How to practice pentatonic scales

How to Practice Pentatonic Scales On Guitar

Pentatonic scales are scales with five notes per octave. They are frequently used in music all over the world. The word "pentatonic" comes from the Greek word "pente" meaning five and "tonic" meaning tone.

Talk of "the" pentatonic scale generally make reference to the major pentatonic scale and its relative minor. It's a mistake, indeed there are many types of pentatonic scales (Egyptian, Ritusen, Man gong, Altered, Locrian...).

Pentatonic scales are considered earlier than heptatonic scales (seven-note scales) and can be divided into two categories :

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

The purpose of this post is to propose some tips and ideas for practicing and develop pentatonic scales.

Major and Minor Pentatonic Scales

How to Play Major and Minor Pentatonic Scales?

The best known are surely the major pentatonic and the minor pentatonic scales (also known as "the relative minor pentatonic"). They do not have semitones they belong to the anhemitonic family. They contain the same notes, 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.

Let's take an example with 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 C major pentatonic is the tonic of A minor pentatonic scale.

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

Pentatonic Scale Boxes

What Are pentatonic Boxes?

Major and minor Pentatonic scales are commonly grouped in five positions named "boxes" corresponding to the five pentatonic modes of the major pentatonic scale. Learning these "boxes" can be useful when you want to cover all the guitar neck. Here they are :


Pentatonic One Octave Shapes

However, the most efficient way to master pentatonic scales is to play them in "one octave shapes" and transpose them in the twelve keys. Any guitar student must be able to play any pentatonic scale in one-octave shapes starting on any string at any fret. This also applies to every scale.

Major Pentatonic One-octave Shapes

Minor Pentatonic One-octave Shapes

How to Develop Pentatonic Scales?

Now that you are familiar with the common pentatonic shapes both major and minor, we will see how to develop them on the guitar neck.

4 Directions

Many beginner guitarists used to practice scales in two directions only, generally "up-up" and "down-down". It is a good place to begin. However, it is important to practice them in all four directions :

  • Up & up

Pentatonic scale up up

  • Up & down

Pentatonic scale up down

  • Down & down

Pentatonic scale down down

  • Down & up

Pentatonic scale down up

You must be able to play the major and minor pentatonic scales (and any other scale) in all four directions using the one-octave shape diagrams previously seen. This is an excellent warm up exercise.

The Cycle of Fifths

​​​​Now you can try to play pentatonic scales following the circle of fifths. The circle of fifths is a useful device when you want to practice cycle of fifthsscales, chords or arpeggios over the 12 keys. 

Generally it is presented in the form of a circular diagram that shows the sharps and flats in each key, and show how a key works in relation to one another. You can check the interactive circle of fifths by Rand Scullard.​​

The first example below, show you how to play the major pentatonic scale following the circle of fifths in up & up movement, whereas the second is up & down.

You need to do the same down & up and down & down with both minor and major pentatonic scales.






Pentatonic scale circle of fifths up down





Pentatonic scale circle of fifths up up

The Cycle of Fourths

cycle of fourthsThe circle of fourths is also great for practicing scales, chords and arpeggios. It is very efficient to learn about the guitar neck and give the student a solid intuition of chord progressions.

This is the relationship between the twelve notes of the chromatic scale. Every note resolves to another note a fourth above it. In other words, by following the circle of fourths, you play all the notes separated from each other by five semitones (a fourth).

While the cycle of fifths moves from left to right, if you move from right to left, then you have the cycle of fourths.

So now, try to play the major and minor pentatonic scales following the circle of fourths in all four directions (up & up, down & down, up & down, down & up).

Other Intervals

Another good way to practice the pentatonic scales consist to play them by intervals  (seconds, thirds, sixths and sevenths) following once again the four directions previously seen. You can check out this page that lists the intervals.

Here is an example of major pentatonic scales played in intervals of minor thirds (Three semitones).

Pentatonic scale in intervals



Melodic Patterns

A melodic pattern is a repetitive sequence or a figure that can be used with any scale. Melodic patterns are very useful for learning scale fingerings and develop your sense of improvisation. The concept is simple, the variations endless.

The principle is to play the notes of a scale in a certain order. For example, with the C major pentatonic scale which is C-D-E-G-A :

  • C is the I degree (1)
  • D is the II (2)
  • E the III (3)
  • G the V (5)
  • A the VI (6)

You can choose to play the pattern 1-3-2-5-6 thus giving the following exercise :

Pentatonic scale pattern 1






Now, try another pattern : 2-3-1-5-6

Pentatonic scale pattern 4






The possibilities are endless. Now that you have understood the principle, try to create your own melodic patterns by playing them in intervals following the four directions.

 Please note that all these exercises can be applied to any scale. Don't forget to vary the rhythm and the fingerings on the guitar neck in order to create your own exercises.

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