When you hear a guitar riff or solo, you’re hearing a scale. A musical scale is a series of pitches (or notes) played one pitch at a time in an ascending or descending order. Together, notes from scales build chords, create melodies, and produce harmonies. When people sing, the sound they make goes up and down in a scale.

You can hear what the pentatonic scale sounds like and how it’s used at Playing Pentatonic Scale Patterns.

The pentatonic scale is a five-tone scale with — you guessed it — five notes in it (which makes sense considering penta means “five” and tonic means “tone”). The pentatonic scale may have only five notes, but these notes are scattered all over the place.

Melodies, riffs, and solos often play through the scale until the series is complete and then continue up or down, playing higher and lower occurrences of the same notes in other registers. To accomplish this type of pattern on guitar, you need to be able to move both vertically and horizontally across the fretboard.

When guitar players learn scales, they work on covering one small area of the neck at a time and then connect these individual positions to cover the whole guitar neck. Each position creates a unique pattern.

Guitarists and songwriters can choose from many different music scales, ranging from the simple to the complex, the familiar to the exotic. But popular music — the songs you hear played on Top 40 and classic rock radio stations — primarily uses pentatonic and major scales.