Pentatonic scales

Scales & modesPentatonic scales are frequently used in music all over the world : Eastern, European, Mediterranean, African, Amerindian, Oceania. The word "pentatonic" comes from the Greek word "pente" meaning five and "tonic" meaning tone.  They are considered earlier than heptatonic scales. They are divided in two categories :

  • Containing semitones (hemitonic)
  • Without semitones (anhemitonic)

There are many pentatonic scales, the best known are the major pentatonic scale and the minor pentatonic scale (also known as "the relative minor pentatonic"). They do not have semitones (anhemitonic). These two scales are very important for jazz blues guitar players and improvisers.

The five modes of the major pentatonic scale

Each degree of the major pentatonic scale (which is what we are interested in) can provide a tonic for a mode. There are five modes :

  • Mode I (major pentatonic) that consists of the first, second, major third, perfect fifth and sixth.
  • Mode II aka Egyptian pentatonic scale or Dorian pentatonic scale (no third, suspended scale) : 1 - 2 - 4 - 5 - b7
  • Mode III (minor) : 1 - b3 - 4 - b6 - b7
  • Mode IV aka Ritusen scale (no third, suspended scale) : 1 - 2 - 4 - 5 - 6
  • Mode V (minor pentatonic) that contains the same five notes as the major pentatonic scale, but its tonic (first note of the scale) is three semitones below the tonic of the major pentatonic scale : 1 - b3 - 4 - 5 - b7

The relative minor

What's the relative minor pentatonic scale ?

For every major scale there is a relative minor scale and for every minor scale there is a relative major.

  • Relative minor scales begin on the sixth degrees of major scales.
  • Relative major scales begin on the third degree of minor scales.

These two rules works for all the scales and chords.

Let's take an example with the C major pentatonic (C - D - E - G - A). It has the same notes as the A minor pentatonic (A - C - D - E - G). The sixth degree of the major pentatonic scale is the tonic of the minor pentatonic scale.

Pentatonic relativity 1

Now another example with the G minor pentatonic scale (G-Bb-C-D-F). The relative major pentatonic scale start on the third degree of G minor. Thus giving the Bb pentatonic scale (Bb-C-D-F-G).

Pentatonic relativity

Rare pentatonic scales

Now that we have talked about the most played pentatonic scales, here are some other pentatonic scales rarely used, some of them have altered notes :

These following are from the major scale :

  • Dorian pentatonic scale : 1 - 2 - b3 - 5 - 6. This scale is sometimes referred to as "Kumoï".
  • Phrygian pentatonic scale aka Dorian b2 pentatonic : 1 - b2 - - 5 - b7 
  • Lydian pentatonic scale : 1 - 2 - 3 - #4 - 6 (major pentatonic scale with a sharp eleventh instead of the perfect fifth).
  • Mixolydian pentatonic scale or dominant pentatonic scale : 1 - 2 - 3 - 5 - b7 (mixolydian mode without the sixth and the fourth).
  • Aeolian pentatonic scale : 1 - 2 - b3 - 5 - b6 (minor pentatonic with a minor sixth). There are different opinions about the construction of the aeolian pentatonic scale. Some teachers says that it contains the same notes as the minor pentatonic scale. It is also named "Hirajoshi scale".
  • Locrian pentatonic scale - 1 - b3 - 4 - b5 - b7 (Locrian mode without the flat ninth and the flat sixth).

It's possible to build pentatonic scales from the melodic minor scale :

  • Melodic minor pentatonic scale aka minor major 7 pentatonic scale : 1 - b3 - 4 - 5 - 7 (this is the melodic minor mode without the second and the sixth)
  • Major seventh sharp fifth pentatonic scale : 1 - 2 - 3 - #5 - 6
  • Seventh sharp eleventh pentatonic scale (Lydian pentatonic scale) : 1 - 2 - 3 - #4 - 6 (this pentatonic is related to the lydian dominant mode, fourth mode of the melodic minor scale)
  • Seventh flat thirteenth pentatonic scale : 1 -2 -3 -b6 -b7 (related to the mixolydian b13 mode)
  • Minor ninth flat fifth : 1 - 2 - b3 - b5 - b7 (related to the sixth mode of the harmonic minor scale)

