How to Use the Pentatonic Scale as Major and Minor on the Guitar

The pentatonic scale can function as both major and minor on the guitar. You can start with E minor pentatonic, but the same notes and patterns can also produce G major pentatonic.

To understand how this works, look at this example. Notice how both an E minor (Em) chord and a G major chord fit into pentatonic pattern 1 in the open position. The gray dots indicate the notes of the chords.

[Credit:     Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna]
Credit:     Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna

The first note in pentatonic pattern 1 is always your minor tonic (pitch center). In this case, it’s E. You can fit an Em chord in the scale, too — that is, all the notes of an Em chord are found within the scale. The second note in pattern 1 is always your major tonic. In this case, it’s G. You can also fit a G major chord in the scale.

You can play E minor pentatonic over an Em chord or a progression that revolves around Em. For example, “Rockin’ in the Free World” by Neil Young centers on an Em chord, and the notes of E minor pentatonic work over it.

You can play G major pentatonic over a G chord or a progression that revolves around G. For example, “Wonderful Tonight” by Eric Clapton centers on a G chord, and the notes of G major pentatonic work over it.

You can see an example of how to use the E minor and G major pentatonic scales in Playing Minor and Major Pentatonic.

All five pentatonic patterns consist of the same notes and are simply pieces of the same scale. So if you’re using E minor pentatonic over an Em chord, you’re not confined to any one position. You can move freely through any of the patterns as long as you connect them properly and stay in key. The same goes for when you’re using the scale as G major pentatonic.

The only difference between E minor and G major pentatonic is which note functions as the tonic (or tonal center) of the scale. When you use E minor pentatonic, the E note is the tonal center and your point of resolution. Likewise, when you use G major pentatonic, the G note is the tonal center and your point of resolution.

Here are all the E notes in the pentatonic patterns, plus some commonly used Em chord shapes in gray. Various forms of Em show up in every position and pattern, but for simplicity’s sake, only those chord forms that guitar players typically use are illustrated. When a song features E minor pentatonic, more often than not it’s using the portion of the patterns that centers on these chord shapes.

[Credit:     Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna]
Credit:     Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna

Here, you can see where all the G notes as well as some G chords are located in the pentatonic patterns. You may recognize these chords as the CAGED forms. Here, you start with the G form in pentatonic pattern 1 and then continue with the CAGED sequence E-D, C-A.

[Credit:     Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna]
Credit:     Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna

You can play these pentatonic scale patterns over any piece of music that centers on an Em or G chord. Some songs centering on Em chords include

“Cocaine” by Eric Clapton
“Horse with No Name” by America
“Nothing Else Matters” by Metallica
“Paranoid” by Black Sabbath
“Rockin’ in the Free World” and “Heart of Gold” by Neil Young
“Susie Q” by Creedence Clearwater Revival

Some songs centering on G chords include

“Cliffs of Dover” by Eric Johnson
“Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” by Bob Dylan
“Last Kiss” by Pearl Jam
“Love the Lord” by Lincoln Brewster
“Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash
“Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd
“Wonderful Tonight” by Eric Clapton
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