This article covers the following topics:

How a Pentatonic works, Why a Pentatonic works, Where to play a Pentatonic, and Who uses a Pentatonic.

What is a pentatonic scale?

Pentatonic scales should not be a mystery. A pentatonic scale is not something somebody came up with one day and said, “Here everybody is the pentatonic scale!” and therefore it was. The pentatonic is actually a DERIVATIVE of the major scale. For example: the major scale in the key of C is: C D E F G A B C (7 tones). The pentatonic major in the key of C is a subset: C D E G A (5 tones). Therefore C major pentatonic is a SUBSET of C major.

Why these five tones?

The tones are chosen using 5th intervals in the key of c, just follow the musical alphabet…

Notes: C G D A E

Intervals: 5 tones 5 tones 5 tones 5 tones

Arrange them into one scale and you get: C D E G A

Why does the pentatonic scale work over I-IV-V progressions so well?

(a I – IV – V progression is the most common progression found in rock.)

The tones found in a pentatonic scale are COMMON to each scale. For example lets take the 3 scales in the key of c that make up the I-IV-V progression:

C: C D E F G A B C

F: F G A Bb C D E F

G: G A B C D E F# G

Thus, The 5 tones in the pentatonic: C D E G A are common to each scale. Tones that my “clash” or cause dissonance (sound out of tune) are eliminated. These are F# and Bb. The five tones that are left will sound good “no matter what”. So just go ahead and play them as much as you want and you will never hit a bad note.

Where can I find good examples of pentatonic major playing?

Artists like Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers, Neil Young, Pure Prairie League, Crosby Stills and Nash, Phish, and The Grateful Dead (just to name a few) can provide great examples and songs that you can play the pentatonic major scale along with.