Why Pentatonic rather than Major scales for soloing?

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RockerRocker Frets: 2532
As I understand it, the Pentatonic scale is a subset of the Chromatic scale. It has five notes, hence its name. The Major scale has seven notes from the Chromatic scale. I don't have a guitar to hand but I am presuming the notes of the Pentatonic scale are also part of the Major scale. If so why do we guitarists limit ourselves to five notes?

If I have this wrong, please point it out to me. Confused but eager to learn something new each day. Thanks.
Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. [Albert Einstein]

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  • octatonicoctatonic Frets: 17232
    You can use both.

    If I was playing a minor chord progression then I'd be mixing minor pentatonic, aeolian mode, dorian mode as a default position.
    You can use passing notes, you can superimpose chords, or use arpeggios, or chord substitutions in your playing.
    The important thing is to do it well and there is the rub.
    Start with minor pentatonic because it is the least complex.
    It has taken me years to be able to seamlessly switch from one scale to another in a musical way.

    The trap that most people fall into is, because they don't work at it, they end up stuck in minor pentatonic in the root position and their playing can end up one dimensional.
    Don't be one of those players.
    I am the juice of four limes.
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  • rossyamaharossyamaha Frets: 1487
    I'm going to do a video on my approach to this soon. Just to clarify, this is coming from someone with very little knowledge of theory. 

    For me, when I'm soloing in major or minor, I will go for the straight major or minor scale and play as melodically as my brain will let me. I will switch to pentatonic if I feel it needs more "character" for want of a better word. It seems to add aggression in minor and a bit of quirkiness in major. Thats my take. 

    Like any scale, it has a sound. It's to be used in whatever way you want to use it as long as it fits. It's also a good fall back when your brain stops working or you get a bit lost on the fretboard as I do alot. 

    I play guitar and take photos of stuff. I also like beans on toast.

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  • carloscarlos Frets: 1246
    What @octatonic said but I'll add to it.
    You're right when you say "why limit yourself to five notes", but then again why limit yourself to seven notes from the diatonic scales? The answer is that just because you have 12 notes in our instrument, it doesn't mean we have to use all of them, and if you reduce to 7 usable notes, then you can also reduce to 5. 
    This is not entirely random either. The major scale has 2 "avoid" notes which are hard to make them sound good, and those are the 4th and the 7th, so F and B in C major. The major pentatonic doesn't have those notes at all. So you can see why soloing in major pentatonic would be easier compared to having the full scale.

    If so why do we guitarists limit ourselves to five notes?
    I don't and the people I look up to don't either! But sometimes it's really convenient like if you're in a jam and you're not sure what key you're in, then the less information you put in your solo, i.e. the more you restrict your note choice, the less likely you are of screwing up. 
    You can also use it as a guide to planning your solo. For instance if you decide to only play pentatonic in the first few bars and then build it up to the full scale later on. 
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  • Danny1969Danny1969 Frets: 3470
    The pentatonic box is a bit of a curse for guitarist I think, it's an easy way to get started but the sooner it's broken out of the better. Again it comes from the guitarist unwillingness to learn where the notes on the fretboard are .... so they put their hand in the A pent box position if playing in A and they feel safe as long as they stay in that box

    Solo'ing with the basic pent notes in a minor key can sound OK but in a major key you need to make a couple of nods to the major third here and there ..... you can cheat and move your pent box down a tone and half   ........ so solo'ing in F# pentatonic over a song in the key of A major will sound very major-ish  ..... for G use Em, for D use Bm etc . That little trick can make you sound more interesting in  major key even if you don't know the notes you need to know as the box positions are the same 



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  • axisusaxisus Frets: 9886
    I'm a pretty naff guitar player. I've always used the pentatonic because all notes seem to work throughout a whole jam if you are in the right key. No intellectual processing of what notes work over what chord is required.
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  • LestratcasterLestratcaster Frets: 295
    Less notes to think about (2 per string) and all of them will sound "right" which for a beginner is the best place to start. Once you have the solid template you can add other notes to make other scales. 

