Pentatonic Scales

Pentatonic scales are five-note scales that sound good over just about any kind of music. Rock, country, blues, folk, and world music all make extensive use of pentatonic sounds. And because they use fewer notes than the standard 7-note scales, pentatonics make it easier to play in multiple keys on one harmonica. You’ll find each new position has different sweet spots, which is great for getting you out of artistic ruts. You’ll also learn to use the entire ten-hole range of the harmonica. We’ll use a C harp for all the examples below.

Let’s Get Started
To start with, I’d recommend playing the riff from “My Girl” over and over in C. Remember the old Motown song by The Temptations? It’ll teach you the basic scale pattern and help you remember the sound of the major pentatonic. Here it is:

My Girl

C     D E G  A C
4    -4 5 6 -6 7

You play the root, pause, then continue up the scale. Start on 4, make your way to 7, start over. There are five different notes – hence the Greek word root “penta” – then you get a repeat of your starting note. Got it? Five different notes, then you start over.

Next, we’ll look at the scale in all three octaves. When you play in the key of C on a C harmonica, we call it playing in “first position.” Also, there’s a bend in the low octave, watch for it!

C Major Pentatonic – 1st Position

C  D  E  G  A  C

1 -1  2 -2 -3" 4

4 -4  5  6 -6  7

7 -8  8  9 -10 10

Other Keys
On a C harmonica, you can also play a pentatonic major scale in G and also in F. Just as above, there are bends in the low octave, and even one in the high octave, but in each key there’s at least one octave that can be played without bends.

G Major Pentatonic – 2nd Position

 G  A   B  D  E  G

-2 -3" -3 -4  5  6

 6 -6  -7 -8  8  9

 9 -10  10'

F Major Pentatonic – 12th Position

 F   G   A   C  D  F

-2" -2  -3"  4 -4 -5

-5   6  -6   7 -8 -9

-9   9  -10  10

In the keys of F and G, we run out of notes in the top octave, so we don’t get to finish the full five-note sequence.

Pentatonic Music Theory
The major pentatonic scale takes the seven different notes of the standard major scale and leaves out two of them. Here they are, side by side.

C   	D   	E   	F   	G   	A   	B   	C
Do 	Re 	Mi 	Fa 	Sol 	La 	Ti 	Do

Do 	Re 	Mi      	Sol 	La     		Do
C   	D   	E        	G    	A      		C

If you think of Do as Note #1, Re as Note #2 and so on, then we can define the Major Pentatonic scale as 1,2,3,5,6,1. We leave out Note #4 and Note #7.

Relative Major and Relative Minor
Each major scale has a relative minor. They use the same set of notes, but instead of starting on Note #1, they start on Note #6. In effect, the Note #6 of the major becomes Note #1 of the relative minor.

Note #               1 2 3 5 6
C Major Pentatonic - C D E G A

A Minor Pentatonic - A C D E G
Note #               6 1 2 3 5

Following this approach, we get three pairs of scales:

C major = A minor

G major = E minor

F major = D minor

Two For One!
So if you learn to play C major pentatonic, you now also know how to play A minor pentatonic. Two for the price of one! And if you learn the other two major pentatonics, you get their relative minors, too. Absolutely free!

So here are the minors. Notice that the 5 notes are the same as the major pentatonics above, you just start from a different note.

A Minor Pentatonic – 4th Position

 A  C  D  E  G   A

-3" 4 -4  5  6  -6

-6  7 -8  8  9 -10

E Minor Pentatonic – 5th Position

E   G   A   B   D  E

2  -2  -3" -3  -4  5

5   6  -6  -7  -8  8

D Minor Pentatonic – 3rd Position

 D   F   G   A   C   D

-1  -2" -2  -3"  4  -4

-4  -5   6  -6   7  -8

-8  -9   9  -10  10

Filling In Gaps
As mentioned earlier, you can play the major and minor pentatonic scales across all ten holes, but for the sake of clarity, I’ve started each of these scales on the note that names it. In the process of learning C/Am, G/Em, F/Dm, you’ll start to fill in the blanks.

Take a simple idea, a 5-note scale, and learn it in C, then G and F, and you’ll get command of major and minor across all ten holes. Powerful stuff! It’s tricky, learning the skipped notes in each position, and it’s a challenge to land directly on your bent notes and have them sound in tune. Just take it a little bit at a time, starting with the C major pentatonic and build from there. Take one bite-size piece, maybe the C major pentatonic from hole 1-10 and back, and start using it musically, improvising and learning songs. And they bug you about not having long-term goals!

Tip of the Hat
My basic concept for this essay is very Lord of the Rings – “One Scale To Rule Them All!” I’ve found that idea really helpful in simplifying my thinking on harmonica positions, and I want to thank Richard Sleigh for the inspiration in his booklet and CD set “Train Rhythms & Pentatonic Scales,” which also offers some truly useful and fun tools for building your breath control and sense of rhythm. Pick it up!

