How to Play the Pentatonic Scale on the Guitar: Pattern 1

By Desi Serna

The easiest way to get to know the pentatonic scale on the guitar is to begin working in the key of E minor, because it uses all the open strings on the guitar and is very common in popular music. The E minor pentatonic scale consists of the notes E-G-A-B-D. Here are all the occurrences of these notes on the fretboard.

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

Yikes! Looks confusing, doesn’t it? Don’t worry. To make the pentatonic scale more accessible, start with pattern 1.

Basics of pattern 1

Pentatonic pattern 1 consists of all the scale notes on all the strings that fit between the open strings and the 3rd fret. The circles to the far left represent open strings, which you play without the left hand. The notes in the 2nd and 3rd frets have to be fingered.

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

How to practice pattern 1 up and down the scale

Follow the tab shown here to play through this pentatonic scale pattern in an ascending and descending fashion.

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

When you play up the scale (ascending), you start with the lowest-pitched note and then move to the note that’s next highest in pitch. When you play down the scale (descending), you start with the highest-pitched note and then move to the note that is next lowest in pitch.

Notice that when you play up the scale, you start with an open string and follow it with a fretted note. In contrast, when you play down the scale, you start with a fretted note and follow it with an open string.

Use the Playing Pentatonic Scale Patterns video to hear and see how to play up and down pentatonic scale patterns. The video also demonstrates how to finger and connect pentatonic patterns.

How to finger and pick the scale

What fingering you use is a matter of preference. However, with pentatonic pattern 1 in the open position, it is recommended that you use your 2nd finger to fret all the notes in the 3rd fret and your 1st finger to fret all the notes in the 2nd fret. You don’t have to follow this rule all the time, but it’s a good way to get started.

As far as your right hand goes, most guitar players play scales using a pick, although some do use their fingers (this action is called fingerpicking or fingerstyle). It is recommended that you use a pick unless you’re completely committed to being a fingerstyle-type player like Chet Atkins or Mark Knopfler. Using a pick is easier to do than developing the fingerpicking skill necessary to play scales well.

As you use your guitar pick, try to alternate strokes on each note. In other words, play the first note with a downstroke, the second note with an upstroke, the third note with a downstroke, and so on. (If you prefer not to use a pick, then alternate either your 1st and 2nd fingers or your 1st finger and thumb on your right hand.)

Alternating your pick or fingers isn’t necessary at this point, but it’s a skill that you eventually need to develop to play efficiently and keep up with the pace of most songs.

Songs that feature the notes of pattern 1 in E minor pentatonic in the 1st position include

“Back in Black” by AC/DC

“Susie Q” by Creedence Clearwater Revival

“Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd

“Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd