Secret Tip From The Flatpicking Pros: The Pentatonic Scale

The Pentatonic scale, of all the scales I go over in my Bluegrass Guitar Essentials course, is possibly the most important scale for Bluegrass Guitar!

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The Importance of the Pentatonic Scale

Why You Need To Know the Pentatonic Scale

When it comes to learning to flatpick in the Bluegrass guitar style, one of the best tools I’ve ever discovered is the use of the Pentatonic scale.  A few years ago I was watching a video of Tony Rice playing his usual blurring lines of notes on songs he’s famous for when all of a sudden something clicked.  When you see someone play Bluegrass guitar with the prowess and finesse of legendary players such as Tony Rice, Bryan Sutton, David Grier, and Kenny Smith, you become pretty scared at the level of playing you’ll need to achieve to come anywhere close to their playing.

But when I really watched Tony’s playing—not just passively watch for entertainment purposes, but actually study the techniques—I realized something: Tony was scaling up and down the fretboard using less notes than players like Bryan Sutton or David Grier who are famous for all those notes they pack in their solos.  And in this case, less is more!

Less Is MORE!

What do I mean by this?  Well, if you use any popular seven-note scales such as the Major and Minor scales you’ll find that seven notes can end up being a lot more by the time you’ve covered two octaves—15 notes to be exact.  This can be a lot of notes not only to remember, but that can overwhelm your audience’s ears after a while.  Not so with the Pentatonic scale.  In the Pentatonic scale there are only five notes in one octave; two less notes than the seven-note Major, Minor, or similar scales.  That means that in the span of two octaves, you’re playing a total of 11 notes . . . four less notes total!  Imagine what that knowledge can do for your Bluegrass licks!

“But it’s only four notes.  What difference can that possibly make?” you ask.  My answer: “A LOT of difference!”  This is because when you drop certain notes from the Major scale you end up having a longer distance between notes, also known as intervals.  This allows a different experience for the ear of the listener.  To me the Pentatonic scale sounds faster, more to the point, and is easier on the ears and more interesting to listen to.  It just allows for more sound capabilities than hearing every note you possibly can like in its seven-note scale counterparts.

What’s Your Next Step?

After you’ve watched the videos above for some ideas on how to incorporate the Pentatonic scale into your Bluegrass guitar playing, you can find many more ideas on using the Pentatonic scale as well as the seven-note scales I discussed above in my Bluegrass Guitar Essentials course.  As of now, the course is only available in the Webisodes format.  Webisodes 5 & 6 and Webisodes 7 & 8 cover these scales (Major, Minor, and Pentatonic variations of both) as well as Practice Tips, Open String Transitions, and how to switch from Major to Minor scales and vice versa and are available now, so be sure to stay tuned to the Webisodes page and take advantage of limited-time special introductory pricing while you can.  Details on the pricing for previous, current, and future Webisodes can be found on this page as well.

So please watch the videos above and be sure to leave your comments below for others to read and benefit from.  Also, please take a moment and share this article on your favorite social network (share buttons below).  It’s nearly impossible for me to reach everyone with these invaluable resources without your help.

Tip: If you’re having trouble following along you may be able to adjust the video’s playback speed by clicking on the “Gear” or “Cog” icon which appears in the bottom right hand side of the YouTube video player after clicking on the “play button” above! Watch this video I created for more info.

Until next time,

Best Wishes and Keep Practicing,

Eric Beaty