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Learning the Pentatonic minor scale

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The pentatonic minor scale is the one that’s been used by all world famous guitar players: Jimi Hendrix, BB King, Angus Young etc... and since it’s not very difficult to learn it, it is often the first scale that beginners learn. And this is what this tutorial will help you do.

Basics required for this lesson : Introducing scales for beginners,
Practice this lesson : None

This tutorial will help you learn how to play the pentatonic minor scale. I strongly recommend that you check out the tutorial on "How to read and practice a scale grid", as it actually explains how to read a scale grid, because this will not be reviewed in this tutorial. In order to learn this well, let's break it down in three parts:

  • the first part will list a few tips to help you learn all this in the best possible conditions. There will be some technical tips, on the fingering to use on the left hand for instance, but also some methodological guidance o how to practice.
  • the second part will include all the details on the five positions used in the A minor pentatonic scale,with a few tips and insights in terms of fingering, as well as a lot of zooming in so you can see exactly what you're supposed to do.
  • the third part will deal with doing as less movements as possible, and it will show you some essential tricks to help you get the best out of your scales (and that will help you in many other aspects of your guitar playing too), so don't skip it

General tips

First of all, let's see a few things that you need to know in order to learn these pentatonic minor scales appropriately.

Which guitar?

First, be aware that you can practice this on an electric guitar as well as on a acoustic guitar or classical guitar. Today's video tutorial is recorded with an electric guitar, but it would be the exact same practice on the other kinds of guitars.

Review the basics

Second, there is a tutorial named "How to read and practice a scale grid", in which you learned how to read a scale grid and a few exercises about this. So, if you don't feel very comfortable with this concept, go check out this tutorial.

The left hand

Let's now focus on the left hand. You need to know that, when it comes to practicing a scale grid, there are usually several possible fingerings. And there is not one that's better than the other. The following parts will deal with the different possible fingerings. I encourage you to try the different fingerings and pick the one you like most (whether because it's the easiest one to play, the easiest to memorize, or else). Once you have chosen your fingering, just practice this one for now. You will have the opportunity to practice the other ones later on.

You should also pay great attention to your left-hand position. Make sure you apply the one you learned in the tutorial on positioning your left hand, which is with your thumb behind the fretboard, with your wrist flexed and rounding your fingers close to the frets. You will probably be tempted to flatten your fingers and not stick to this position, but soon enough this will bring you more problems. So push yourself and stick to the good position from the beginning.

One more thing about positioning, never play barre chords while practicing a scale position. You may think that you can play several notes with just pressing one finger on several strings, but you really should not do that. Always keep your fingers rounded and move from one string to another.

The right hand

Regarding the right hand, the best thing to do when practicing a scale is to use a pick and play with a back-and-forth movement. However, if you're not very comfortable with this technique, you can just play downstrokes with your pick. This will enable you to start practicing, but you will be limited, so think about studying the tutorial on the back-and-forth movement so you can use it as soon as possible on your scale.

Also, watch out with the back-and-forth movement, it has to be a strict back-and-forth. No matter what string change or note change, a downstroke must always be followed by an upstroke, and an upstroke must always be followed by a downstroke. There is no exception to this rule in this lesson.

Don't study it all at once

In the second part of this tutorial, let's study the five positions of the pentatonic minor scale. However, this will not include details on how to practice these positions, as this has already been covered in the tutorial on scale grids, but here's a quick sum-up:

  • Study each grid one after the otherplay
  • from low-pitch to high-pitch notes
  • then play from high-pitch to low-pitch notes
  • repeat this exercise several times on a given grid before moving on to the following grid

Don't try to learn the five grids at once. First, focus on the first position, practice it slowly and appropriately, memorize it. Once you're comfortable with this first position, you may start learning the second position, while still practicing the first position. Once you're comfortable with this second position, you should add the third one, and so on… the goal is to end up knowing all five positions.

