Guitar Lesson: Learn the Pentatonic Scale

A friend with a new guitar and no experience asked if it was worth taking lessons. I told him it most surely is, but regardless everyone wants to solo and to do that you need to learn, practice and know scales. A guitar teacher is going to tell you to go practice them. The Pentatonic scale is probably the best one to start with, especially if you want to play rock ‘n’ roll. I learned guitar and scales from two books: Blues Guitar for Dummies and Uncle Tim’s First Year. Both were purchased after quite a bit of research online, and both turned out to be excellent.

I’ve always found guitar charts to be terrible. Not enough information is contained within them. So I made my own with what I think is the right amount of info to start learning the five Pentatonic scale patterns.

Pentatonic Scale G Minor Position 1 chart

Here’s the first lesson. This is known as a Pentatonic Box pattern. This is a “scale”, but it’s the pattern instead of the musical notes.

The instructions are simple: play the notes in numerical order from 1 to 12 using the finger noted for each fret, then go in reverse. Use a guitar pick and strum with an alternating down/up pattern. The chart says to repeat for 15+ minutes daily for 3 months, but the real goal is to practice until you can do it fluidly, and each note rings clean (no buzzing). This will teach you the first of the 5 interlocking patterns, and at the same time will build up strength and dexterity in your fingers and hand.

This is the toughest stage for the beginner player because the hand physically cannot yet do what it needs to do, at least not properly. Once this becomes fluid, the rest of the patterns will come much easier. But once you learn these patterns and condition your hands, you’ll have the skill and dexterity for life. You might get rusty if you don’t play for a while, but you won’t need to start over from scratch. It is boring as hell, and totally a “wax on, wax off” Karate Kid thing. And while other patterns will be introduced into the practice during the initial 3 months, you’ll want to get this first one down solid before adding more. You’ll want to continue to practice this one as well. A huge part of learning this first pattern will be conditioning the hand, and the bonus is that at the same time you’ll be learning the pattern.

You’ll want to start learning the basic guitar chords too. You can find those in any book or online lesson. But this will get your hand in condition to play both chords as well as scales, and while chords are necessary, playing lead lines is much more fun.

If you want some inspiration to get you through this drudgery, know that you will be able to solo along with any song — in any key — by learning just 5 patterns. Seriously, just 5 simple patterns with 12 notes each. I probably shouldn’t confuse you at this point, but although the pattern above starts on the 3rd fret, it can be moved to any fret on the neck and it will work. By moving to different frets, you’re switching keys. You don’t need to understand any of this for it to work. It’s a system that you learn through repetition, and when applied it, it works. As confounding as the guitar is right now, you’ll come to see how simple all of this actually is once it all clicks. I know that sounds crazy when you’re just getting started, but it will eventually happen. Playing solos will actually come to seem easy, believe it or not.

It will blow you away when it does finally clicks (which it will if you put in the time), and will be one of the most rewarding learning experiences you’ll ever have. Of course, the next step will to get really good at playing — but that’s not something I can help you with!

On a side note, I stumbled across the superb book Mastery by George Leonard after I had already learned my guitar scales, but his description of the Mastery Curve fit my experience with the guitar perfectly.

I bring this up because you will most certainly reach a point where not only do you feel like you aren’t improving (the plateaus in the image above), but you may feel like you’re actually getting worse (the dips after a burst of improvement). This happened to me, and I gave up for 2 months due to the frustration. Determined not to be beat, I eventually picked the guitar back up to practice scales again — and to my surprise everything I had been practicing all came together in an instant and I was playing scales up and down the neck like I’d been playing for years. It was amazing. And to think after just 3 short months of practice, I had been ready to give up forever when I was so close. The takeaway here is that you’ll be riding that plateau for some time, so you just need to stick with it. Trust me, it’ll all be worth it.

Here’s a nice overview of the concepts in Mastery. I highly recommend the book in general, for any skill you’re looking to master.

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3 comments

    1. Thanks for the suggestion Mike, will check it out! My post was more of a “get started” lesson than a full course. I’m still learning myself, but learning these patterns improved things dramatically for me in a short time.

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