Updated: Apr 28
The pentatonic scale is one of the most popular scales in music. It's used in all styles of music - rock, blues, country, jazz and more.
In this article, I'll teach you what the pentatonic bass scales are, how to understand the music theory behind them and how to play them on the bass guitar. I'll also provide some helpful video lessons to get you started!
Demystifying pentatonic scales
The pentatonic scale is a five-note scale that is widely used in all styles of music. It is made up of five notes - Penta meaning five, tonic meaning note.
It's also one of the easiest and most important scales bass players can learn!
The pentatonic scale can be major or minor and we'll discuss how to build, play and use each of these scales below.
The Pentatonic Scale is a great place for beginner bass players to start because it is easy to learn and use. It can be used for both soloing and accompaniment, and it sounds great with a variety of different chords.
Here's a quick video lesson on how to play the pentatonic scale:
The major pentatonic scale
The major pentatonic consists of the first, second, third, fifth and sixth notes of the major scale.
For example, in the key of C major, the notes of the major pentatonic are C, D, E, G and A.
To build a major pentatonic scale in any key, simply find the notes of the major scale in that key and then select the first, second, third, fifth and sixth notes and play them in sequence as you would any other scale.
The Minor Pentatonic Scale
The minor pentatonic scale consists of the first, flat third, fourth, fifth and seventh notes of the minor scale.
For example, in the key of A minor, the notes of the minor pentatonic scale are A, C, D, E and G.
To build a minor pentatonic scale in any key simply find the notes of the natural minor scale in that key and then select the first, flat third, fourth fifth, perfect fifth and flat seventh and then play them in sequence just as you did with the major pentatonic scale earlier.
The shapes for the pentatonic scales
Now that we know how to build and play the major and minor pentatonic scales, let's take a look at some of the most common shapes used to play these scales on the bass.
Here are the five shapes of the major pentatonic scale:
Shape 1 - Pentatonic major
Shape 5 - Pentatoninc minor
And here are the five shapes of the minor pentatonic scale:
Shape 1 - Pentatonic minor
Shape 2 - Pentatonic major
What you may notice is that many of the shapes from both scales are actually the same. That's because these two scales are related.
If you cycle through the different positions then one literally transforms into the other.
Here's how that happens.
If we take the notes of a pentatonic major scale like A we have A, B, C#, E and F#.
To get the five positions of this pentatonic scale we should treat this collection of notes like a cycle.
This means we can start this cycle from each of the five notes. If we do that we get the notes of each of the five positions.
This means the notes in each position are...
Position 1 - A, B, C#, E and F#
Position 2 - B, C#, E, F# and A
Position 3 - C#, E, F#, A and B
Position 4 - E, F#, A, B and C#
Position 5 - F#, A, B, C#, and E
If you play the notes from position one you'll get the major scale shape but then play the notes from position five you get the minor scale shape.
This means the two scales can be built from the same set of notes.
Applying what we learned about pentatonic scales
The best way to apply pentatonic scales is to get your hands dirty and start to experiment with them.
Set yourself some creative challenges.
Write a riff with them
Write melody with them
Come up with a bass line using them
Use them to play fills in songs
Make a simple walking bass line from them
Write out each position in notation or TAB.
Ultimately, you need to get used to playing them and there will be a period of getting used to using them which will be a bit awkward.
It may not sound great but don't worry. When you first learn to use a new scale, like the minor pentatonic scales, you should focus on learning where those scale patterns fall on the bass guitar and how to access the notes.
Which pentatonic scale works where?
Pentatonic scales work great in a lot of different styles of music.
The pentatonic major scale is often used in country and pop music, while the minor pentatonic scale is commonly found in blues and rock music.
You can also use either pentatonic scale to play jazz, although there are other scales that are more commonly used for this style of music.
When you're just starting out, it's a good idea to focus on learning the minor pentatonic scale as it's one of the most versatile and commonly used scales in rock and blues.
Once you've mastered that, you can start to experiment with the major pentatonic scale and other scales to find the ones that work best for you and the music you want to play.
Check out this video for a more in-depth look at playing bass fills. This will give you a framework you can use to apply the minor pentatonic scale, major scale and all the other pentatonic scale positions you have learned so far.
Example bassline with pentatonic scales
One of the best ways to learn this scale is to listen to music that uses it and learn how to recognize the sound of it.
Here are some famous songs that use these scale patterns from the pentatonic scales we've talked about.
I'll label which scale is being used in each example and which instrument is playing it.
Be sure to listen to the spotify links so you can hear the sounds I'm talking about!
Black Knight - Deep Purple
This song has a unison riff that is played by bass, the guitar and the organ. It's built from the minor pentatonic scale.
100 - Tommy Simms
The bass riff in this song mostly stays on the root note but when it does stray from the root note it's to use the minor pentatonic for fills.
Sunshine Of Your Love - Cream
This song features another famous riff that uses the blues scale which is a variation of the minor pentatonic.
My Girl - The Temptations
Another famous song from the Motown catalog that uses the major pentatonic for the intro instrumental hook.
Many motown bass lines use this scale.
Is there a pentatonic scale for bass?
Yes. Scales are a core material of music that exists on every instrument and that includes the bass. They are played, constructed and understood in exactly the same way as on any other instrument.
What are the 5 pentatonic scales?
The pentatonic scale has five different positions which are a reordering of the notes of the major pentatonic scale. Treat the five notes of the pentatonic scale as a cycle and then start that cycle from each note to get the five different positions.
How many pentatonic scales are there on bass?
There are five pentatonic scales which are variations of the major pentatonic scale. As with any other instrument, pentatonic scales can be played in different positions and on different parts of the bass neck.
How do you play bass pentatonic scales?
There are a number of ways to play pentatonic scales on the bass guitar. The most common way is to use the shapes we looked at earlier in this article. Check out this video for a demonstration.
Do bass players use the pentatonic scale?
Many bass players use Pentatonic scales as they are a great way to create interesting bass lines. Pentatonic scales can be used over many different types of chords and in many styles so they're often used in licks, fills, riffs and melodies.
What is the C major pentatonic scale?
The C major pentatonic scale is a five-note scale that consists of the notes C, D, E, G, A. It's built from the root, 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th notes of the major scale.
What are the notes of the A major pentatonic scale?
The A major pentatonic scale is a five-note scale that consists of the notes A, B, C♯, E and F#. It's built in the same way as the major pentatonic scale in C which is described above.
Pentatonics can be used in many different styles of music so it's worth the time to learn them!
The work can be a little long but putting in the hard years will be so worth it.
You'll be able to use Pentatonic scales in your basslines, licks, riffs and melodies.
Plus, you'll be developing the ability to apply some of the theory that you've spent so log learning.
One of the biggest misconceptions about music theory is that it's separate - some even think it stops you from creating - great music.
This couldn't be further from the truth.
To apply music theory to the bass guitar, whether that's scale patterns, minor scale licks, major chords or anything else you've been learning in your bass lessons, you need to get your hands dirty and experiment with it.
This will make you much more confident in learning the access the theory on the neck of your bass guitar.
You'll learn where it sits under your fingers and how to recognize the sound of that theory in your mind's ear and then learn where that sound is located on the bass neck.
This is the holy grail of applied music theory.
I hope this article has helped you learn a little more about Pentatonic scales and how you can start using them in your bass playing! If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment below. Thanks for reading!