To gain speed

In order to gain speed on pentatonic scales, I strongly recommend that you practice them with a metronome. Beginners usually don't like it, but it is an essential tool. In addition, apply the tips covered in the tutorial on speed.

One more piece of advice, as it has been mentioned in the tutorial on scale grids, try remembering where the stresses are located when you work on your positions, this will help you a lot later on.

The five positions

Once again, this part covers the five positions of the pentatonic minor scale, but don't learn them all at once. Practice the first one and then come back later to ump on the second one, and so on… However, you can read the third part before having practiced all positions, this is actually highly recommended.

First position

Here's the grid for this first position:

First position A minor pentatonic scale

As you can see, you'll need to play the 5th fret on all strings, followed whether by the 8th fret or by the 7th fret. So, in terms of fingering, it's quite easy to remember:

  • All notes on fret 5 will be played using the index finger (but not in barre position, you should on se move it from one string to another)
  • All notes on fret 7 will be played using the ring finger
  • All notes on fret 8 will be played using the pinky

So, on Lower E, B and Upper E strings you will have index-pinky fingers, an on A, D and G strings you will have index-ring fingers

Second position

The grid:

Second position A minor pentatonic scale

This position is a little bit more complicated, and harder to memorize. Let's start with a first fingering option to practice it:

  • on the lower E string, let's play index-ring fingers on frets 8 and 10
  • for the A string, let's move the index up to fret 7 and play on fret 10 with your pinky.
  • same fingering for the D string
  • on the G string, the index stays on fret 7, and the ring finger goes on to play fret 9
  • On the B and upper E strings, let's bring the index back to fret 8, and the ring finger will move up to fret 10, as on the lower E string.

When playing from high-pitch to low-pitch notes, you may find it challenging to move from the A string to the lower E string. As a matter of fact, your index is on fret 7 on the A string, and you need to extend your ring finger down to fret 10 on the lower E string. You can slightly modify the fingering by playing the s fret 10 with the pinky and then play fret 8 on the lower E string with your index.

Another fingering option consists in respecting the rule of "one finger per fret" : play all fret 7 notes with the index, all fret 8 notes with the middle finger, all fret 9 notes with the ring finger and all fret 10 notes with the pinky. However this is harder to put into practice. It breaks down to the following:

  • on lower E, B and upper E strings, middle finger-pinky (quite difficult for independent movements)
  • on A and D strings, make a sequence of index and pinky (just as in the previous fingering)
  • on G string, it's index-ring finger

Not so much different from the previous fingering, except on the lower E, B and upper E strings with a sequence of middle finger and pinky that's quite difficult to play as independent movements. Yet, it's quite interesting to practice, as it actually helps to acquire such independent movements.

Third position

third position A minor pentatonic scale

  • let's start this position by playing frets 10 to 12 on the three lower strings, with an index-ring finger sequence
  • for the G string, let's slide your index finger on fret 9, and play on fret 12 with your ring finger if you manage to stretch it, or with your pinky
  • on the B string, move your index again to fret 10, and play fret 13 with your pinky
  • let's wrap it up on the upper E string, as you did on the three lower strings, with an index-ring finger sequence

Fourth position

Fourth position A minor pentatonic scale

This position may be challenging for acoustic or classical guitar players, as it is located on frets 12-15. This won't prevent you from practicing it, it will just be a little more difficult, so be very careful on your left-hand position. Apply the following fingering:

  • the two lower strings will be played with an index-pinky sequence on frets 12-15
  • on the D and G strings, you will play with your index and ring fingers
  • for the B string, you can whether move your index to fret 13 and use the ring finger on fret 15, or don't move and use your middle finger on fret 13 and your pinky on fret 15.
  • finish on the upper E string with the index-pinky sequence

Fifth position

In order to practice this position appropriately, let's see a tiny bit of theory beforehand. This position should logically be played on frets 14-17. However, it's not easy to play such high notes on at the fretboard of an electric guitar , and it turns out to be almost impossible on an acoustic guitar.

