Learning to play lead presents many challenges, knowing the fretboard, hitting the right notes by knowing how it all kind of works together. Music theory is great for that but if you’re like me, a “bedroom player”, as they say, just jumping into it is more than likely going to happen and theory will build over time as we progress and break our limits.

Luck would have it that we can learn to play rock/blues and improvise by using just FIVE notes found within the pentatonic shapes. Of course there’s a lot more to playing lead than knowing pentatonics but it’s a good start or so I’ve been told several times. Greats such as Gilmour uses pentatonics, even the Comfortably Numb Solo #2 is sort of based on the Bm pentatonic, that doesn’t mean knowing the shapes will make us as good as Gilmour but it will give us a foundation to start learning and advancing our skills.

Where to start?

First thing is to take a step back and really learn the notes on the fretboard, it really isn’t that bad and it’s best to just get that out of the way first – it will make things so MUCH easier for you in the long term. You basically only need to know 60 notes (knowing there are 2 E strings and notes repeat themselves after the 12th fret), that’s like 10 North American phone numbers! No seriously, it’s not an arduous task.

What helped me was realizing the basic patterns, mainly: E, F F#, G, G#, A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D# and E again. Knowing this will allow you easily find the note on the fretboard. Example open E is obviously E, on the 1st fret it’s F, 2nd fret is F#, 3rd is G and so on, right to 12 where it’s E again and we start all over! Same for the A string, open A, first fret would make it A#, 2nd is B, third is C and so on… Easy, right? See below, not all that difficult!


Start with the E and A strings as this will help you find the right pentatonic shape to use based on the root note and even barre chords. I made some desktop wallpapers and posters that I’m using everywhere, helps me to subconsciously see the notes everywhere. Also if you start to sing the note as you play it along the fretboard, you can start training your ear at the same time… See, stone two birds at once!

Pentatonic Shapes?

Does sound like some sort of drink? Hey any Tonic is good by me! But seriously there are 5 basic shapes to know. They’re pretty easy to remember and play. It is important to know them all. In actuality it’s just a set of notes along the fretboard that some intelligent person divided into boxes and they all connect just like a puzzle set. Why all? You “could” get by  on “noodling” on one shape but that’s only going to get you stuck in a rut, soloing is much more than pentatonics so don’t get trapped in the “good enough” area. Become the king of pentatonics, then move to the Ionian (Major) and Aeolin (Minor) scales.

Learn the pentatonic shapes and use their root notes to change keys (why starting to learn the fretboard notes are important). Pay attention to the the root notes below. Green are minor and pink are major. If you want to play pentatonic shape 1 in G for example, you will align the green dot to your big-E string on the 3rd fret. Keep in mind, you can download all sorts of pentatonic scale posters and cheat sheets here.

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Pentatonic Shape 1

I think this is the easiest to remember and play.


Here’s the tab for Am pentatonic shape 1


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Pentatonic Shape 2

Notice how the shape “fits” with the first one? Your job is half-done, you already know the first half already.


Here’s the tab for Am pentatonic shape 2


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Pentatonic Shape 3

Remember to practice the shapes SLOWLY, over and over again. Speed will happen over time. Also remember to use your finger tips!


Here’s the tab for Am pentatonic shape 3


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Pentatonic Shape 4


Here’s the tab for Am pentatonic shape 4


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Pentatonic Shape 5


Here’s the tab for Am pentatonic shape 5


If we put it all together, for Am, we get this: