditional” situations. Try recording yourself or having a friend play some chords (pentatonic scales sound great over a 12-bar blues), and first practice playing the pentatonic scales over the chords and then try to create some of your own pentatonic licks using the notes of the pentatonic scale.
  • Remember that although a major pentatonic scale and it’s relative minor pentatonic scale are made up of the same notes, they will produce a very different sound/feel depending on whether your playing focuses on the major or minor root.
  • Finally, although this lesson is primarily meant to get you thinking about using the pentatonic scale creatively in your playing, remember that scales in general are great practice tools as well. Playing scales with a metronome is great for working on you timing, speed, and technical aspects of your playing. The pentatonic scale patterns above are great because there are 2 notes on each string and, therefore, are easy to alternate pick.


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