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Is there a difference between minor and major pentatonic scale box shapes? Some say you can do the same pattern as a minor scale but three notes up the fretboard and some that you must change pattern to do the major pentatonic scale in the same key? i'm confused...

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    'The same key' is the confusing bit. Parallel maj and min keys as in A and Am are NOT the same keys. Relative maj and min, as in C and Am are not the same keys either! Except they CAN be construed as the same in some ways. However, when soloing on guitar, it's common practice to use parallel pent. scale notes. – Tim Jan 22 '15 at 15:16
  • groovenue.com/2016/01/14/… – blusician Mar 28 '17 at 5:29
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The first thing to note is that to specify a key, you need both a root note and a formula. A root note on its own is not sufficient.

A minor and C major contain the same notes, so we can say they are different modes of the same scale. Another way of saying this is that A minor is the relative minor of C major, and C major is the relative major of A minor. So why do we need two names for the same thing? Well, the correct name (which can sometimes be a bit subjective) will depend on which note the music is "pulling towards" i e which note appears more.

A minor pentatonic: A C D E G A (formula 3 2 2 3 2)
C major pentatonic:   C D E G A C (formula 2 2 3 2 3) 

Now let's look at the complete, 5-position diagram of the pentatonic scale. You can play a pentatonic scale by walking your fingers across the neck at any one of these positions, playing 2 notes per string. If you want A minor / C major, you need to consider this diagram to represent the space from the 5th and 19th fret.

enter image description here

Let's focus on position 1. Here we can play the notes A-C D-E G-A C-D E-G A-C (hyphens just to show which notes are played on the same string.) If you play that, you've either played two octaves of the A minor scale (plus an extra C at the end) or two octaves of the C major scale (plus an extra A at the beginning.) So all you have to do is remember to OMIT the last C and you are playing A minor, or OMIT the first A and you are playing C major!

If you want to play C minor / Eb major, you need to move 3 frets up. If you want to play F# minor / A major you need to move 3 frets down. It's that simple.

some say you must change the pattern

I think what's happening here, is that it is common to associate position 1 with the minor, because that's where we start by playing 2 notes on the low E string (and only 1 on the high E). As I have just explained, that's not really true, because, we can play just as much major scale in position 1, but then we play only 1 note on the low E and 2 on the high E.

I strongly disagree with this fixation that "you must start at bottom left" because you can actually start playing a scale anywhere. After all, you want to play tunes, so a scale is really just a pallette of notes to choose from. But those that subscribe to that fixation would call position 2 the "major" position. Here, we can play C major like this, starting with 2 notes on the low E string: C-D E-G A-C D-E G-A C (-and a final D if we want to.)

Now, one other point touched on by Tim, is that if you take for example a 12 bar blues progression such as A A A A D D A A E D A A (all major chords) you would expect to be able to solo over it in A major (this has a jolly, rock and roll type feel.) But surprisingly, you can also move three frets up and solo over it in A minor! (this has a more moody, bluesy feel.) You can play lead in minor over rhythm in major! But the reverse (playing lead in major over rhythm in minor) doesn't really work.

(As an aside, it's very common in rock music for rhythm guitar to substitute a what "should be" a minor chord for a major chord.)

To be a good guitarist, you need to know all the positions of the pentatonic, but if you just learn the odd ones, which are easy (1,3 and 5) you will already know where the notes are for the more complicated looking even ones (2 and 4.)

Finally, a small rant on my personal philosophy...

When you move onto the diatonic (7-note) you may be bamboozled by endless scale boxes with greek names. The diatonic (the most important scale in western music) is made by adding 2 notes to the pentatonic and is the scale of the white notes on the piano. As there are 7 different notes, there are 7 different modes of this scale all with the exact same notes. For example from the notes of C major we get C Ionian (major), D Dorian, E Phrygian, F lydian, G mixolydian, A Aeolian (minor) and B Locrian. There is in my opinion no need to consider 7 different and independent scale boxes for the diatonic scale, (and even less to name them after the modes) because there is an enormous amount of repetition where they overlap and as I said above, relating a scale position to a particular mode is a fallacy (I do concede it might be a good way of identifying the position, but there is no unambiguous "right way" of crossing the neck with diatonic scales anyway!)

