The Blues Pentatonic Scale – A Guitarist’s Best Friend

Have you ever listened to an amazing rock or blues guitar solo and wondered how they do it? Chances are they used the pentatonic scale, or the blues scale.
Blues pentatonic scale

Every guitarist who starts to wander into the land of lead guitar and soloing will inevitably stumble across the quintessential pentatonic scale. This is one of the most used scales on the planet, and by that standard also an amazing tool for any guitarist. Let’s take a closer look.

What Is The Blues Scale?

The blues pentatonic scale is the cooler version of the classic pentatonic scale. It contains 6 notes instead of the 5 notes found in the pentatonic scale. So, with a blues scale you add one chromatic note to any of the minor or major pentatonic scales.

The blue note (flat 5th or flat 3rd)

So which note do we add? Well, to create that bluesy sound we all love, we add something called the blue note. It is quite dissonant sounding, and it gives us that perfect, edgy, bluesy sound to create killer rock & blues licks.

For the major pentatonic you add the flat 3rd, and for the minor pentatonic you add the flat 5th.

Why Learning The Blues Scale Matters

So why would you invest time in learning this scale? Because it’s the most widely used scale ever! It’s used in most musical genres, but predominantly in blues and rock, and is likely found in 90% of all guitar solos. Simply put, if you master this scale your musical journey will take giant leaps forward and you will be able to cover a lot of ground.

It’s very expressive and great for phrasing, but also great for faster lines. And most importantly, it’s not that difficult to learn.

The Five Positions

The blues scale, and of course the pentatonic scale, consists of 5 different positions. Some also call them boxes, patterns or shapes. A lot of guitarists use the first position almost exclusively, adding only a few extensions into the adjacent positions. I would definitely recommend learning to use all five. The freedom it gives you is priceless, and it doesn’t take that long to learn. More about that later on.

The examples below show all five positions in the key of A minor, with the blue notes marked with a circle: 

Position 1
Position 2
Position 3
Position 4
Position 5

Minor And Major Blues Scale

The shapes, or patterns, are thankfully the same for both minor and major blues scale. The only difference is the major version is played three frets below.

So for example, in order to play the minor blues scale (position one) over a blues progression in A you put your index finger on the fifth fret.  And if you want to play the major blues scale you use your little finger instead.

Making changes

Mixing minor and major licks might seem a bit daunting at first. Many believe you have to move your fretting hand to a position three frets down all the time.

It becomes a lot easier when you realize that the major blues scale’s second position comfortably overlaps with minor’s first position, as shown below. Naturally, the third shape of the major blues scale overlaps with the second minor shape and so on and so forth.

Minor and major overlap

Trust me, once you truly get these shapes under your fingers this will be a breeze. 

Same shape different function

It’s worth noting that even though all the shapes are the same, you won’t be able to play all your minor licks three frets down. It just doesn’t work that way since the notes are completely different. As you can see below, the root note has very different positions depending on whether you play minor or major, even though the shape or pattern is the same. Thus, minor licks and major licks are played differently.

Using The Blues Scale In Different Keys

Once you are familiar with this scale and the five different shapes of it, you can move them easily to the key of your choice. Just move the shape so that the root notes line up with the root note of the key you want to play in. If you want to play, say a C minor blues scale, you would put your index finger on the 8th fret to find the first position and you’re good to go.

And yes, you guessed it, if you’d rather play the C major blues scale you instead put your pinky on the 8th fret.

How To Play The Blues Scale

Even though we’re not going to go into specific licks here, it’s always good to know that beginning and ending on the root note always sounds good. So knowing where those are in all major and minor shapes will make you a lot more confident when learning new ideas and licks.

We are however going to give you a very methodical, easy and bullet proof way of mastering this entire scale and all the five patterns. It’ll take about five weeks, and you’ll never have to worry about this scale ever again. In fact, after this you can solely focus on nailing licks and phrases, which is the fun part. But it’s a whole lot more rewarding once navigating this scale is effortless.

Ok, so here is how it’s done. Every week you’ll focus on two things, which are the two exercises mentioned below.

Exercise 1

The first exercise is simply learning each shape, playing it up and down until you’re familiar with it.

So in the first week you learn shapes one and two, which shouldn’t take very long. 30 minutes or an hour tops. Week two you concentrate on shape three , and so on. Fifth week won’t be spent learning any shapes at all.

Exercise 2

As soon as you can comfortably play both first and second position of this scale, the remainder of the first week should be spent going in and out of these two positions and switching between them.

Week two you’ll only focus going between position two and three, week three positions three and four etc.

This sounds like a grind, but you really don’t have to spend that much time at all. Around 15-20 minutes a day should be enough, and all you have to do is to focus on combining two shapes at a time for each of the five weeks.

Try to make it fun, sliding in and out of the two shapes, including bending and all the other good stuff. And try to find and land on the root notes as well. By week five this entire scale, and all of the five boxes, will be very familiar territory for you. Learning licks from here on out will be so much easier and meaningful. On the whole it’s really not a lot of time invested, considering the skill you get out of it.

And if you’re more of a video person, this one is pretty good.

In Conclusion

Getting the blues scale under your fingers is well worth the effort, and will undoubtedly have you level up as a guitarist many times over. It opens up many doors that lead to greater licks and solos, and is a great tool for any guitarist.

For anyone seeking even deeper knowledge about this scale, and how to absolutely master it, I can highly recommend Claus Levin over at Guitarmastery and his program Crushing The Pentatonic Challenge.

If you’re already familiar with the blues scale, and feel like sinking your teeth into the world of guitar modes, why don’t you head over to our article Guitar Modes Explained.

That’s it for now folks, make sure you get cracking on that blues scale now!   

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