I know the Maj/Min pentatonic scale positions.

I need a clear explanation of why Position#1 for minor pentatonic for A starts on the fifth fret; it has something to do with octaves.

How do you go about working out the positions is essentially what I need to understand.


The word "position" can mean two different things in relation to playing scales on the guitar.

Firstly, it can describe where you are in relation to the fretboard, regardless of key: if the first finger is at fret 1 you are in first position; if the first finger is at fret 5 you are in fifth position. A classical guitarist would usually use the word "position" in this way, it is common for other guitarists to as well.

Secondly, it can describe the different scale patterns produced by starting on the different notes of a scale (the correct term for the different notes of a scale is degrees). For instance, the scale of A minor pentatonic has these notes: A C D E G. If we play these notes starting from the root note, A, this could be described as the "first position" of this scale. Personally, I would refer to this as the first mode of this scale (although the "first mode of A minor pentatonic" is most easily described simply as "A minor pentatonic"!). If we start on the second note, C, this would give the notes C D E G A; this could be described as the "second position" of A minor pentatonic, but more accurately it is the second mode of A minor pentatonic. (It is also C major pentatonic, but that is a whole other thing...!)

The confusion between the two uses of the word "position" can be demonstrated quite easily. The first mode of A minor pentatonic starts on the root note, A. In the OP's terminology this is "Position 1 of A minor pentatonic". But, as it starts on fret 5 (if you start on string 6) many guitarists would say this is in fifth position!

So, confusion can be avoided in a couple of ways: either by using the word "position" solely to refer to the position along the neck (i.e. which fret finger 1 is at) and using the word "pattern", "shape" or "mode" to refer to the various scale patterns created by starting on different scale degrees; or, by being very clear about the use of the word "position", for instance, saying that Position 1 of A minor pentatonic is in Fifth Position.

Whichever terminology you use, it is a really good idea to learn how to play the notes from each scale in a number of different positions along the neck. This means that you are not restricted to simply a couple of octaves of that scale, but can play a greater range by moving to another "position" of the same scale. Learning to play the notes of a scale with different patterns produced by using different starting notes will also help you to learn all the modes of any particular scale (although it is important to point out that these are not always the same thing! The basic reason for this, is that playing a mode strictly you would usually practise playing between the same pitches, eg. A-A or C-C; when practising the different "positions" or patterns of a scale you often include all the possible notes within the range of your fretting hand in that "fret position").

Initially it makes sense to learn the notes of a scale starting on the root note. It is certainly my experience that most guitarists do this. This would be mode 1 of the scale and would be what the OP calls "Position 1". A common pattern for playing a minor pentatonic scale starting on the root note is shown below:

enter image description here

In order to play this in any key you would move this pattern up and down the neck (the other meaning of changing "position"!) Below is a list of pitches on String 6; this tells you which fret to start on to play a minor pentatonic in any of the twelve keys, using the pattern above:

  • Open: E
  • Fret 1: F
  • Fret 2: F# or Gb
  • Fret 3: G
  • Fret 4: G# or Ab
  • Fret 5: A
  • Fret 6: A# or Bb
  • Fret 7: B
  • Fret 8: C
  • Fret 9: C# or Db
  • Fret 10: D
  • Fret 11: D# or Eb
  • Fret 12: E again (the octave point, halfway along the string, the double-dot)

In order to learn the different patterns of the pentatonic minor you would start on the different degrees of the scale, and play all notes (or exactly two octaves if playing as a mode) of this scale reachable within that position. So, the patterns/modes of A minor pentatonic would be ordered like so:

  • Mode 1 (which we would just call A minor pentatonic): A C D E G
  • Mode 2: C D E G A
  • Mode 3: D E G A C
  • Mode 4: E G A C D
  • Mode 5: G A C D E

If I get a chance I'll do a diagram for all of these, but the OP links to this web page which shows these patterns.

Many thanks to CalebHines and Scott (the OP) for their comments which really helped me rewrite this answer - I can't believe Scott accepted the answer initially...!