    As you develop though you will want to break out of the boxes.
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  • Modulus_AmpsModulus_Amps Frets: 413
    I never think about Pentatonic scales, only major scales and the modes thereof. I try and remember the added major/minor blues notes when I can too.

    saying that this is a great video that may explain why the Pentatonic is so powerful.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ne6tB2KiZuk
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  • vizviz Frets: 4620
    edited March 13
    Major penta is a bit like tomato ketchup; minor penta is a bit like mayonnaise. They go with most foods, because they are quite bland. Tomato ketchup is a bit sharper ;) in flavour than mayonnaise and works with major food groups such as fish and chips. Mayonnaise works with lesser food groups such as salad and other minor ;) accompaniments. 

    As you start to add in the missing two notes to make the diatonic scales (adding the 4th and 7th to major penta, or the 2nd and 6th to minor penta), you are adding more spice and therefore able to say more. 

    Major penta:
    Add P4 & M7: major scale: happy or settled
    Add aug4 & M7: lydian: cool and a bit naughty
    Add P4 & m7: mixolydian: solid and strong
    You can also add aug4 and m7: overtone scale (a mode of Melodic Minor - a different family of scales altogether). 

    minor penta:
    Add M2 & m6: aeolian. Mournful yet beautiful
    Add M2 & M6: dorian. Sad but quirky or hopeful
    Add m2 & m6: phrygian. Mysterious, full of eastern promise
    You can also add m2 and M6: phrygidorian scale (also a mode of Melodic Minor).
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  • BarneyBarney Frets: 336
    I think probably pentatonic are the basis of a lot of things I do ...then add other notes for colour ..I think pentatonics have a vocal quality iff you know what I mean ...probably why they are so widely used and people love the sound of them 

    Also by using the minor pentatonic for e.g. up a 4th or 5th you are adding other notes not in the standard pentatonic scale

    So over Am ...try Dm and Em. .or up a whole step Bm...or Bm pentatonic over a C maj7 chord ...then things get interesting and that's really just scratching the surface 
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  • ICBMICBM Frets: 30397
    I tend to base my solo playing on the major or minor scale more than pentatonic, with the odd 'jazz note' thrown in... sometimes on purpose :).
    "Take these three items, some WD-40, a vise grip, and a roll of duct tape. Any man worth his salt can fix almost any problem with this stuff alone."
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  • DodgeDodge Frets: 300
    ICBM said:
    with the odd 'jazz note' thrown in... sometimes on purpose :).

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  • vizviz Frets: 4620
    Danny1969 said:
    The pentatonic box is a bit of a curse for guitarist I think, it's an easy way to get started but the sooner it's broken out of the better. Again it comes from the guitarist unwillingness to learn where the notes on the fretboard are .... so they put their hand in the A pent box position if playing in A and they feel safe as long as they stay in that box

    Solo'ing with the basic pent notes in a minor key can sound OK but in a major key you need to make a couple of nods to the major third here and there ..... you can cheat and move your pent box down a tone and half   ........ so solo'ing in F# pentatonic over a song in the key of A major will sound very major-ish  ..... for G use Em, for D use Bm etc . That little trick can make you sound more interesting in  major key even if you don't know the notes you need to know as the box positions are the same 



    I wouldn’t even call that ‘cheating’ really, that’s just playing major penta instead of minor penta. I agree about getting out of the pentatonic box, the quicker the better! Though Barney’s method is a good one for bringing in other modes’ notes
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  • jpfampsjpfamps Frets: 1295

    Tons of music all over the world, not just Western music, uses pentatonic scales; they existed long before the guitar was invented!

    There are probably a ton of great tunes still to be written using pentatonic scales.

    Whether you want to use them to improvise or not should simply be an "artistic" choice on your behalf, no more no less.
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  • thegummythegummy Frets: 588
    jpfamps said:

    Tons of music all over the world, not just Western music, uses pentatonic scales; they existed long before the guitar was invented!

