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.

Conclusion
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!

6 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.

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