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What is the Major Pentatonic Scale?

‘Penta’ means five. A pentatonic scale is a five-tone scale. The major pentatonic scale is the most common pentatonic scale. This 5-note scale is found in virtually every style of music.

This scale is very versatile, is easy to play on the bass, and contains a very pleasing-to-hear group of notes. That’s why it is such a commonly used scale.

Whole-Step/Half-Step Construction of the Major Pentatonic Scale

Many times scales are described as a series of half-steps and whole-steps. We said the chromatic scale contained only half-steps, and the major scale uses a combination of whole- and half-steps. The major pentatonic scale is different since it contains a step-and-a-half between two pairs of notes in the scale. This helps create its unique open, airy sound.

The major pentatonic scale contains no half-steps. Starting on any note, it is built from the series: W, W, step-and-a-half, W, step-and-a-half.

Intervallic Construction of the Major Pentatonic Scale

The major pentatonic scale is constructed of the intervals M2, M3, P5, and M6. This intervallic construction is unique to this scale. This scale can be built on any note of the musical alphabet. As a result there are 12 major pentatonic scales.

A one-octave C major pentatonic scale is spelled C, D, E, G, A, and C an octave above. That’s five different notes — don’t count the root twice.

One Octave Major Pentatonic Scale Fingering

You will notice the major pentatonic shape and fingering is similar to the one-octave major scale pattern. The major pentatonic scale can be most easily remembered as a major scale missing two of its seven notes — the 4th and the 7th.

Just as with the major scale pattern, you can play this fingering anywhere on the fretboard.

Begin your fingering on your 2nd finger and apply the one-finger-per-fret rule:

Root with your 2nd finger
2 with your 4th finger
3 with your 1st finger
5 with your 4th finger
6 with your 1st finger
8 with your 4th finger

Why Learn the Major Pentatonic Scale?

You will run into and use this scale a lot. You might use it more often than any other scale. It works very well in basslines and many melodies use the major pentatonic scale. This is a must learn scale.

Major Pentatonic Scale Usage

When applied in the most common way, this scale has a simple, bright sound to it, and works well over many major chords. You should notice that three of the five notes are the notes of the major triad. That is why this scale often complements and is played over major triads. It also often works over the major 7th and dominant 7th chords. It can also be applied to some other chords we have yet to discuss like the major 6th chord (R, 3, 5, 6) and the major 6 9 chord (R, 3, 5, 6, 9).

When creating your own basslines you always have to use your ear to judge when applying a scale to a chord works and when it doesn’t. Hopefully you’ve read ‘chord tones are primary’. In a way the major pentatonic scale is a slightly modified major triad. I think the popularity of this scale is more evidence that chord tones are the real key to understanding music. You’ll notice most basslines applying the major pentatonic scale still heavily emphasize the basic underlying major triad. Don’t get too caught up in scales without first knowing the chords they complement.

Also, notice the major pentatonic's similarities to the root-fifth-sixth pattern in the common bass patterns section.

You may also discover the guitar riff to 'My Girl' simply plays up the notes of the major pentatonic scale - root....2, 3, 5, 6, 8.

Here are some example basslines applying the major pentatonic scale.

Major Pentatonic Scale Details
Whole-step/half-step construction: W W 1-1/2 step W 1-1/2 step
Intervallic construction: Root, M2, M3, P5, M6, P8
C major pentatonic scale spelling: C, D, E, G, A