18 Responses to “Pentatonic Scales”

  • I picked up playing the harmonica by ear at age 5. Now I’m 83 and trying to learn how I do it! More importantly, how to do it better. Just got Brendan Power’s Powerbend book and harp but need to go back a few steps. Your blog really hits the spot.

    • Hi John, thanks for stopping by. It’s never too late to get more enjoyment out of your harp and fine-tune your skills! I have a Powerbender also, and I think it’s really neat. Seems like the things to work on are accuracy on draw bends (since all bends are draw bends on a PB), familiarizing yourself with a slightly different cross-harp roadmap, and starting to transfer any low riffs you know on holes 1-4 up to the higher octaves. Thanks again for your comment, I appreciate it!

  • Hey…
    Just wanted to relay onto you how straight forwarded your blog is.
    Simple to understand and grasp!
    I also went out and got a couple of PowerBenders. (Even though I have been playing for over 15 years, I still have a rough time on the overblows and the PB takes care of all of that.
    Do you have a page on the Pentatonic Scales in Second Position… Third Position?
    Thanks so much!

  • Thank you so much for this explanation!

  • Ive been strugling for almost two years now. Never exatcly get it wright. But this explanation was so good, it helped me a lot. Its symplified scale. And till now I didn’t understand why sometimes its all across the ten holes and sometimes not. Now it all make sense! Thank you so much! Greetings from Croatia!

    • You’re welcome, Sasa, I’m so glad you had a breakthrough in understanding pentatonic scales! I hope it helps you move forward with your music.

  • Very hood explanation ! For the first time understood this black box…..thanks a lot !

  • Hey, Thanks a lot for this. It’s the most complete description I have found on the web. Got first position down to muscle memory. Close with second position. Now I have no idea how to jam on tunes with it though. Any suggestions? I can listen to jam tracks and move up and down the scale and it sounds okay, but where to go from this point?

    • Good work learning this stuff! Step 2: patterns. Look at the Major Scale patterns I’ve posted (Resources page) and try them on pentatonic scales. Step 3: licks, songs. Take any short phrase or riff you can think of, and figure out how to play it. If it’s bluesy, folky, rootsy, it probably has something to do with a pentatonic scale. You can do the same thing with whole songs – take something bluesy/folky/rootsy, sing the song to yourself, then find each of those phrases on the scale. Going through this process will teach you how to relate what you hear internally to a scale on your instrument. You’ll also learn new technical skills (ie, how to move around on the scale).

  • If you are using the Am, would it have a relative Major? Would it be just a flip flop of the C Major/A Minor and be C, or would it instead be the G Major?

    • If it is Am/G Major, playing the same pattern of holes, the B is missing in the G scale. This is figuring it’s relative scale starting on the 6 like the Major/Minor does.
      But if it’s just a reverse of the Major/Minor,C/Am, then the relative scale would start on the 2 instead, Am/C, and the C Major would have the CEG.

      Sorry, I guess it’s obvious I have very little musical knowledge. I play by ear or tabs. I don’t read music. I’m starting to learn more. That’s how I ended up here.

    • Reread the article – there’s a spot that explains this –> look at the notes in the Am pentatonic and compare the notes in the C pentatonic. Compare these to the G pentatonic. Am / C are the same notes. G pentatonic has a B and no C.

      • Yeah, not seeing a B in the scale pattern is what got me to wondering if my Am/G thing might be wrong. Looking at the C/Am and flipping it, Am/C, made more sense. All the notes are there.
        This page has really helped me. I’ve got 1st, 2nd and 3rd. down real good. I’ve got 6th. and 12th down pretty good. I sometimes have to stop and think a second, but I’m real close. Those 5 positions should do it for me. It’s cool being able to play 5 different keys on one harp. I don’t see me learning all 12 though. Thank you again.

  • Oh, and by the way. This Penatonic Scale thing has been the most helpful thing I have come across since I started playing. I actually ran across it here several years ago and didn’t pay it much attention. Which was a big mistake. When I finally came back to it I looked it over, up and down until it started making since to my non musical mind. I realized I could play smoothly and in tune from the low end to the high end and back. WOW!!! I’ve memorized 1st, 2nd and 3rd positions and am now working on 12th. And now when I get a tune in my head or hear a song, and determine the right key, I can start picking it out. I tell every harp player just starting out, whether on line or in person, “Learn the Penatonic Scale”! It’s the easiest, fasted way to learn how to play. And I tell them this is the place to go. I’ve actually been playing in band and going to open jams for years. This has helped so much in my playing some lead and doing solos. Now I’m starting to feel like I’m actually adding something to the music. Thank You.

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