Fifth position A minor pentatonic scale

Therefore, let's apply a quick theoretical concept, and slide this position 12 frets up.This leads to the following grid:

  • on the lower E and A strings, play frets 3-5 with a index-pinky sequence
  • on the D and G strings, move your index finger up to fret 2 and keep your pinky on fret 5
  • on the B and upper E strings, same fingering as on the lower strings: index-pinky sequence

You roughly play the whole position with an index-pinky sequence. That's easy to memorize and it makes you practice your pinky.

However, if you'd like to practice finger stretching, you can put the middle finger instead of the index on all fret 3 notes.

You're done!

If you have reached that position, well, congratulations, you have learned the five positions of the pentatonic minor scale. Stay tuned for the third part (in case you haven't checked it out yet) to learn essential tricks that will make your scales sound great.

Do as less movements as possible

What is it about?

This part deals with some very important details regarding scale practicing. Everything that's mentioned here will help you optimize your finger movement, so that your guitar playing becomes more fluid, pleasant and so that you can play faster.

Be aware that all these techniques are not easy to put into practice, as they go against what you would naturally be doing. Yet, try paying attention to these things as early as possible, or you will have major difficulties when trying to right all these wrong doings later on.

Don't lift your fingers too much

When you have a finger that needs to switch to another string (for example your index in the first position), you have to lift it from one string to bring it to the following string so he can press on it. Try moving the finger as little as possible, don't lift it more than one centimeter up from the string. Any additional movement will be useless and will be a waste of time.

As a rule of thumb, try keeping your fingers as close to the strings as possible. You will notice that, in the beginning, every time you will lift a finger, it will have a tendency to go way too far up. Do this very slowly, and focus on your fingers so you can control them.

When should you place your fingers and when you lift them?

Many beginners sometimes tend to place their fingers or lift them at the wrong time, which leads to a few problems in order to play a scale appropriately. Let's see the different situations one may encounter, and try to find the right time to lift a finger.

Here's a first situation

If you play position #1 from high-pitch to low-pitch notes, you will start to play on fret 8 on the upper E string with you pinky. Then you will have to play with your index on fret 5 of this same string. The key point in this part, is to place your index before you remove your pinky. If you don't do this, there will be a short blank from the moment you lift your pinky from the string to the moment you place your index. So the movement breaks down to the following steps:

  • place your pinky on fret 8, strum the string
  • place your index on fret 5
  • remove your pinky and strum the string

If you keep on playing this position, you will need to play fret 8 on the B string, still with your pinky. There again, make sure you place your pinky and you strum the B string before you remove your index. The index finger should stay on the upper E string until you move it to play fret 5 on the B string.

In this specific situation, the index placed on fret 5 on the upper E string does not prevent the pinky from playing fret 8 on the B string. In this kind of situations, you should take the habit of not moving your finger until you need to. However, in some instances, leaving a finger placed on the fret may not be convenient.

Here's a counter-example

This happens when you want to play this same position but from low-pitch notes up to high-pitch notes. Start playing with your index on fret 5 on the lower E string, then put your pinky on fret 8. As your index does not bother your pinky, let's leave it on until you switch to another string. When you move your finger onto fret 5 on the A string, you may really be bothered by your pinky that's still placed on the lower E string. In this specific case, although you're not using it elsewhere, you should still lift it so it does not bother you when you play other notes.

Wrap-up

You should remove your finger from a string in two instances:

  • if you need it on another string
  • if it prevents you from playing another note (on the same string or on another string)

Apart from these instances, you should try to keep your fingers in place as much as possible.

This is important stuff!

All these tiny details may seem useless to you, but think twice as they are extremely important. Acquiring those habits will help you make as less movements as possible (while playing a song, you may lift a finger just to put it back at the exact same place right away if you don't get used to keeping it in place), and it will allow you to have a very fluid playing (no more blanks in between the notes). Overall, your playing will be cleaner, and you will have less issues when playing fast.

Yet, this is hard work, so really stay focused on all these aspects in order to acquire good habits that will prove to be useful in everything you play on your guitar.

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