    There are probably a ton of great tunes still to be written using pentatonic scales.

    Whether you want to use them to improvise or not should simply be an "artistic" choice on your behalf, no more no less.
    Was going to mention this - as far as I know, pentatonic notes are used in a lot of world music (perhaps even every tonal music system? I'm not sure about that) so they are clearly very powerful notes for us to hear.

    I do think, though, that the other things mentioned may be more to do with the reason a lot of guitar players stick to pentatonic scales - it's the first thing they learn that allows them to solo without hitting a wrong sounding note and then they get lazy with learning or fear coming out that safety box where they might hit a wrong note.
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  • carloscarlos Frets: 1246
    jpfamps said:

    Tons of music all over the world, not just Western music, uses pentatonic scales; they existed long before the guitar was invented!
    Not all pentatonic scales are the same, though. Once you step out of Western conventions you have a load of pentatonic scales with semitone intervals in them. For example - http://www.freakguitar.com/scales.html#tradjap which is 12b35b6 instead of our minor pentatonic which would be 1b34b6b7
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  • TeetonetalTeetonetal Frets: 5602
    Lazyness
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  • bingefellerbingefeller Frets: 5390

    The best books I ever read on pentatonics are Jason Lyon's Pentatonic and Hexatonic Scales in Jazz Improvisation, and Jazz Pentatonics by Bruce Saunders.

    Both books overlap a little bit.  Jason Lyon's book has standard notation and Bruce Saunders's book has tab.  The notation is easy to follow in Jason Lyon's book.  If you want to get deeper into pentatonics then these are the books to read.

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  • jpfampsjpfamps Frets: 1295
    carlos said:
    jpfamps said:

    Tons of music all over the world, not just Western music, uses pentatonic scales; they existed long before the guitar was invented!
    Not all pentatonic scales are the same, though. Once you step out of Western conventions you have a load of pentatonic scales with semitone intervals in them. For example - http://www.freakguitar.com/scales.html#tradjap which is 12b35b6 instead of our minor pentatonic which would be 1b34b6b7
    Indeed, for example there are a several different pentatonic scales used in Asian music.

    I do find it interesting that pentatonic scales seem so prevalent in music around the world though.
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  • danowensdanowens Frets: 4
    viz said:
    I wouldn’t even call that ‘cheating’ really, that’s just playing major penta instead of minor penta. 
    The thing is, the major and minor pentatonics contain the same notes. By playing the minor pentatonic built on the 6th of the major scale, you're kinda treating the minor pentatonic as a mode of the major pentatonic; which it totally can be.

    I think the propensity of the pentatonics has a lot to do with the consonance of it (as others have alluded to). By omitting the notes that introduce dissonance you allow the melody construction to fit consonantly with the harmony.

    I'm the opposite of most guitarists (I'm a bass player by trade); I'm more of a modal player than a pentatonic guy so I'm currently working my way through Dan Greenblatt's 'The Blues Scales: Essential Tools for Jazz Improvising'  since I feel like there's a whole tonality that I'm missing out on. I'm sure you guys know but the blues scales are major and minor pentatonics with a chromatic note of a minor 3rd (major pentatonic) and b5 (minor pentatonic).
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  • carloscarlos Frets: 1246
    viz said:
    Major penta:
    Add P4 & M7: major scale: happy or settled
    Add aug4 & M7: lydian: cool and a bit naughty
    Add P4 & m7: mixolydian: solid and strong
    You can also add aug4 and m7: overtone scale (a mode of Melodic Minor - a different family of scales altogether). 

