Pentatonic Scales the Easy Way
Your First Pentatonic Scale Is Here
Pentatonic scales and patterns are covered in so many online lessons and videos, why would I even bother to write about them? The difference here is that nothing will be added to the pentatonic scale, no blues notes, no alternate notes. Not right now.
And the other thing is, we are beginning right at the starting gate and taking the pentatonic game to a high level of use and enjoyment.
Now, you know what a scale is, right? If you play a scale, say D major for one octave and call each note for its numbered place in the scale, you are ready to go.
In other words you play the scale and mentally, or out loud, say the number of the note. Play open D, say one. Play first finger E, say two. And so on. This is the starting point for all music theory. And also for pentatonic scales and patterns.
Be Exact with the Pentatonic Scale
Our first step is to leave off notes numbered four and seven. We play one, two, three, five, six, and finally 8, the octave. Yes, that’s a total of six notes, but two are the same note, the D—first the open string, then an octave higher by the third finger on the A string.
If you have not played this scale, you need to ASAP. Play it until you don’t have to think about it. Hear and enjoy the sound, it is unique and common to many music traditions.
Once you have this pattern locked in, you can do it on two other scales that use the same finger patterns, the G and the A. Start just as you did with the open G or A and proceed by using only the pentatonic notes, just as you did with the D scale. No illustration for this. You locked in the pattern, right?
Add the Pentatonic Pattern on Other Strings
We’re moving on to the next step. If you want to just read the whole report first, that’s alright. When you get to the doing, be sure to do each step if all this is new. If you already know a little bit, you can move faster and focus on the new stuff.
Now we will add notes on other strings to expand each scale across all the strings. The finger patterns may be different from the ones you just did.
For the D pentatonic scale, start the notes on the G string with the first finger, then the second. No open G, no third finger. They don’t belong in this scale on the G. On the E string play open E, first finger, third finger, and pinkie.
For the A pentatonic scale we add the D and G strings. Start with the first finger on the G string. We won’t play the open G. Then play the second finger and high third finger. Moving to the D string skip the open D and play the first, then second fingers, landing on the open A to complete the octave.
For the G pentatonic, we are adding notes on the A and E strings. On the A play open A, first finger, third finger. For the E, play open E, low second finger, third finger and pinkie.
This Simple Pentatonic Pattern on All Strings is Powerful
When you can play these three scales in pentatonic pattern from the G string through the E, without squeezing your brain too hard, you have really mastered a big chunk.
To recap, you start with an open G only for the G pentatonic scale. The other two both begin with the first finger playing an A note on the G string. They all end with the same note–the fourth finger on the E.
In developing this skill, which is extremely valuable for fiddling, and particularly for improv, play at an even pace and listen for the sound, for each note, appreciating the resonance and flow. Learn to do this easily, without looking at any chart or reminder.
My First Discovery of a Pentatonic Scale Pattern in a Fiddle Tune
And the value! Here’s a little story to describe the value. When I was first beginning to play fiddle tunes, I was playing a record, Square Dances without Calls. It was all fiddle tunes and the notes were all very clear.
One particular tune caught my attention, Acorn Hill Breakdown. I liked it enough to immediately start learning it by ear. As I was playing along with the record, as many notes as I could get, suddenly the light came on. “Wait a minute. This is just a pentatonic scale.”
Once I had that realization I began hearing pentatonic scales in more fiddle tunes. The 8th of January was one that stood out. Then it seemed as if everywhere in old country songs and bluegrass songs pentatonic patterns were popping up repeatedly.
As I come to the close of what I have to share here, I confess that I haven’t been insisting on pentatonic scales with my students. I believe the reason is that they are not doing improv or showing a strong interest in it. And for the younger students, ordinary scales are of primary importance.å
Maybe I’ll change this now and reveal the greatness of pentatonic scales and patterns. As you get further involved in fiddling, consider taking a path of pentatonic scales to the Parnassus of fiddling.