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Pentatonic Scales in Minor Keys - Make The Change!

Minor pentatonic is hands down the most versatile scale to use in minor keys. This is because it works over the most common minor key chord progressions without us having to change the root/position of the scale.

So when playing in a minor key, minor pentatonic is a safe bet 9 times out of 10, which is why both beginners and more advanced players use it. And of course, minor pentatonic is the bread and butter scale in blues.

However, while it's convenient to be able to play the same pentatonic scale over all the chord changes in a key, this comes with a musical "compromise". Let me show you why. Start by watching the video below and then scroll down for more in depth help...

Minor Key Pentatonics

Let's say we were in the key of A minor. These would be our natural chords within that key...

Side note:  You may be wondering "what about the 2 chord?". I cover that in its own lesson.

So A minor is our 1 or tonic chord - the "home" chord of the key. Most often, songs will start and end on the 1 chord, to establish the key center.

Therefore, in the key of A minor, A minor pentatonic would be a good place to start...

Backing Track - Am

Simple to begin with. Use this Am track to practice your A minor pentatonic phrases/licks. No chord changes!

There's a count in of 8 clicks/beats and we're going nice and steady at 65 BPM (same with all the other tracks in this lesson).

The VI (6) Chord

A common movement in minor keys is to the 6 chord which, in the key of A minor, would be F major.

We could stay quite comfortably on A minor pentatonic when the chord changes to F major because, as you can see, although the root of F is outside the scale, the 3rd, 5th and major 7th chord tones are covered by the pattern...

Even if the major 7th isn't being played in the chord, it's still a natural chord tone that occurs in the 6 position. This gives us enough of an outline of the F major chord to keep our solo connected to the music.

Practice targeting the 6 chord tones in your phrases when the chord changes. Below, you can use the tabs to switch between A minor and F major (1 - 6) and learn where the important tones for each chord lie in the A minor pentatonic pattern...

Remember these patterns are movable. Although the examples in this lesson are in the key of A minor, the relationship between the chords is the same no matter which minor pentatonic scale we start on.

For example, in the key of B minor, we'd move the minor pentatonic pattern to the root of B (7th fret) and G major would be the 6 chord.

Here's an example of using the same A minor pentatonic pattern through the chord changes...

Knowing where these chord tones lie also means we can arpeggiate the 6 chord within the same pentatonic pattern, using the 3, 5 and 7 from an Fmaj7 arpeggio...

Conveniently all we're playing here is the equivalent of an A minor arpeggio from the 1 chord position (see the 1-6 diagrams from earlier).

This alone tells us something quite valuable - we can play an A minor arpeggio, as well as the A minor pentatonic pattern over F major without having to change position!

In other words, the 1 and 6 chords in minor keys are intrinsically connected to the tonic minor pentatonic scale.

Backing Track - Am / Fmaj

Practice A minor pentatonic over the 1 and 6 chords. Especially practice targeting different tones within the scale when the chord changes to Fmaj.

The III (3) Chord

Similar thing with the 3 chord in minor keys, which can be seen as the relative major key tonic.

No need to change our scale, because over C major, A minor pentatonic becomes C major pentatonic, containing all the C major triad tones and natural extensions...

Side note: This is known as the "relative minor/major" key. A minor and C major are relative, meaning their scales share the same notes and pattern.

The same could be said for E minor and G major, B minor and D major etc. You might find it easiest to see these relative roots as three frets apart.

In other words, each minor has a relative major (and vice versa), meaning we can use the same scale pattern for either.

Backing Track - Am / Cmaj

Aside from all the theory, you can just hear that A minor pentatonic sits comfortably over the three chords we've covered so far - 1, 3 and 6 (Am / Cmaj / Fmaj)...

In that example, I bent up to the major 7th of the F major chord. I'll keep techniques like this to a minimum as we're focusing on scales, but you can find lessons specifically on bending and other techniques such as slides in the lead section.

The VII (7) Chord

Another common movement in minor keys is to the 7 chord. This can be seen as a whole step or two frets down from the tonic.

So in the key of A minor, the 7 chord would be... G major.

You'll most often hear the 7 chord immediately before or after the 6 chord in a minor key progression. For example...

Am / Fmaj / Gmaj

Am / Gmaj / Fmaj

Now, if we superimpose G major on to the A minor pentatonic scale, we can see that the root of G is in there, as is the 5th of the chord. But we're missing the 3rd, an important harmonic tone...

That alone isn't a massive deal, but there's also a non-chord tone within our pattern - the 4th, which is what the flat 3rd of our tonic (A) minor pentatonic becomes over the 7 chord...

Listen to how this 4th sounds over our 7 chord, G major. In this example, the 4th is the second note held over G major...

So we can hear that it's probably not a tone we'd want to emphasise in our licks. It sounds a bit... awkward!

