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:
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
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!