A Minor Pentatonic Scale – Comprehensive Theoretical Guide

Published Categorized as Guitar lessons, Scales, Theory

There are scarcely more ubiquitous scales in rock music than the A Minor pentatonic scale, or the minor pentatonic in just about any key signature for that matter! It has been at the forefront of just about any major development in mainstream rock music you can conceivably name, effectively there since its very genesis. Since rock music is wholly indebted to the blues music of black people across America, this scale is inherently minor like the music from which it is birthed.

You wouldn’t be able to step into a second guitar store without feeling the influence of the A Minor pentatonic scale breathing throughout the space, nor would you be able to walk more than a step or two in a record shop without passing a record upon which you would be able to hear just such a scale, or the same scale in a different key.

And this isn’t just limited to rock music or minor keys, for just about every style of music and key signature has, at some point or another, played host to this most mighty and ubiquitous scale. So, step right up, and let this journey through the hallowed corridors and annals of tone commence…

Table of Contents

What is a Pentatonic Scale?

Before we plunder on and work out exactly what the A Minor pentatonic scale is all about, we must first refresh ourselves on the ins and outs of the pentatonic scale.

A pentatonic, whether major or minor, is simply a scale that has five scale degrees per octave instead of the typical seven, rendering these usual scales technically as heptatonic scales. This has rendered it perfect for guitarists seeking a more sparse and simple approach to composition and improvisation, wherein you might add something more of yourself, through personal expressiveness or otherwise, and which has made this a likely choice for budding and prospective rock guitarists especially.

The major pentatonic is, thus, more or less the exact same as its major scale compatriot, though having had its 4th and 7th scale degrees removed. And the same is very much true for its minor pentatonic brethren, though in this instance with the removal of the 2nd and minor 6th scale degrees.

The various pentatonic scales around today were, in fact, developed independently by many different and contrasting ancient civilizations, most of which are still used in various and ceaselessly inventive musical styles to this day.

Even if you had only played the guitar yourself and had never actually heard another note of music external to yourself, as New Zealand psychedelic musician Connan Mockasin so boldly claims, then you would almost certainly still have heard a minor pentatonic scale in some form or other. The open notes of a guitar in standard western tuning (E – A – D – G – B – E) are in fact the notes, in varying order, of the E minor pentatonic, a fact which many believe has contributed to the scale’s popularity throughout the annals of popular music.

The Hemitonic and the Anhemitonic

Though there are inherently a number of different pentatonic scales already, there are actually further ways with which to classify them, the most binary being the division of them between hemitonic and anhemitonic scale. Every single pentatonic scale is either one or the other, either hemitonic and anhemitonic, so it would be useful to learn, if only for your own private ruminations and peace of mind.

In short, a hemitonic scale is one which contains one or more semitones. In this instance, we think of a scale as containing one or more semitones if the semitone can be found between any of the various intervals of the scale degrees. So, for our purposes and based on this definition the A minor pentatonic scale is indeed a hemitonic scale, for two of the intervals in the scale are that of a semitone.

Inversely, a anhemitonic scale is precisely the opposite, that being a scale that does not contain any semitone intervals between its scale degrees. Thus, any scale whose intervals between scale degrees is a tone or more is perfectly up for the task of being a anhemitonic.

If all this abstract talk has not already convinced you that making your own scale couldn’t be easier, than I really must implore you myself to get involved and get experimenting and have as much fun with you as you wish. Despite the veritable flood of artists and musicians there are across the world making and releasing music, a flood plain which only seems to grow in number as time goes on, music is still ripe for the plundering, for the sowing, the experimenting, and the exploring, so make it your own!

So, What is an A Minor Pentatonic Scale?

Well, if you had not already guessed it, the A Minor pentatonic scale is simply the above formula attached to the key signature of A Minor. Seeing as its relative major, C major, is such a common key all round, the A minor key signature is relatively commonplace throughout western music, and thus ought to be grappled with at the first available opportunity.