    minor penta:
    Add M2 & m6: aeolian. Mournful yet beautiful
    Add M2 & M6: dorian. Sad but quirky or hopeful
    Add m2 & m6: phrygian. Mysterious, full of eastern promise
    You can also add m2 and M6: phrygidorian scale (also a mode of Melodic Minor).
    My words for those modes wouldn't be like yours at all :) Funny how that works.
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  • vizviz Frets: 4620
    carlos said:
    viz said:
    Major penta:
    Add P4 & M7: major scale: happy or settled
    Add aug4 & M7: lydian: cool and a bit naughty
    Add P4 & m7: mixolydian: solid and strong
    You can also add aug4 and m7: overtone scale (a mode of Melodic Minor - a different family of scales altogether). 

    minor penta:
    Add M2 & m6: aeolian. Mournful yet beautiful
    Add M2 & M6: dorian. Sad but quirky or hopeful
    Add m2 & m6: phrygian. Mysterious, full of eastern promise
    You can also add m2 and M6: phrygidorian scale (also a mode of Melodic Minor).
    My words for those modes wouldn't be like yours at all :) Funny how that works.
    awesome! What would you have?
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  • octatonicoctatonic Frets: 17232
    edited March 14
    viz said:
    carlos said:
    viz said:
    Major penta:
    Add P4 & M7: major scale: sounds like recorder practice '78-80
    Add aug4 & M7: lydian: Steve Vai-motherfucker!
    Add P4 & m7: mixolydian: Allman Brothers
    You can also add aug4 and m7: JAAAAAAAAAZZ

    minor penta:
    Add M2 & m6: aeolian. Jam sandwiches
    Add M2 & M6: dorian. Welcome to Ireland
    Add m2 & m6: phrygian. Who let Malmsteen in here?
    You can also add m2 and M6: Who let Shawn Lane in here?
    My words for those modes wouldn't be like yours at all Funny how that works.
    awesome! What would you have?
    I've had a go.
    I am the juice of four limes.
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  • carloscarlos Frets: 1246
    edited March 14
    I'd go from bright to dark like this:
    Lydian - Spiritual, contemplative, peaceful
    Ionian - Happy-go-lucky, bubbly, vanilla
    Mixo - As above, but with a streetwise edge
    Dorian - Grown-up, in control of my emotions, but melancholic
    Aeolian - Emo, dramatic suffering like Romantic era classic music and overall cheesy music
    Phrygian - Eastern edge but not really committed to that edge! Poser!

    To be honest what I know about their uses colours my opinion. Like for Phrygian where if you really want to go eastern you really need an m2 followed by an m3 interval for that sound... but you can't be bothered learning a new fingering.
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  • danowensdanowens Frets: 4
    In my opinion you need some augmented seconds to sound really 'Arabic/Klezmer/Eastern'. Preferably 2 as in the Double Harmonic Scale or the Hungarian Minor.
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  • vizviz Frets: 4620
    edited March 14
    danowens said:
    In my opinion you need some augmented seconds to sound really 'Arabic/Klezmer/Eastern'.
    I think that’s what Carlos meant - a m3 on top of the m2. Phrygian dominant
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  • carloscarlos Frets: 1246
    Yes, although I explained myself poorly. Something C(m2 gap)Db(m3 gap)E... Phrygian Dominant and others.
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  • danowensdanowens Frets: 4
    carlos said:
    Yes, although I explained myself poorly. Something C(m2 gap)Db(m3 gap)E... Phrygian Dominant and others.
    You're right, I'm sorry for the misunderstanding. I'd thought you'd meant m3 above the root rather than the enharmonic m3/aug2 interval. 

    And this is why theory is so much easier to understand on the instrument and in the ear rather than on paper!
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  • carloscarlos Frets: 1246
    @danowens every time one of these threads pops up I always think that music should be explained with sounds not their numbers and letters analogues 
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  • danowensdanowens Frets: 4
    What's that "dancing about architecture" quote...?
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  • RockerRocker Frets: 2532
    Today, merely out of curiosity, I worked out the notes on the Pentatonic scale key C.

    C, Eb, F, G, Bb, C etc.

    Hard to believe that actual music can be wrung out of those notes.
    Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. [Albert Einstein]

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