The pentatonic scale is possibly the oldest scale used by man. The notes of the pentatonic scale were demonstrated in a 5 hole 40-thousand-year-old flute found in Germany.
We don’t need to go so far back to hear it in use. Modern guitar players use it all the time. While it might not be the most popular of scales, E major pentatonic can be found in modern Pop and Rock songs.
Songs like Good Thing by Sam Smith, Fat Lip by Sum 41, and Pour Some Sugar on Me by Def Leopard are just a few famous songs that specifically use the E major pentatonic scale.
E Major Pentatonic Scale on Guitar
The pentatonic scale is made up of five distinct notes and a sixth note repeating the root in a different octave. For the E major pentatonic scale:
- E is the root note
- F# is the second note
- G# is the third
- B is the fourth
- C# is the fifth note
- E again is the octave
Take note that the E major pentatonic scale has 3 sharps. This is due to the fact that every key has its own Key Signature and this correlates over to the pentatonic scale as E major pentatonic is the only major pentatonic with three sharps.
The E major pentatonic has five positions to play from, using a common major pentatonic “shape” that flows down the neck from the first through twelfth frets.
If you look at figure 1 you will see a chart labeled with five different positions. These are the five positions with the notes of the E major pentatonic scale revealed. The root note, E, is designated black with notes 2-5 white.
If you start with “Position 1” you will notice a “12” at the bottom of the diagram. This indicates the 12th fret. To practice this specific scale, you would place your index finger on the “high E” string on the 12th fret and play the first note, our root note, E. the next note is played on the 14th fret with your ring finger. You will continue this basic shape up the strings, the first “dots’ being played with your index finger and with each subsequent fret being played by the correlating finger. I.e. “Position 5” 12th=fret pinky finger, 11th fret=ring finger, 9th fret=index finger.
Notes of the E Major Pentatonic Scale Explained
We get the word pentatonic from the Greek penté, meaning 5, combined with the Latin tonus, meaning sound. The Major Pentatonic being made up of five sounds from the major scale.
To understand the E major Pentatonic scale, it helps to understand the E major scale first. The E major scale is “heptatonic scale”. This means there are 7 (hence, hepta) notes per octave. The formula for E major scale is as follow:
As you can see there are 7 distinctive notes and a repeat of the root note, an octave higher. From this formula we get the formula for the major pentatonic scale.
The formula that makes up the major pentatonic is 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6, dropping the 4th and 7th notes from the major scale.
The significance of this reduction is the removal of the semitones, or half-notes. These notes create dissonance, or tension, in the music. That is, an unpleasant sound that leaves the listener wanting resolution, or more, to accompany the previous notes.
Using the above formula of 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6, is where the notes E, F#, G#, B, and C# derive. This formula is further explained by recognizing the intervals used. Intervals are best defined by the distance between two pitches.
The major Scale uses Whole-whole-half-whole-whole-half. Whereas the major pentatonic uses Whole-whole-whole and a half-whole-whole and half. The whole and a half is most often recognized as a minor 3rd.
Now that we have a base of what the E major pentatonic scale is, let’s see how it relates to playing the guitar.
Playing E major Pentatonic on Guitar
Start with the “open position”. In this position the first note played will be the root note, E. Then work your way through the scale. The ensuing notes being F#, G#, B, C#, and E, in that order. In figure 3, the tablature demonstrates the fingering for the open position.
To understand the tablature in figure 3, the numbers represent the fret that needs to be “fretted” or pressed down with a finger. The bottom line represents the low E string and 0, 2, and 4, conveying what frets to play.
With this exercise, you will start with the open low E string and play each note down to the 4th string and fretting the 2nd fret. Then work yourself back up through the notes backwards. By starting with an E and culminating with another E on the 6th note, 2nd fret 4th string, you have just played 1 octave.
Here is an example of 2 octaves…
Just like before, figure 4 starts on the open low E string. It now continues repeating the notes in the scale to the open high E string, the 11th note being the 2nd octave. Practicing this exercise is a great way to further your skills on guitar. It helps you learn the notes on the fretboard, allows you to practice alternating picking, and trains your ear to hear the intervals.
Once you spend some time picking through the open position and have gained some confidence you can then return to figure 1 and start moving through the 5 positions. Memorize the locations of the notes and become fluid with your picking and you’re ready to start soloing!
How to Solo with the E Major Pentatonic
The positions in figure 1 are based on the CAGED system. This system is a tried-and-true way to help memorize the positions of the major pentatonic scale. Figures 1, 3, and 4 are limited by its vertical illustration. While it is possible to perform a solo in one position and a great place to start, when it’s time to elevate your soloing, you want to move horizontally.
Figure 5 demonstrates a moveable pattern in the major pentatonic scale. The number one on the bottom represents your “root” note. You can use this anywhere up and down the neck by locating your root note and applying the pattern.
For example, using the E major Pentatonic scale you can place the root note on the 12th fret and play this pattern all the way to the 21st fret. Or if you want to apply it to the open position, position 2 in figure 1, the root note is the open low E string and the next frets in the pattern would start on the 2nd fret.
Applying E Major Pentatonic
The key to playing a unique solo is improvisation. You can start by playing the notes in the scale using a jam track, or having a friend play the chords while you work out a melody that sounds pleasant to you. That’s what music is about, playing something that you enjoy. There is a structure to music as it relates to guitar but there are no rules.
Using the basic structure laid out in the article allows you to accompany music in the key of E major. The pentatonic scale is arguably the best and easiest scale for beginners learning how to solo. Some of the most popular and searched for songs that you can apply the E major pentatonic scale are Yellow Ledbetter, by Pearl Jam, Sympathy for the Devil, by the Rolling Stones, Under the Bridge by Red Hot Chili Peppers, and many more.