Altered pentatonic scales

Exotic pentatonic scales

  • Egyptian scale aka suspended pentatonic  (1 - 2 - 4 - 5 - b7). This is the second mode of the major pentatonic scale.
  • Man gong scale : 1 - b3 - 4 - b6 - b7. It is a Chinese scale.
  • Pelog pentatonic scale : 1 -b2 - b3 - 5 - b6 . It is an Indian scale derived from the Pelog scale.
  • Ritusen scale : 1 - 2 - 4 - 5 - 6. 
  • Pygmy scale : 1 - 2 - b3 - 5 - b7. It is an african scale, discussed quickly here.

Japanese scales

  • Kumoïjoshi (mode I): 1 - b2 - 4 - 5 - b6 or 1 - 2 - b3 - 5 - 6. 
  • Chinese scale (mode II) : 1 -3 - #4 -5 - 7.
  • Hirajoshi scale (mode III) : 1 - 2 - b3 - 5 - b6. 
  • Iwato scale (mode IV): 1 - b2 - 4 - b5 - b7. 
  • Japanese (mode V) - 1 - 3 - 4 - 6 - 7.

Asian pentatonique scales

  • In Sen Scale (Mode I) : 1 - b2 - 4 - 5 - b7. 
  • Asian scale (Mode II) : 1 - 3 - b5 - 6 - 7
  • Asian scale (Mode III) : 1 - 2 - 4 - 5 - b6
  • Kokinjoshi scale (Mode IV) :  1 - b3 - 4 - b5 - b7
  • Kumoï scale (Mode I) : 1 - b2 - 4 - b5 - b
  • Kumoï scale (Mode II) : 1 - 3 - 4 - 6 - 7
  • Kumoï scale (Mode III) : 1 - b2 - 4 - 5 - b
  • Kumoï scale (Mode IV) : 1 - 3 - #4 - 5 - 7 
  • Kumoï scale (Mode V) : 1 - 2 - b3 - 5 - 6 

Other pentatonic scales

  • The minor pentatonic scale | Jazz guitar lesson & diagrams

    The minor pentatonic scale is one of the most important scales in jazz music, present in many styles of music. It is obvious that any jazz guitar student must be able to master it. This lesson shows you how to play the minor pentatonic scale using guitar diagrams and licks.
  • The major pentatonic scale | Guitar lesson & diagrams

    The major pentatonic scale is one of the most used of the pentatonic scales family. It is a must know for any jazz guitar student who wants to improvise over major chords. This guitar lesson provides you some fretboard diagrams, charts and licks to expand your improvisation skills.
  • The dominant pentatonic scale aka mixolydian pentatonic - Guitar lesson with diagrams and charts

    This guitar lesson provides you some diagrams and formula charts about the dominant pentatonic scale, aka mixolydian pentatonic, a misunderstood but a very useful pentatonic scale that any beginner should know. This modal pentatonic scale is a very good and efficient choice for soloing over dominant 7 chords.
  • The 7b9 pentatonic scale - Altered pentatonic scale - Guitar lesson with diagrams

    You want to improve your jazz guitar soloing skills on 7b9 chords, therefore the dominant 7b9 pentatonic scale is a very good alternative to the diminished scale. It belongs the altered pentatonic scales family. It is very easy to play when you want a smaller scale while highlighting the b9 of a dominant seventh chord.
  • The Dorian pentatonic scale - Guitar lesson with guitar neck diagrams, formula and licks

    The construction of the Dorian pentatonic scale can be a source of confusion. Indeed, there are four different kinds of Dorian pentatonic scales. The most known refer to the Kumoï scale. Check out this guitar lesson with neck diagrams, scale charts and licks to make the difference between these scales.
  • The Ritusen scale | Lesson and guitar shapes

    The Ritusen scale is an Asian pentatonic scale built with a root, a major second, a perfect fourth, a perfect fifth and a major sixth. You will find in this lesson some guitar diagrams and charts to understand this exotic scale.