When it comes to learning the minor pentatonic scale on guitar, a lot of guitar players seem to make similar mistakes.
If you have ever found yourself feeling bored or frustrated when learning the scale, you are probably making one (or more!) of these mistakes.
If you have every found yourself wondering “What’s the point in learning this?” when practising the minor pentatonic scale, then hopefully this article will give you some ideas on how you can have fun learning the minor pentatonic scale and do something musical with it.
Mistake 1: Only Learning the First Position
The first position of the minor pentatonic scale is a great start, but there is more to it than that.
The minor pentatonic scale has 5 positions in total.
When you know all 5 positions, you get a “map” that covers the entire guitar neck, which is pretty cool.
This map can act as a foundation for improvising, learning solos or even writing your own solos; so it is well worth learning… and memorising!
Mistake 2: Not Learning What to do With It
Learning the minor pentatonic scale is great… but why do you want to learn it?
There isn’t any point learning something just for the sake of it.
Often, I saw people that had learned the first position of the minor pentatonic scale, but they weren’t very clear on why they had learned it.
One reason for learning the minor pentatonic scale, is that a lot of hard rock and metal solos are based on it.
So by learning to play the scale, it’s a bit like learning how to playing 50% of your favourite guitar solos.
When it comes to learning solos, you’ll be able to recognise the scale they are coming from, “oh, this bit of the solo is coming from box 2 of the minor pentatonic scale”.
Recognising where fragments of solos come from like this will help you memorise them a lot, lot faster, and also get them under your fingers faster.
Mistake 3: Only Learning the Scale in One or Two Keys
… and you can probably guess what those two keys are…
A minor and E minor.
Which is great, but there are another 10 keys we can learn these scales in!
Now you may be saying “Since 99% of the music I like is in A minor and E minor, what’s wrong with learning the scale in only those two keys?”
And that would be a good question!
There are some “weird” and counter intuitive things when it comes to learning.
By learning the scale in all keys, you will become better at playing it in A minor and E minor.
Let me say that another way,
If you were to spend one month on learning the minor pentatonic scale, practising it in all keys; you will probably be better at playing the scale in the key of A minor and E minor, than if you had spent the entire month on just those two keys.
The other benefit to practising in every key, is that you will:
- understand the guitar much better.
- be able to improvise in unorthodox keys.
- be able to come up with creative ideas for soloing (e.g. there are ways you can use a C# minor, F# minor and G# minor pentatonic when playing in the key of E major…)
and anyway, if you’re reading this, it’s not because you want to be “ok” at playing guitar, but because you want to actively study guitar and push your understanding and ability.
Mistake 4: Not Applying the Scale
Scales are tools.
They exist to allow you to understand and do something on guitar.
Often, people learn scales without learning to do anything with them.
When I teach the minor pentatonic scale, I like to get students improvising and writing their own licks as quickly as possible.
This is great for two reasons:
- It’s fun
- You apply the scale to create music
Which at the end of the day, is what the guitar is all about.
You can find some minor key chord progressions here, which the minor pentatonic scale will work over. Record yourself playing some of those chord progressions and have a go at improvising over them using the minor pentatonic scale.
Mistake 5: Only Playing Positions From the 6th String
Now I’ll come clean here… this is a mistake I also made for quite a while.
When working on the minor pentatonic scale, it’s common to approach the scale from the perspective of “boxes”, the 5 positions that a lot of guitarists are familiar with.
However, when learning the boxes, they always learn the boxes from the 6th string… because that’s what feels like a natural way to approach it.
But when it comes to playing “in real life”… you don’t want to sit there, counting up your 6th string to find the right box, working through the box, and then playing what you want to play.
You need to be able to play the scale from any string, anywhere on the neck, in any key.
Once you can do that, the scale is really, really useful.
In order to achieve this good exercise is to play through the positions, starting from the root note in each position.
This forces you to think about the scale a bit more musically and, like I mentioned before, allows you to play it from any string, anywhere on the neck, in any key… which is pretty useful (and fun!).
Mistake 6: Not Learning Theory to be Able to Creatively Apply the Scale
In Mistake 4, we talked about learning to apply to the scale, being able to make some short licks and ideas from it.
That is great, but there is one more step after that, and that is, knowing how to apply the scale to different chord progressions.
This is where knowing a little theory can be very useful.
A bit of theory knowledge can really help tie together your playing and allowing you to take ideas and apply them in different music situations.
This also ties into learning the scale in every possible keys.
You can think of learning to play in every key, and the theory behind knowing which key to use, as being two sides of the same coin.
Mistake 7: Not Breaking Out of Boxes
A common problem guitar players face when learning the minor pentatonic scale, is that when it comes to applying the scale, they effectively just play the scale, rather than playing something musical.
You can see a lot of players soloing and it’s obvious that they are just playing a bit of box 2, or box 4, etc.
When practising through the boxes, as soon as you have the hang of playing through the boxes, you want to start looking at playing between the boxes.
Have a go at writing some licks that traverse two or three boxes.
Play around with merging two boxes together to make three note per string pentatonics.
Try string skipping.
As soon as you can play through a box, you want to start thinking of ways to break out of them.
The boxes are a framework, not a restriction.
Mistake 8: Not Integrating the Scale with Other Concepts
This problem applies across the whole spectrum of skills and techniques that you can learn on guitar.
Once you learn a technique, you want to start integrating it with other skills.
For example, once you can write a lick in the minor pentatonic scale, you could then integrate that with string bends – and write a lick with some string bends in it.
You could integrate that with 5 string minor arpeggios, and have your minor pentatonic lick flow into a 5 string minor arpeggio.
Or ascend through a minor 7 arpeggio, and descend in the minor pentatonic scale.
The possibilities here are limitless, and the best bit…
Integrating multiple techniques like this is what makes a lick or a solo you write sound “musical”.
Musicality is integration of techniques.
Mistake 9: Not Visualising the Scale When Learning It
This is an important tip when learning any scale, arpeggio, or solo.
Try not to think of the scale as a series of numbers in a tab, but visualise it as a neck diagram, where you are playing a pattern on the neck.
Not only will you be able to learn the scales much fast, but transposing them to other keys will make more sense.
This article on how to think about scales on guitar goes into a bit more detail on the topic.
You will also be amazed by just how much music you can memorise this way, when you think of the music as a pattern on a fretboard, rather than a series of numbers in a tab.
Mistake 10: Not Using a Metronome to Practice
I get it, using a metronome is probably not the most exciting thing when you’re practising guitar…
but it is vital.
A metronome ensures that you are practising in time, helps you develop your technique and helps you pinpoint any weaknesses in your playing.
You can read up here on how to use a metronome effectively when practising guitar.
As you can hopefully see, there is quite a lot that goes into getting to grips with the minor pentatonic scale.
I covered some similar points in the article 6 reasons to learn scales on guitar.
If you want some help with improving your guitar practice, then you can download our free eBook on how to practice guitar more effectively.
If you’d like some help with the minor pentatonic scale, with videos and exercises to guide you step by step through learning the scale, then you can become a student and learn guitar online with us.