How to Play the E Minor Pentatonic Scale on Guitar
The E Minor Pentatonic Scale is the most widely-used scale for guitarists. Master the E Minor Pentatonic Scale on guitar with Fender.
By Ben Nemeroff
Lesson: Playing the E Minor Pentatonic Scale on Guitar
The E minor pentatonic scale is one of the most popular scales used by guitarists in a variety of genres of music. For the uninitiated, the E minor pentatonic scale is an abridged version of the E minor scale, with the pentatonic version having two notes removed. As its prefix (“penta”) suggests, the E minor pentatonic scale is made up of five notes, compared to the full octave of a standard E minor scale.
Some of the most iconic songs in the worlds of rock, metal, and blues make use of the E minor pentatonic scale, including “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix and “Enter Sandman” by Metallica. Blues-rock guitar virtuoso Stevie Ray Vaughan also made great use of the E minor pentatonic scale in many of his compositions and interpretations. Learning the E minor pentatonic scale puts you in good company -- whether you’re new to guitar or have been playing for many years.
The E minor pentatonic scale is an essential scale for beginners who want to better expand their guitar playing horizons It’s also one of the most widely-used and mastered scales for lead guitarists as it scales the entire fretboard, offering guitarists greater versatility and the ability to build mastery of their instrument and improve their dexterity. Let’s learn more about the notes that comprise the E minor pentatonic scale and how to play it.
E Minor Pentatonic Scale Notes
The E minor pentatonic scale is made up of just five notes, but as your fingers move across the fretboard, you’ll repeat these notes in higher or lower octaves. Those five notes are:
The minor pentatonic scale’s formula consists of the first note of the standard E minor scale, a flattened third, the fourth note, fifth note, and flattened seventh note:
Playing this five note E minor pattern from low E to to high e completes a full series of notes that forms the E minor pentatonic scale. The notes E, G and B also comprise the E minor triad chord.
E Minor Pentatonic Scale Positions
There are a variety of ways to play the E minor pentatonic scale. In this lesson, we’ll learn how to play it in the open position using a scale chart. Playing the open position of the E minor pentatonic makes use of just the first three frets of your guitar.
For this lesson, we’ll learn how to play using charts. These simple diagrams represent the neck of your guitar with each dot showing you which note you’ll play on a specific fret and string. If you see a dot with a note above the string, play the string in an open position. The yellow dots indicate the root note of the scale – in this case, the root note is E.
E Minor Pentatonic Scale Chart: Open position
To start, strum the low E string in an open position. Then, place your second (middle) finger on the third fret of the low E string. Follow this same pattern -- playing an open string immediately followed by a designated fretted note as you move through the scale. You’ll notice that you’ll play the open position of each of the six strings on your guitar as your middle and ring finger play either the second or third frets for this scale.
E Minor Pentatonic Scale Tabs
The E minor pentatonic scale can be played more than one way. However, for the purposes of this lesson, we’ll stick to showing you the same version of the E minor pentatonic scale, but played using tablature instead of with a fretboard chart.
As a guitarist, everyone has a different style, especially when it comes to learning. Some prefer reading charts (like the one above), while others find it easier to learn how to play scales using tablature. Let’s take a look at playing those same E minor pentatonic scales positions using tabs, just to give you a different perspective and see which is best suited for your learning style.
E Minor Pentatonic Scale Tab: Open Position
Using tablature, a 0 marked on a string denotes that you won’t need to place your finger on a fret. Rather, you’ll play that string in an open position. To play the E minor pentatonic scale, strike the open low E string. From there, you’ll place your ring finger on the third fret before playing the open A string. In keeping with the same pattern you may have noticed on the scale chart, you’ll then place your middle finger on the second fret of the A string. Then, you’ll play the open D string, followed by placing your middle finger on the second fret of the string. Next, you’ll play the open G string, then add your middle finger to play the second fret. You’ll then play an open A string followed by placing your ring finger on the third fret. Finally, you’ll play an open E string and then add your ring finger to the third fret.
To help you better visualize it, here is the pattern to play the E minor pentatonic scale in the open position using tablature:
Once you’ve got the hang of that pattern, try to play the scale in reverse (descending) order.
E Minor Pentatonic Scale Exercises on Guitar
The best way to commit the E minor pentatonic scale to memory is by practicing the scale in both ascending and descending order. Start with the root note of E, then play G, A, B, D. Use the open position pattern to play these notes, then work your way back down the scale, starting with D, B, A, G and finally ending on the low root E. This will really help open up lead runs for your playing once you begin to progress in your learning.
Want to really challenge yourself while learning the E minor pentatonic scale? Try playing the scale in ascending and descending order while using different picking styles. From alternate picking to downpicking to fingerstyle, testing out different ways to pick notes can help you to get acquainted with how a style changes the tone and the rhythm. It also helps to enhance overall finger dexterity, memory and strength.
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