Just about any song you can conceive of from the rock canon that rests its legs at some point on an A minor key signature will have used or at least flirted with the A minor pentatonic scale, so valuable as it is in bridging gaps between otherwise unrelated keys and chord changes. It is precisely this power, this supernatural ability that it has to almost translate the language of chords between each other that has had countless rock and roll hall of famers calling upon it as a helping hand and guiding light in times of harmonic, melodic, compositional and improvisational need.

And yet, this scale is certainly not limited to those crusted and balding bearers of rock’s baton. Other styles of music that make use of the pentatonic scale include:

  • Hindustani and Carnatic Indian classical music
  • Peruvian Chicha cumbia
  • Sudanese Arab music
  • Celtic folk music
  • English folk music
  • German folk music
  • Nordic folk music
  • Hungarian folk music
  • Croatian folk music
  • Berber music
  • West African music
  • African American spirituals
  • Gospel music
  • Bluegrass music
  • American folk music
  • Ethiopian music
  • Jazz
  • Blues
  • Sami Joik singing
  • Children’s song throughout the world
  • Ancient Greek music including Greek traditional music and polyphonic songs from North West Greece
  • Southern Albanian music
  • Indonesian Gamelan
  • Native American music, most notably in highland South America and with the North American Indians of the Pacific North West
  • Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic music of Siberia and the Asiatic
  • Melodies of China, Korea, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Japan, and Vietnam, including traditional folk music from these areas
  • Andean music
  • Afro Caribbean music
  • Western Impressionistic composers (see Claude Debussy)
A Minor Pentatonic Scale – Comprehensive Theoretical Guide

How to Build the A Minor Pentatonic Scale

Seeing as the A minor pentatonic scale is so directly informed by its parent scale, the A minor scale, it would be best, before jumping right into it, to work out just exactly what makes this parent scale tick. Without this A minor parent scale there would be no A minor pentatonic scale whatsoever, the latter so heavily indebted to the former as to be nonexistent without it.

The A Minor Scale

So, the A minor scale is a scale based around the tonal centre of A, formed of the seven pitches A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. Seeing as its relative major is C major, which itself does not have any sharps or flats in the key signature, the key signature of A minor, too, has no flats or sharps.

Seeing as it is inherently a minor scale, it follows the inherent minor scale formula, thus allowing just about anyone to work out its inner machinations if they only have the root note to go by. So from the root note of A, of course, and back to A up and down an octave, with a whole step representing an ascension or descension of two frets, and a half step thus coming to represent an ascension or descension of one fret, the pattern is as follows: A (whole step) B (half step) C (whole step) D (whole step) E (half step) F (whole step) G (whole step) A.

If we render the case of the A minor scale diagrammatically, it will look something like so:

Scale DegreeiiiIIIivvVIVII
Steps (from previous)WholeWholeHalfWholeWholeHalfWhole
Frets (from previous)TwoTwoOneTwoTwoOneTwo

A Minor Pentatonic Scale

Thus, from this firm base, once you have of course got your head properly around the A minor scale, we can begin to understand the A minor pentatonic scale good and proper. In fact, from this starting point, it should all be relatively smooth sailing, considering that the pentatonic is comprised of only five of the notes that the typical heptatonic scales are.

For the major pentatonic, this means the removal of its 4th and 7th scale degrees, whereas for the minor pentatonic it results in the removal of the 2nd and 6th scale degrees. The reason such scales became so popular from so many different cultural inception points is its versatility. Removing two of the scale degrees like so not only increasing the amount of musical scenarios you might be able to use it in, omitting any tonal information that might otherwise conflict with more complex harmonic centres, but also frees up the pastures for the guitarist or musician in question to more adequately express themselves with a simpler array of notes, instead of simply playing more notes for the sake of it.

Thus, if we take the example of the A minor pentatonic scale and outline it like so, it will look a little something like this:

Scale DegreeiiiiIVVvii
IntervalRootMinor 3rdPerfect 4thPerfect 5thMinor 7th
Steps (from previous)WholeWhole + HalfWholeWholeWhole + Half
Frets (from previous)Two fretsThree fretsTwo fretsTwo fretsThree frets

What Exactly does this Mean for the Guitar?

