When I first started learning guitar, I started by learning chords. I’ve never really wanted to be a lead guitarist and I started learning guitar so I could learn how to write my own songs. As such, I really didn’t learn how to play guitar scales until I already knew over twenty chords (including the barre shapes). But, there comes a time in every guitarist’s life when they will have to play some sort of melody over a harmony and to do so you need to know how to play at least one scale to do so. In this article I’m going to teach you the first guitar scale for beginners – that is, the first scale that all beginner guitar players should learn.
The first guitar scale you should learn is the minor pentatonic scale. The minor pentatonic scale can be used in many types of music, but it’s really good for rock music and after learning this you can easily learn the blues scale by adding a few notes.
The minor pentatonic scale is comprised of five notes, hence the prefix penta. So what is the minor pentatonic scale? Take a look at this picture.
This scale can be played with just three fingers, starting with your index finger. So that means wherever your index finger is, that’s the root of the scale. So if you start the scale on the third fret on the big E string, you’re playing a G minor pentatonic scale.
When you’re playing this scale you’ll need to use your index, ring, and pinky fingers. Here are the fingers you need to use on each string.
- On the big E string use your index finger and pinky finger.
- One the A string use your index finger and ring finger.
- On the D string use your index finger and ring finger.
- On the G string use your index finger and ring finger.
- On the B string user your index finger and pinky finger.
- On the small e string user your index finger and pinky finger.
So that’s it! Pretty easy, huh? When you first start playing guitar your ring and pinky fingers are probably going to be your weakest fingers. If you find that your ring finger and pinky fingers are not strong enough to play a minor pentatonic scale you can try playing the E minor pentatonic scale using open strings; if you play an E minor pentatonic scale using open strings you can just use two fingers.
Here’s the E minor pentatonic scale using open strings.
Like I said above, when you usually play a minor pentatonic scale, you’ll use your index, ring, and pinky fingers and when you’re playing the E minor pentatonic scale using open strings you only have to use two fingers; however, you don’t need to use your ring and pinky fingers when you play the scale at this position.
So when playing the scale at this position you can use your index and middle fingers instead. When you first start learning the minor pentatonic scale I recommend that you start with the open position first, just so you can get used to playing a scale. Later on, you can practice playing the scale at different positions of the neck.
But, just knowing the scale doesn’t really help all that much. The scale is pretty useless unless you know when you can use the scale.
When can I use the minor pentatonic scale?
The minor pentatonic scale is useful when playing rock music, but how do you know which pentatonic scale to use?
If you know what key you are playing in, this is really easy.
Let’s say that you are playing a song in A major. Find the A note on your big string – that’s going to be the fifth fret. Next, go down the neck 3 frets – to the second fret. This is going to be F#. Now, play the minor pentatonic scale shape here. That means you will be playing the F# minor pentatonic scale.
Why does this work?
To know why this scale works in this context requires a little bit of music theory knowledge, but without getting into too much depth in this article (I’m going to have a whole music theory section on this site soon; I’m working on it!) what you are doing here is playing the relative minor.
A major key and its relative minor has the same notes.
Take the key C major, for example. The C major scale contains the notes: C D E F G A B.
The relative minor of C major is A minor. The notes in A minor are: A B C D E F G.
How can these two scales have the same notes, but be different scales? I’ll get into that more in another article, but the short answer is that different notes that each scale starts on affects which kind of scale it is.
How to find the relative minor key on guitar
If you’re ever wondering what kind of “dark” or “sad” scale you can play in any given context, just find the root note of the scale on your large E string and then go down the neck three frets.
But what happens if you are playing in F# major, F major, or E major? You can’t go down three frets because you’ll be starting at an open string, the first fret, or the second fret.
That means if you are playing in a key like F# major, you’ll have to go all the way up the neck to the eleventh fret.
How did I find that?
I can’t go down the neck three frets if I’m already on the second fret, so I go all the way up to the fourteenth fret. This is also an F#, just an octave higher.
What songs use the minor pentatonic scale?
The minor pentatonic scale is so easy to use, many famous bands use the scale to write guitar riffs. Here are some songs that use the minor pentatonic scale:
Exercises to practice the minor pentatonic scale
Here are two exercises I use to practice the minor pentatonic scale.
Start by playing an E minor pentatonic scale using open strings. Play the scale starting from the large E string to the small e string. Once you get to the end of the scale, play the scale backwards until you get all the way back to the first note on the large E string. Now that you’re back to the note you started at, move the whole scale shape one fret up the neck.
This means that if you just played a G minor pentatonic scale, you are now going to play a G# minor pentatonic scale.
Doing the exercise will help you get used to playing all of the different minor pentatonic scales. Once you get up to the 12th fret or so, you will probably be able to play the whole scale with just your index and ring fingers.
The most important thing to focus on when playing this scale is to make sure that you play each note clearly – no buzzing strings, no skipping notes, etc…
Don’t worry about speed when you first start this exercise. Focus on clarity!
What good does a scale do if you aren’t playing it with anything? This exercise is a little easier and less technical than the previous one.
- Find a backing track that you know the key of. I’ve put a backing track in the key of C major below.
- Find the relative minor.
- Play notes in that scale.
And that’s the basics for this exercise. This exercise will help you out in a bunch of ways:
- It will teach you how to play notes in the scale at different timings, instead of just eighth notes for every note of the scale, for example.
- You can play the scale differently instead of just playing each note in order.
- It will teach you to listen to the whole song instead of just playing guitar. This is a really important part of music; playing music, not just playing guitar.
So what now?
Make sure that you can play this scale at any position on the fretboard. Again, don’t focus on speed, instead, focus on clarity.
Also, make sure that you can easily find the relative minor of any key or song, quickly.
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Josh is the founder and main author of Songwriter Nation. He has played music for over twenty years and even studied music at university earning a minor in music.