Before reading this blog it is necessary that you understand the construction of major scales. Luckily we have a blog post on major scales if you are unfamiliar with major scales.
Major pentatonic scales are used by guitar players and other instrumentalists in all styles of music ranging from pop to rock to country to jazz. They can be used for soloing, improvisation, song writing and much more. If you haven’t been using major pentatonic scales, it’s about time you started!
Major pentatonic scales are five note scales, hence the name pentatonic. Major pentatonic scales are derived from major scales simply by removing the fourth and seventh degree. For Example:
C Major Pentatonic
C D E F G A B C is a C Major scale. The intervals between the notes are Tone Semitone Tone Semitone. Now remove the F (the fourth note from the root) and the B (The seventh note from the root). Now you have a C major pentatonic scale. C D E G A C.
Here’s a C major pentatonic scale in open position. Work your way up the scale, then down past the root, then back up to the root, just like you would with your major scales, or any other scale for that matter. Listen carefully to the sound of the scale.
D Major Pentatonic
Now lets look at a D major scale. The notes in a D major scale are D E F# G A B C# D. Let’s do a quick review of why there are two sharps in this key. Remember that Tone Semitone Tone Semitone are the distances in any major scale, so the notes F and C must be raised a semitone to preserve those intervals. D to E is a Tone, then E to F is a Semitone. That’s not good! We have to raise it to F#, thus making it a Tone. Moving on, F# to G is a Semitone (good), G to A is a tone (good), A to B is a tone (good), then B to C is a semitone. We have to do the same thing now and raise the C to a C#. Now C# to D is a semitone and we’re all good! Now we have D E F# G A B C# D and the distances (or intervals) between those notes are T T S T T T S.
Finally lets derive the D major pentatonic scale from here. All we have to do is remove the fourth and seventh degrees. The fourth note from the root and the seventh note from the root. Now we have D E F# A B.
The Fourth and Seventh Degree in the Major Pentatonic Scale
Another question is why we remove the fourth and seventh degree. The short answer is because they are the notes that have the most tension and really want to resolve. That’s why the major pentatonic has the tendency to wander and sounds very pleasant. Because there is very little need to resolve any of the notes, it makes soloing with the major pentatonic scale easy in comparison to some other scales.
At some point you will want to learn to play this scale all over the guitar fretboard in open position and the five movable positions, but that’s for another day. For now, learn to carefully play the major pentatonic scale on your guitar using the diagram on this page. Carefully listen to the sound of the scale and learn to play up and down the scale with no mistakes.