Secret Uses of the Minor Pentatonic Scale

Sure, the minor pentatonic scale [Ex. 1] is the first scale most guitarists are taught and the one scale some rock and blues guitarists lean on their entire lives. And if there’s a groove in A minor being played, most players will improvise something based on this scale, like this [Ex. 2]. But you still won’t hear me saying the scale overused. If anything, I’d say this fingering is under-used. Scott Henderson taught me years ago that there are cool ways to use this shape that most players rarely take advantage of.
Publish date:
Updated on

For instance, while Ex. 1’s fingering delivers the root, 3, 4, 5, and 7 (or A, C, D, E, and G, respectively) in the key of A minor, if you simply shift the scale up a whole-step (two frets) without changing keys [Ex. 3], it suddenly emits a whole new harmonic vibe, tagging A minor’s root, 2, 4, 5, and 6 (or

A, B, D, E, and F#)—a totally different sound! Experiment with this new position by playing lines like Ex. 4, but don’t let the original key of A minor leave your ears, or your licks will simply sound like they’re in B minor, as the B minor pentatonic scale, of course, shares the fingering. In fact, to really hear how this scale acts against A minor, you may have to record yourself strumming Am7, have a friend vamp the chord behind you, or use a looping pedal of some kind to make the chord repeat while you test-drive Ex. 3’s notes.

For some players, shifting the fingering up a whole-step as we just did sounds a bit weird, as the note F#, against an Am7 background, implies Am13 [Ex. 5], which is not everybody’s favorite vamping chord. But there’s yet another use for our pentatonic fingering. Try shifting it up to the twelfth position [Ex. 6]. Against A minor, it yields the key’s root, 2, 4, 5, and 7 (or A, B, D, E, and G)—and, more importantly a whole new vibe, leading you to less-predictable A minor phrases like Ex. 7.