When I first started learning to play lead, I did like many people do and memorized the first pentatonic box shape in Am, I probably was worse than the average guitar newbie, I didn’t even know what a “root note” was. I obviously didn’t know the fretboard notes and thought any amount of theory was best left for physicists.
Am Pentatonic is A C D E G, the 1, 3, 4, 5, 7 of the A natural minor scale… What the $#&^* does this mean?
Turns out theory isn’t too bad, at least when you’re testing the waters, getting your toes wet – My post here outlines some very basic understandings of the makings of the Pentatonic Am. Still I wouldn’t make any wild claim that I know much about theory, my knowledge is still very limited but if you’re anything like I was, you’d appreciate reading this post.
I thought the pentatonic shape was just the way it was because some intelligent person on acid in the 70’s converted good sounding notes into an easy to remember shapes. We can actually thank some European in the 16th century for the standard tuning which is purposely done to make it easy to finger most chords and scales. The graphic below roughly shows us how we can build the pentatonic scale knowing the Natural Minor Scales (build it using the chromatic circle and the pattern WHWWHWW) and the Major Scales (build it using the circle again and the pattern WWHWWWH). W means a whole step and H is half step. On your guitar, each fret is considered a half-step. So if you ring the G note on the big E string (3rd fret), and move your finger to right by 1 fret you effectively move a half-step landing on G# (or G#/Ab considered the same pitch on the guitar), if you moved it TWO frets you just did a whole step, landing on A.
What the above illustrates is how we build out the Pentatonic Minor (Am) you first write out the Minor Scale (7 notes), to do that you follow the WHWWHWW pattern. So using the chromatic circle, starting with A, you count W (whole step which is two half steps, first half-step is A#, second is B (so a whole step is B, get it?). From B we do a half-step, so that falls on a C, then another whole step which lands us on D, we do another whole step (remember it’s two halves?) landing us on E, next in the pattern is H so half-step spits out F and the last note in the series is a whole step so we count down to G… So we have the entire minor scale pitches (or referred as notes on this post): A B C D E F G. To grab the notes for the Am pentatonic scale, we now refer to the 1-3-4-5-7 structure. Knowing that A=1, B=2, C=3… The actual notes are: A, C, D, E and G.
To recap the Am Pentatonic
So the minor pentatonic is 1 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 7 (penta means 5, tonic means notes… so 5 notes), using the natural minor sequence (WHWWHWW), Am scale is A B C D E F G A and so Am Pentatonic is A C D E G. If we identify the Am root note of A we see here in red:
That wasn’t very hardso let’s add the 3rd note (D), are you starting to see that box shape yet on the 5th fret? We’re still missing 4, 5 and 7 notes to make up the complete Am Pentatonic scale here:
Now for the remaining notes 4, 5 and 7. Look at the 5th fret and you see that widely known “1st box”. You may notice the other box shapes in there, if not you can learn them
Just to show you that the pentatonic is essentially the major/minor minus two notes. So if you add the B and F notes to that pentatonic Am, you get a Natural Am Scale or “Aeolian”. See below, I added those notes in blue for you (no, this isn’t the “blue note” I just chose that color to confuse you). Just for added fun, the Harmonic Minor simply moves the G up to G#.
Two more notes and we get Aeolian:
We are pretty lucky that most of the heavy lifting is done for us, we just need to focus on practice and remembering/knowing how the guitar is structured. At some point you will start to see these charts or “box shapes” as more than just dots on a fretboard. I hope this extremely laymen explanation has helped, I’m not very smart with these sorts of things and these are from my own notes (spent too much time figuring this out) and I explained it in such a fashion that even I can understand…