Mandolin Technique: Pentatonic Scales

Today’s mandolin technique focuses on the versatile Pentatonic Scales. These 5 note scales are used often in the melodies of many fiddle tunes and can be incredibly helpful for soloing.

What is a Pentatonic Scale?

A pentatonic scale is simply a scale with 5 notes. While there are a few types of pentatonic scales, the most commonly used are the Major and Minor Pentatonic scales. In this lesson, I’m only be focusing on the G Major / E Minor pentatonic scales. I plan to create some lessons around other types of pentatonic scales in the future.

Example of G Major Pentatonic
Example of E Minor Pentatonic

I have a few exercises already posted on the pentatonic scales (as well as others) that you can find here – Scale Studies page.

What’s the Major Pentatonic Scale?

Major Pentatonic uses the 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6 notes (or degrees) of the major scale. There’s a few ways to remember this. First is simply to remember to drop out the 4 and 7 of a major key. While that’s accurate and easy, personally I struggled to remember the notes in the pentatonic this way.

I find using the Circle of Fifths the best – in part because it’s visual, but also because it helps reinforce the theory. (check out the Circle of Fifths lessons here)

In the below graphic, all the highlighted notes make up the G Major Scale. To create the G Major Pentatonic, you simply remove the first and last notes highlighted in yellow (C and F#). The remaining 5 notes are the G Major Pentatonic scale.

Mandolin Technique: Pentatonic Scales - Circle of fifths G Major

What’s the Minor Pentatonic Scale?

Minor Pentatonic scale uses the 1, 3, 4, 5, and 7 notes (or degrees) of the minor scale. The notes are the same as the relative major scale, but the root is different. For example, if you rearrange the notes in the G Major Pentatonic (G, A, B, D, E) scale to start with E instead of G, you’d have the E Minor Pentatonic (E, G, A, B, D). As a quick cheat, if you know the Major Pentatonic, starting one scale tone below the root gives you the minor pentatonic.

You can of course use the Circle of Fifths to find minor pentatonic scales as well. The below shows the E Minor Pentatonic. The main difference between the E minor and the G major pentatonic is just the Root (highlighted in blue in both)

Mandolin Technique: Pentatonic Scales - Circle of fifths E Minor

Additional Circle of Fifths Fun

Something that took me a while to understand until I looked at the circle is that each major scale includes 3 major pentatonic scales.

In the below graphic I’m using the G Major scale again (G A B C D E F#).

  • C Major pentatonic is the yellow
  • G Major pentatonic is the blue
  • D Major pentatonic is the red
Mandolin Technique: Pentatonic Scales - Circle of fifths General

Of course this also includes their relative minors – so A minor (yellow), E minor (blue), and B minor (red) are also represented here.

Fretboard Maps

Writing out a Fretboard Map is one of the easiest things you can do to learn scales. Check out my post on Fretboard Maps here for more information on these. I highly recommend writing these out by hand.

Below are the maps for both G Major and E Minor pentatonic scales. These maps give you all the potential ways you could play the notes in the pentatonic scale. Understanding where these notes are on the fretboard can significantly help with improvisation among many other things.

Pentatonic Blocks

While the full fretboard map is great, I find that breaking the map into smaller pieces is a big help. I like breaking them up into simple positions that I can easily find when needed. The below three examples I use a lot in my playing – but they are not the only ways you could break these up. Feel free to write your own.

Below are three E Minor Pentatonic blocks.

Something to note, I kept all the notes in the scales rather than trimming them up to just start and end on the Root notes. While the scale does start and end on the root and knowing where the root is located is important, that doesn’t mean the notes after root (like in the second graphic) aren’t available.

How to use the scales

One of the best ways to really incorporate these scales into your playing is to focus on songs that use the Major or Minor pentatonic scales in their melodies. I Saw the Light is a great example – you can find the full sheet music and song breakdown here.

Next Steps and WRAPPING UP

I only skimmed the surface of the G Major / E Minor pentatonic and pentatonic scales in general in this lesson. I’m hoping this lesson was a good primer for the pentatonic scales. Starting with the basic major and minor pentatonic scales should get you going but check out the Blues and Japanese scales too! I’ll likely do a lesson on these in the future.

Once you have the G major and E minor pentatonic scales down, try playing some of the other keys like A Major / F# Minor or D Major / B Minor. You can find some of those on my Scale Studies page but before you look up these scales, try figuring it out on your own by using the information from this post. Start by writing out the 5 notes in the scale you want to use, then write up a fretboard map of it. From there, you just need to play it 😉

Adding notes outside the scale is a great way to add tension and spice things up. Try adding in the b3 in the major scale (Bb in G major) or the b7 (F in G major).

Comment below with any questions or feedback. For a deeper dive in to this topic, click here for more information on private coaching. If you like this free content and would like more of it, considering donating to my site here â€“ donations really help keep things going!

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