Major Pentatonic: The Versatile and Finger-Friendly Alternative to Minor

Finger-friendly and easy to manage, this five-note lifesaver could be just the thing you need to help you master major-key progressions.
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It’s no secret that rock guitarists love to solo in minor keys. Give rockers a minor-key progression and they’ll surely tear it up.

But place them in the path of an oncoming major progression and too often they’ll crash and burn. Not a pretty sight.

If you’ve been getting tangled up in major-scale applications lately, you ought to give the major pentatonic scale a try. Finger-friendly and easy to manage, this five-note lifesaver could be just the thing you need to help you master major-key progressions.

The word pentatonic has Greek origins. Penta, meaning five, and tonus, meaning tones. The major pentatonic scale consists of five notes (1 2 3 5 6) derived from the major scale (1 2 3 4 5 6 7). Elegant in its simplicity, the major pentatonic scale can be laid out in convenient, two-notes-per-string patterns, as shown in FIGURE 1A–E. You’ll really need to get a handle on each one of these, as they’ll all be put to use in this lesson.

To get acquainted with some sensible fingerings, try starting each frame at the 1st fret. For FIGURE 1A and FIGURES 1C–E, use your 1st finger for all 1st-fret notes, your 2nd finger for all 2nd-fret notes, your 3rd finger for all 3rd-fret notes, and your 4th finger for all 4th-fret notes. Use the same fingerings for strings 6–3 in FIGURE 1B, but shift to 2nd position on string 1–2. Depress the 2nd-string notes with your 1st finger, and so on.


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Once you have the patterns under your fingers, you’ll be ready to try some licks. The first four examples are based on FIGURES 1A–D, respectively. All in the key of G, they contain sequences—that is, repeated note groupings within the scale.

FIGURE 2A follows a descending five-note sequence. As shown, use a downstroke to initiate each pull-off. FIGURE 2B is an ascending string-skipping sequence. Again, using all downstrokes will work well, but you might also try alternate-picking the non-slurred notes.


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FIGURE 2C skips every other note as it winds its way down FIGURE 1C’s pattern. And in the fire-breathing sequence of FIGURE 2D, a six-note pattern is spread across adjacent strings sets of FIGURE 1D. Start each sequence with your 1st finger, and use alternate picking.


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Major pentatonic scales are the very fuel of country guitar. FIGURE 3 is a twangy example in C major pentatonic (C D E G A) based on FIGURE 1E’s pattern. Make sure you hold the second G-string bend to pitch when you attack the B string’s G.


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Jimi Hendrix relied heavily on the major pentatonic scale for his R&B-flavored lead and rhythm work (“The Wind Cries Mary,” “Castles Made of Sand,” “Little Wing,” and so on). In the Hendrixian FIGURE 4, the C major pentatonic scale is played in a series of double-stops.


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And for those who like to play outside the box, FIGURE 5 takes an extended trip up the neck via neighboring patterns of the A major pentatonic scale (A B C# E F#). This lick was built using all the patterns in FIGURES 1A–E.


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Here’s a neat trick you can use to paint a bigger picture with major pentatonic scales.

Say you’re soloing over an E or Emaj7 chord. You can use the E major pentatonic scale, of course, but try throwing in A major pentatonic and/or B major pentatonic. Combined, these three pentatonic scales make up the entire E major scale (E F# G# A B C# D#). FIGURE 6 offers an example of this process with overlapping patterns of E, A and B major pentatonic.


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The solo for this lesson [FIGURE 7] is in an arena-rock vein.The 19-bar progression, in the key of G, revolves around the I, IV and V chords (G, C/E, and D/F#), with a few modally interchanged chords thrown in for harmonic contrast. (F and Bb are borrowed from the parallel key, G minor.)

The solo opens with a repeated pre-bent B (bend with either your 3rd or 4th finger), which is released into a G major pentaton­ic phrase based on FIGURE 1C. This segues to a D major pentatonic (D-E-F#-A-B) sequence that spans measures 3-4 of the V chord (D/F#). Basically, a combination of the materials in FIGURES 2A and 2D, it features a ·repeating hammer-on/pull-off maneuver that cascades down the patterns of FIGURES 1E and 1D.

Offset quarter notes (played on the upbeats) supply rhythmic interest in measures 5–6, where 5th-position lines in F major pentatonic (F-G-A-C-D) and C major pen­tatonic service the F and C/E chords (bVII and IV), respectively. This is followed close­ly by a steadily escalating D major pentaton­ic motif that crisscrosses through three neigh­boring patterns (FIGURES 1D, 1E and1A).

In bar 9, the progression circles back around, at which point an intense but melodically sparse G major pentatonic phrase recalls the opening measures. This is complemented by a fiery D major pen­tatonic sequence in measures 11–12. Based on the pull-off sequence of FIGURE 2A, it cascades down the pattern in FIGURE 1C, in triple string sets. Use forceful downstrokes to propel this speedy run.

In measures 13–14, overlapping patterns (from FIGURES 1E and 1C, respectively) in F major pentatonic and C major pentatonic are again dispatched over the bVII and IV chords. These are followed in bars 15–16 by a pair of Eric Johnson–inspired phrases, both of which involve pentatonic substitutions. The first one juggles D major pentatonic and G major pentatonic over the D chord, while the second segues from G major pentatonic to C major pentatonic over the C chord. Ultimately, the outcome is a major-pentatonic-add4 sound (1-2-3-4-5-6) over the D chord, and a major-pentatonic-add7 sound (1-2-3-5-6-7) over the C chord.

At measure 17, the progression begins to wind down, with a bIII-ii-I (Bb-Am-G) cadence. Here, a slow and slippery Bb major-pentatonic line climbs the Bb chord and segues to a speedy A minor-pentatonic (A-C-D-E-G) run. After these phrases, the solo concludes with a heartfelt bend on the high E string.


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