  • Looking at the fretboard you show, it's easy to understand that the boxes overlap - the higher notes in position 1 are the lower notes in pos. 2, and so on. I quite like the 3-notes-per-string scale, where the same 3 frets are used on the 5th & 6th strings, another pair on 4 & 3, and yet another pair on 2 & 1. – Tim Jan 23 '15 at 9:13
  • I'll take you to task on 'you can actually play a scale anywhere'. I guess you mean start and finish on any note. Those aren't scales any more, but modes. Musically, it's excellent to be able to do that, but they're not scales. – Tim Mar 6 '18 at 19:57
  • @Tim what I meant is you can start any scale on any string. So you can play the exact same C major scale starting on the 5th fret of the 3rd string, the 10th fret of the 4th string or even the 1st fret of the 2nd string (though that gives you very little room for moving across the neck.) The tone quality in each case will of course be different. This is one of the reasons I think calling the position 1 pentatonic scale box "minor" and position 2 "major" makes no sense: Rarely when soloing would I start a scale run on the 6th string. And I'd move diagonally rather than stick to a single box. – Level River St Mar 6 '18 at 20:24
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Dom's answer is of course correct, but I think there's a misunderstanding as to what is meant by 'pattern'. In Dom's answer, he refers to the interval structure of a scale as 'pattern'. In this sense he is of course right that the patterns of major and minor pentatonic scales are different. However, I believe that Chris refers to patterns on the neck of the guitar. And in this sense, you could argue that the patterns of major and minor pentatonic scales are the same, i.e. the 'boxes' look the same. But the important difference is the location of the root, which is of course different for major and minor pentatonic scales.

So if you play a minor pentatonic pattern in some key, and you want to use that same pattern in the major pentatonic scale with the same root, then you need to shift that pattern down by three frets. E.g., if you play the A minor pentatonic scale in the 5th position, and you want to switch to A major pentatonic using the same pattern, then you need to move that pattern down to the 2nd position.

The other thing is, if you want to stay in the same position to play major and minor pentatonic scales with the same root, then the pattern of course changes as you go from minor to major. But the new pattern is also one of the familiar pentatonic patterns. So, for example, if you play in the 5th position in A minor, and then you want to change to A major (basically) without leaving the position (plus/minus 1 fret), you need to play the pattern that you would normally play three frets higher if you were still in A minor. This sounds much more complicated than it actually is when you have a guitar in your hand.

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    Yes, I think you caught the essence of the OP's question. It's more about patterns on the fretboard. However, did you mean UP 3 frets from the min. pent. to find the root of the relative maj. pent. Up, as going higher, as in making higher pitched notes, as in moving towards the bridge? E.g. Am pent goes from 5th fret to 8th fret (1st position). Root for Am is 6th string 5th fret, whereas root for Cmaj is up 3 frets at 8th fret. – Tim Jan 22 '15 at 14:30
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    @Tim: I meant down (i.e. lower), in the sense that if you want to use the same pattern and you play in minor, then you need to go down by 3 frets to end up in major of the same key. E.g. A minor 5th position => A major 2nd position (same pattern). – Matt L. Jan 22 '15 at 14:32
  • Got you. You're meaning parallel maj and min, moving the pattern down 3 frets, but still starting on the same string/fret/note (as in A in my comment).Rather than the relatives.No wonder folks get confused... – Tim Jan 22 '15 at 14:36
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    @Tim: Right! As soon as I have more time I might edit my answer to make things a bit clearer. It's so easy to see on the guitar and so hard to explain clearly ... – Matt L. Jan 22 '15 at 14:58
  • Thank you Matt L.! I've been focusing on this for a week now and I finally understand the relation between the minor and major pentatonic scales. Your comment help me and explains it very well! – Chris Feb 3 '15 at 13:14
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There's two things going on that you need to understand.

  1. The pattern for the major and minor scales are different. If you were to play a C major pentatonic scale you would play the notes C, D, E, G, A. If you were playing the C minor pentatonic you would play the notes C, Eb, F, G, Bb. Both are shown below:

enter image description here

enter image description here

  1. There are major and minor pentatonic scales that share the same notes. These scales are related and typically refereed to as the relative major/minor. If you were to play a C major pentatonic scale you would play the notes C, D, E, G, A. If you were playing the A minor pentatonic you would play the notes A, C, D, E, G. Both are shown below:

enter image description here

enter image description here

So yes there are major and minor pentatonic scales that share notes, but the pattern is not the same. There are technically more than just two patters and using them you can span across the whole guitar as shown in this question.


All pictures from basicmusictheory.com

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