But now let's hear how things sound with the 4th moved down to the 3rd of that G major chord...

Sounds a bit sweeter and arguably more connected to the chord.

What we've essentially done here is change from A minor pentatonic to G major pentatonic over the G major chord...

Of course, whether or not one sounds better than the other is subjective. But all I'm trying to do is open your ears to different possibilities.

You don't have to choose one or the other - you can use both approaches. But the lesson here is to not let the sheer convenience of playing the same scale pattern over more than one chord dictate your musical choices.

Backing Track - Am / Gmaj

Try both sticking with A minor pentatonic through the change to Gmaj and changing to G major pentatonic as per the diagram and tab example above...

The v (5) Chord

Now, this G major pentatonic pattern we've just played over the 7 chord can also be used over the 5 chord, which would be Em in the natural key of A minor.

Over E minor, the G major pentatonic pattern becomes E minor pentatonic, because these two scales are relative and use the same notes.

By playing E minor pentatonic, we have all the important tones of our 5 chord covered...

Backing Track - Am / Em

The iv (4) Chord

So that just leaves the 4 chord. This naturally occurs as a minor chord rooted a 4th above the tonic.

In the key of Am, Dm would be our 4 chord.

Let's try playing the same A minor pentatonic scale over both Am and the key's 4 chord, Dm...

It sounds OK, and the major 2nd interval, which is what the 5th of our tonic minor pentatonic scale becomes over the 4 chord, gives it some natural colour...

But we're missing an important chord tone that defines this chord - the minor 3rd (one fret up from the 2nd).

So let's try raising that 2nd to a minor 3rd interval over the 4 chord and listen to the result...

It's perhaps no surprise that the scale we've just created with that minor 3rd is D minor pentatonic, which covers the minor triad tones of the chord.

I'm sure you can see a pattern emerging here (pun intended!).

Over G major we changed to G major pentatonic, over Em, E minor pentatonic (using the same pattern) and over Dm we changed to D minor pentatonic. These are all viable alternatives to playing A minor pentatonic over all the chords.

Backing Track - Am / Dm

Again, practice both staying with A minor pentatonic over the Dm chord and changing to D minor pentatonic...

Pentatonics From The Natural Minor Scale

Now, all the pentatonic changes we've covered are contained within a single seven tone scale called natural minor. So the A natural minor scale would work over all the chord changes we've looked at.

However, the reason we focused on pentatonics is because this helps us to compartmentalise the natural minor scale and create phrases that connect to the individual chords. Of course, it's useful to visualise the seven tone natural minor scale as a general roadmap for minor key solos. But also using pentatonic changes within that core scale gives us some additional phrasing ideas.

Below, I've mapped out how these pentatonic scales, over the chords we've looked at, can be seen as derived from the natural minor scale of the key...

Major/Dominant V (5) Chord

A lot of the time in minor keys, the 5 chord will be major or a dominant 7th, because it carries more harmonic tension than the more ambiguous minor 5 chord. This can throw lead guitarists who rely heavily on minor pentatonic for their solos.

Using the same method as before, that is matching the pentatonic scale to the chord - E major pentatonic, would, in theory work in the same way. But major pentatonic removes a lot of the tension that gives the 5 chord its unique character.

So also try this modified pentatonic scale over the 5 chord when it's major or a dominant 7th...

Now we can hear the tension has been injected in, thanks to the minor 2nd (b2) that this pentatonic scale gives us...

Just like the pentatonic scales from earlier were all a part of natural minor, this modified pentatonic scale over the 5 chord could be seen as derived from harmonic minor in the tonic position...

Backing Track - Am / E7

Major/Dominant IV (4) Chord

Finally, let's look at one more common minor key movement, which can be seen as taken from the Dorian mode.

It involves a major or dominant 7th chord built on the 4 position. D major or D7 in this key.

Staying with the tonic position minor pentatonic scale over that 4 chord will work fine (e.g. A minor pentatonic over D7).

But we could connect to this chord more melodically by using a dominant 7th based pentatonic scale as follows, which gives us the all important major 3rd interval...

Notice how all the tones of a dominant 7th chord, 1 3 5 and b7 are in this scale, which represent the implied 7th chord in this position.

These two pentatonic scales, A minor and D7, can be seen as compartmentalised from the seven tone A Dorian...

Backing Track - Am / D7

A Final Note...

As I mentioned earlier, this lesson isn't about one approach being better than another, rather opening up your creative options so you're not simply using the same scale purely for convenience.

While minor pentatonic in the tonic position remains a very usable and versatile option in minor keys, as we've seen and heard, it can be a musical compromise. By experimenting with changing scales, we can connect to the chord we're playing over in different ways.

I hope this lesson has given you plenty to play around with for weeks, months, even years to come!

For more on minor keys, see my follow up lesson on Minor 2 5 1 Pentatonics.

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