So, we have finally made and can not outline for you how this will translate to a guitar, which is of course very different from keyboard instruments and horn and woodwind instruments and rather different from other string instruments.

Today, we will be elucidating for you just one of the many ways you might see this played on a typical guitar fretboard. This is a highly typical rendering, and one that you would be likely to come across fairly likely if you were to take professional guitar lessons; I know I certainly did!

This, of course, should not deter you from experimenting and finding other ways to play the A minor pentatonic scale, of which there are many, many examples all over the guitar fretboard. In fact, I could not be more imploring that you go out into the world and experiment for yourself, for this is the way that such things are retained the best, when your mind is actively engaged and implementing.

So, you will see above the A minor pentatonic scale ascending and descending in pitch, here formulated in its most common form, at least the main form in which it was prescribed to me as a prospective musician and guitar student.

You will learn much and go far if you experiment and use your own intuition to learn things for yourself, and this is nowhere more true than at the foundational level, wherein you will be laying seeds which will grow and bloom, sometimes beautifully if you put the right work in early enough!

A goal to set oneself would be to master a certain number of scales like this until they feel innate, memorised by the muscles and tendons in your fingers. Sowing the seeds of this work at such an early level will enable you to fill out the palette of your guitar abilities, enabling you more freedom and choice to colour and deepen your musical accompaniments, compositions, and performances, with a comparatively smaller amount of effort.

Final Tones

So, there you have it! Hopefully this comprehensive theoretical guide to the A minor pentatonic scale has been of some use for you in learning about this school for yourself and in dipping your toes into the waters of pentatonic and heptatonic scales, as well as sowing the seeds of your future self’s composing and improvising like a champ!

FAQs A Minor Pentatonic Scale

What do you do with a minor pentatonic scale?

You use it, of course, in much the same way as you would use any other scale or mode. This might be for the strategic composition of a whole song, or perhaps simply a single segment of a song, or perhaps even just used in one chord. You might, on the other hand, be using it to improvise, to dance one’s fingers over a varying set of chord changes that are moving at a varying speed depending on the context; the A minor pentatonic scale if perfect for such things, providing a key framework of notes with which to improvise, whilst allowing space for artistic expression, what with the omission of the two other notes of which its parent scale, the A minor scale, is comprised.

Can I play a minor pentatonic over a major chord?

Certainly, yes, and it all comes down to what we call relative major and minor pentatonic relationships. Each minor key has a relative major, and each major key has a relative minor. What this essentially means is that both the key in question and its relative are directly linked by the notes of which they are comprised. They, in fact, use the exact same notes but are just viewing them from a different angle, using a different note from the same series of notes as its starting point. This seems negligible but can have pretty big implications, causing both a key and its relative to sound rather different. Unless they are, of course, linked by a scale. In this way, since a key and its relative are innately related, you can play a minor pentatonic over a major chord, provided it is the relative major of the minor pentatonic in question or if you are feeling partial to some jazzy dissonance.

What chords go with a minor pentatonic scale?

The possibilities with this kind of thing really are endless, though as with every scale there are a set of chords that can conceivably be played through while using the exact same school the entire time. For the A natural minor, the pattern begins with A minor, followed by B diminished, C major, D minor, E minor, F major, and finally G major, before looping back round again of course. Since it the A minor pentatonic scale that we are dealing with today, we will be omitting the 2nd and the 6th scale degrees, so the chord sequence will look like this: A minor to C major to D minor to D minor to G major, and so on looping round and round. If you want to add some finesse to this sequence, you can extend these typical minor and major triads into tetrads, extended the harmonic palette somewhat, though with you still able to solo atop with the A minor pentatonic scale. This will look like so: A minor 7 – C major 7 – D minor 7 – E minor 7 – G7, and so on and so forth.

By Nate Pallesen

Nate is just your average (above average) guitar player. He's no Joe Satriani, Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page - wait this site is about acoustic guitars (sorry) He's no Django Reinhardt, Chet Atkins, or Michael Hedges, wait? who!? He's no Robert Johnson, Eric Clapton or Ben Harper - more familiar? Anyway you get the point :-)

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