If there’s one thing almost all guitar players have in common regardless of their genres, it’s the minor pentatonic scale.

From your first humble blues licks all the way to face-melting metal solos – the pentatonic shapes are at the melodic heart of most guitarists.

In this article, I’ll show the best way to learn the minor pentatonic shapes in all positions and give some useful exercises to help get them locked under your fingers.

What is a minor pentatonic scale?

The minor pentatonic is a five-note scale consisting of the root (1), b3, 4, 5, b7. It’s undoubtedly the most frequently used set of notes in the guitar world.

  • All notes within the scale fit with any diatonic chord progression as long as you’re in the same key.
  • For beginners, this is a great introduction to soloing.
  • The reason why the pentatonic scale works so well is because it doesn’t have any half-steps.

In the minor pentatonic scale, the 2nd and 6th scale degrees are removed. In other words, you reduce the risk of two notes clashing and creating dissonance.

If you want a more detailed explanation of what pentatonic scales are, watch this video about pentatonic scales:

How to play the minor pentatonic scale on the guitar

You can play the minor pentatonic in five different positions along the fretboard.

The first position is where the lowest note of a key is.

  • In the key of A minor, the first position starts on the 5th fret of the low E string.
  • In the key of G minor, the first position would start on the 3rd fret on the low E string.
  • The pattern and distances between the notes remain the same regardless of your starting position (the root note).

We’ll keep it simple for now and only focus on the A minor pentatonic scale in its first position:

This shape is easy to remember and only requires three fingers to play.

  • Use your index finger on all notes on the 5th fret.
  • Then use your pinky on the low E, B, and high e strings.
  • Your ring finger should be used on the middle strings.

Pentatonic scale exercises for guitar

Exercise #1

Step 1: Familiarize yourself with the shape.

  • Practice moving your fingers across the strings without plucking them.
  • Try not to lift the fingers more than a couple cm off the fretboard.

Step 2: Let’s add the picking hand. If you want, try to alternate between downstrokes and upstrokes as you move across the strings.

Then, practice it in the other direction.

I always think it’s a good idea to practice to a fixed tempo – use our metronome to stay in time! 

  • Start slowly, maybe 60 bpm, and increase the speed as you get more comfortable.
  • Once you’ve become familiar with the shape, start playing sections of the scale up and down on only a few of the strings.
  • It’s important to develop a feel for the scale by breaking away from strictly moving it up and down across all strings, playing all notes.

Here are two examples:

There are endless patterns and licks you create here, so experiment and have fun!

Riff #1

Let’s put what we’ve learned into musical context and play a pentatonic classic – Black Sabbath’s Paranoid:

Even if you already know this riff, visualize it within the pentatonic shape.

Riff #2

If you’re a little more advanced, take a look at this second example – Back in Black by AC/DC. We’ll focus on the lick at the end of the main riff:

  • We’re using the same shape as above, it’s moved down to an open position instead.
  • That means all the notes that you played with your index finger will be open strings.
  • For many guitar players, this is the first (and sometimes tragically only) scale they ever learn.
  • That’s why so many riffs, melodies, and solos are based around it – it’s truly the foundation for so many great guitar players.

Let’s take a look at some additional scale positions.

Exercise #2

You can start any minor pentatonic scale anywhere on the fretboard, but to move it around between positions, you’ll have to adjust the pattern of the notes.

The first position that I showed you is probably the easiest shape to memorize. 

Here’s the second position of the A minor pentatonic scale.

We’ve moved up from the 5th fret as our starting position to the 8th fret.

  • As you can see the shape is a little less symmetrical than the previous position, but it follows on from our last position.
  • You can see that, where the previous shape ends, the next one begins.
  • The b3 on the low E string is the same note you played with using your pinky in the first position.

This is an important concept to understand and visualize. All notes on the 7th and 8th frets are exactly the same as the notes you played in the first position.

  • When we go between positions, we’re actually just adding one single note to each string.
  • This will help you connect the shapes as you move between them and also reduces the amount you need to memorize.

There are two ways to practice this.

One will get you familiar with the shape and pattern, and the other is great for finger strength and dexterity.  

Step 1: Play the scale using the fingers you’re most comfortable using just to familiarize yourself with the pattern.

Pay close attention to the notes on the D, G, and B strings since they’re all different.

Step 2: Play the same scale but use a more economical fingering style.

  • E: Ring finger and pinky finger
  • A: Index and pinky
  • D: Index and pinky
  • G: Index and ring
  • B: Middle and pinky
  • E: Middle and pinky

The point here isn’t that you should always play this second position of the A Minor Pentatonic scale using these fingers. It’s a great way to build strength in your fingers while memorizing the scale patterns.

Exercise #3

Now I’ll show you how to combine the first two positions and play three notes per string. This will also help you visualize and connect the larger pattern of available notes within the A minor pentatonic.

Practice this shape in both directions.

  • If this is too much of a stretch, move the pattern up the neck until it's comfortable.
  • Then move back down a few frets at a time as your dexterity improves.

Get comfortable with these three-note-per-string patterns (3NPS) and you’ll have an awesome foundation for creating more interesting melodic lines.

Again, these entire shapes are movable between different keys. So if you wanted to play in Ab minor, you’d just start one half step lower.

Other minor pentatonic guitar patterns

Tackle one position at a time, and learn each one thoroughly before moving on to the next scale position.

Third position

After practicing this for a bit, see if you can add this to the previous exercise so you have four notes per string.

  • As you start adding scale notes for each string, you’ll start to see larger patterns across the entire fretboard.
  • Scales are there to show you potential pathways all over the neck, not keep you in boxes!
Fourth position

As you see, these are the same shape but at different positions on the fretboard. That’s because they’re exactly one octave apart – this is the same for the next position too.

Fifth position

Exercise #4

A good way to learn the minor pentatonic scale positions is to combine two at a time, just as we connected positions 1 and 2 in Exercise #3.

  • Next, try to combine 2 and 3.
  • After that, you can put together positions 4 and 5, and so on.

Why is the minor pentatonic scale so popular on guitar?

People who start playing the electric guitar typically want to do more than the basic open chords. The pentatonic scale is a great and easy way to open improvisation and introduce some melody to your playing.

Pentatonic scales are simple, yet very powerful.

  • They’re the bread and butter for most blues, rock, and metal guitar players.
  • You’ll start to notice familiar pentatonic patterns in famous songs when you’re trying to learn them.

We looked at Black Sabbath and AC/DC using the minor pentatonic scales in the examples above. Guns N’ Roses and Led Zeppelin are another two blues-inspired bands that use the minor pentatonic very frequently as well.

What comes next?

The next step is to dive into the major pentatonic scale if you haven’t already.

The principles of it are the same

  • Five notes with the semi-tones removed
  • The shapes and patterns are identical.

The only difference is the context in which we view them – they have different start and end points.

Want to learn how to solo fluently with the pentatonic scales? Check out a 14-day free trial to Pickup Music. 

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