  • To work out scale positions you start off on the sixth string?
    – Scott
    May 24 '14 at 14:29
  • If your scale patterns start on string 6. Do they? May 24 '14 at 14:33
  • Can you describe exactly what you mean by "scale positions"? May 24 '14 at 14:35
  • 2
    I would think of these "positions" as being different modes of a particular scale. May 24 '14 at 15:20
  • 1
    @CalebHines thanks for your help with this. I've updated my answer to reflect the confusion that could arise with different uses of the word "position" with regard to guitar scale shapes. A classical guitarist certainly thinks of positions as being related to frets, but it seems perfectly legitimate to think of the various shapes that can be used to play the notes of any particular scale as being different "positions" of the same scale. May 24 '14 at 15:37

If you know the notes that are in the scale you are trying to play, you can work out which strings need to be fretted, and where. I'm not a guitarist (though I have a guitar that I play around on from time to time) but the following chart really helped me understand how a guitar is laid out, in terms of which notes are where.

In your case, an A Minor pentatonic scale is made of the notes A C D E G, so we need to find those notes in the chart. First position means (I think) that you are starting on the first note of the scale, which is A. The first A we find is on string 6, at the 5th fret. The next note is C, which is at fret 8. You could find the D and E at frets 10 and 12, but that would require moving your hand several frets higher. It's easier to move over to the next higher string, where the D and E are at frets 5 and 7, which falls in line with where your hand already is located. Just continue looking for notes of the scale, and you'll work out what you need to do.

   |  6   5   4   3   2   1
0  |  E   A   D   G   B   E
1  |  F   Bb  Eb  Ab  C   F
2  |  F#  B   E   A   C#  F#
3  |  G   C   F   Bb  D   G
4  |  Ab  C#  F#  B   Eb  Ab
5  |  A   D   G   C   E   A
6  |  Bb  Eb  Ab  C#  F   Bb
7  |  B   E   A   D   F#  B
8  |  C   F   Bb  Eb  G   C
9  |  C#  F#  B   E   Ab  C#
10 |  D   G   C   F   A   D
11 |  Eb  Ab  C#  F#  Bb  Eb
12 |  E   A   D   G   B   E

Edit: As for why you begin on the sixth string: You need to start on an A and then play an ascending scale. It makes sense that you want to start on the lowest-pitched A possible (so that you can play as much of the scale as possible). Since the lowest string is string 6, this is where you want to start. You might wonder, why not start on string 5, since it's the same A, and doesn't require fretting. The answer is that you're developing a generic fingering pattern that can be moved up and down the neck to any fret, so that you can play in any key using the same pattern. You can't do that with open strings, which are stuck to playing a single note by definition, so you avoid open strings.

  • Is it true the numbers mean nothing as Bob said? guitarforanyone.com/images/minor_pentatonic_scale.gif In this diagram could I call the #5, the #1 if I wanted to or is there a system in place to follow?
    – Scott
    May 24 '14 at 15:03
  • 1
    I'm not sure I'd say nothing. They tell you which note of the scale is the lowest for that particular pattern, and it appears to be a common usage by guitarists, so it functions as communication. Essentially, what he's doing is rotating the notes of the scale for each position: #1: ACDEG #2: CDEGA #3: DEGAC #4: EGACD #5: GACDE May 24 '14 at 15:16
  • Yes, completely fair point! May 24 '14 at 16:12
  • @CalebHines I completely rewrote my answer, I think both your comments and those of the OP needed to be addressed... May 24 '14 at 17:34

I tend to call the five patterns of notes that make up the pentatonic scale “shapes”. Thus I would say shape 1 one of the pentatonic scale, starting at fret five and ending at fret 8, provides the notes of A minor pentatonic. The other four shapes following on from shape 1 provide further places where notes of that scale lie. I think it is potentially confusing to call them modes even though they are. To call them “modes” suggests that they are used solely for playing the modes, whereas most folks beginners especially, are likely to use them to play in A minor ie they will continue to regard and use the A note as the root note or tonic.

Some folks might still be wondering why shape 1 provides the notes of A minor starting at the fifth fret. A curt answer is because it does! To help understand better realise that if you moved shape 1 up and down the finger board the fifth fret is one of the few places where it would provide the notes of A minor. Another is at the seventeenth fret.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.