The pentatonic scale is one of the great universals of rock and roll music. A less experienced guitar player, however, might wonder why they need it and how it applies. For this reason, we’re going to cover some of the most famous pentatonic scale songs that you’re sure to be familiar with.
We’ll look at specific examples within popular song parts which will give you a better understanding of how each guitarist used the pentatonics to create greatness.
Scales are groups of notes that provide a framework for playing in a certain key. They span the entire fretboard of the guitar but are usually broken up into smaller sections for memorization and practice purposes. There are many different types of scales in each key, which will each provide a different feel or flavor to a melody.
While that may seem daunting, you can easily start with a few scales which are used most often. This will surprisingly cover a whole lot of ground. Most guitarists start with the Minor Pentatonic scale.
What Is The Pentatonic Scale?
The Pentatonic scale is a scale with five notes (penta = Greek for “five”). So, while a typical scale (also called a “diatonic” scale) includes 7 notes, the pentatonics simplify this a bit by removing 2 of those notes.
The minor pentatonic scale, for all intents and purposes, will also be the most commonly used scale for the modern guitarist. A melody based on the pentatonic scale can fit comfortably into any song from classic rock to a traditional hymn. Even many kids’ classics such as “Old Macdonald Had a Farm” are based on the pentatonic scale.
The pentatonic scale is where many guitarists start when learning to improvise solos and riffs because it is so flexible. As you will see in the songs below, five notes is still plenty to create a great song.
If you’d like to go in depth with the pentatonic scale, soloing, and just learning to master the fretboard in general, I highly recommend trying out Guitar Tricks (found here). They have a 14-Day Free Trial that gives you access to tons of great lessons and practice tools to accelerate your guitar playing.
Minor Pentatonic Songs
The minor pentatonic scale is the most used scale in pop, blues and rock – period. It allows you to display an attitude that’s just hard to match with most other scales. And its simplicity makes it perfectly suited for even amateur rock guitarists to play all up and down the fretboard like nobody’s business.
1. “Are You Gonna Go My Way” – Lenny Kravitz
This song has a fantastic opening riff that continues throughout. Take that and combine it with the high-energy solo, switching to E Major Pentatonic, and you’ve got a real beast on your hands. This is one of those songs where every guitarist should at least know how to bang out the Intro.
2. “Stairway to Heaven” – Led Zeppelin
No Stairway! Ok, maybe just a little bit!
Stairway To Heaven is quite possibly the most famous minor pentatonic guitar solo ever. Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page was the master of the pentatonic scale and you’ll find that to hold true through
ut all of their records. This example is using A Minor Pentatonic.
If you’re looking for the textbook example of how to utilize the Minor Pentatonic Scale, this is a solo you should have under your belt. At some point, you’ll probably notice how other famous guitarists have been influenced by this solo if you keep your eyes peeled.
3. “Bombtrack” – Rage Against the Machine
Bombtrack is a rebel classic. As straightforward as it is, RATM guitarist Tom Morello absolutely destroys the E minor pentatonic scale in this Intro. The bass guitar mirrors Morello as they slowly build up to an explosive transition into the main riff.
If you were around in the early ’90s, you remember this song. If not, you better YouTube it ASAP.
4. “Sunshine of Your Love” – Cream
Sunshine of Your Love is another classic that everyone recognizes. If you’ve never heard it… well you’re just wrong. You’ve heard it.
Now, this is technically using the D Minor Blues Scale instead of the D Minor Pentatonic Scale. It’s almost the same exact scale. The Minor Blues Scale essentially adds a b5 note to the Minor Pentatonic.
5. “All Along the Watchtower” – Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix really enjoyed covering Bob Dylan songs. There are none that can top his version of All Along the Watchtower, though. includes a ripping solo based on the C minor pentatonic scale (appearing as C# minor on the fretboard, but his guitar is tuned down a 1/2 step. In the above notes, we’re going to refer to it as C# minor to keep things simple. Just remember to tune your guitar down if you play with the track).
Above you’ll see the lead section to this iconic Intro. Again, one of the most famous and recognizable guitar riffs of all time.
6. “Can’t Stop” – Red Hot Chili Peppers
Of course you’ve heard Can’t Stop by the Red Hot Chili Peppers! The explosive main riff of this song played by John Frusciante is based on the E minor pentatonic scale, giving it that classic Chili Peppers funk/rock sound.
One thing is for sure, this jam is as “in-your-face” as it can get. Make sure you wear your guitar a little low and for God’s Sake, at least put a sock on already!
7. “Don’t Cry” – Guns N’ Roses
Don’t Cry is a great solo that seems to be somewhat influenced by the Stairway To Heaven Solo. After all, we do know that one of Slash’s guitar heroes was Jimmy Page. He has also said publicly that his playing was impacted greatly by both Page and Joe Perry.
The solo is using the A minor Pentatonic shapes (technically G# when you tune down 1/2 step to match the record). After starting in Position 1 (which is partially demonstrated above), he then backs into to Position 5, and walks up the fretboard to transition from Position 3 (10th fret) quickly into Position 4 (12th fret) where he gracefully tears it up.
Major Pentatonic Songs
Although the major pentatonic scale is created by the same formula as the minor pentatonic, the sound could not be more different. A major pentatonic song often gives a happier “upbeat” sound, while the minor pentatonic is a little moodier and more soulful.
All that being said, as you will see in the riff examples, the major pentatonic scale can achieve a wide range of sounds. Let’s take a look at some of the most famous major pentatonic songs that you’re sure to recognize.
1. “Wish You Were Here” – Pink Floyd (Intro)
The unmistakable opening riff of this Pink Floyd classic, Wish You Were Here, is nothing more than the G major pentatonic scale, played in order. It’s not an upbeat song, but the opening solo has the classic “major” sound to it thanks to the major pentatonic scale.
2. “Yellow Ledbetter” – Pearl Jam (Solo)
Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready uses the E major pentatonic scale for the solo of this turn of the millennium rock staple – Yellow Ledbetter. I think this song, in particular, is great for learning to explore the major pentatonic scale.
3. “Blue Sky” – The Allman Brothers Band
In Blue Sky, Duane Allman shows us exactly how upbeat and happy the E major pentatonic scale can sound. The intro, the main solo, and nearly all of the little fill-in licks during the verse are great examples. Take a look at the snippet above showcasing the first few bars in the Intro.
4. “Sweet Home Alabama” – Lynyrd Skynyrd
Sweet Home Alabama is a southern rock classic that uses the G Major Pentatonic Scale to create that classic twangy, happy vibe in the intro and most of the solo sections. While the intro is arpeggiating a V – IV – I chord progression in the key of G, it’s barring very heavily from the G Major Pentatonic scale.
For simplicity, we’re going to take a look at the bridge though, which is equally as memorable. We’ll also have to talk about why this can be a more complicated example.*
*Another Way To Look At It
There is actually quite a bit of argument over which key they’re using and which scales they are utilizing in Sweet Home Alabama. A lot of guitarists will say it’s in the key of D Mixolydian. Legend has it that there was even debate on this within Lynyrd Skynyrd. Both can be right, it kind of depends on how you look at it.
D Mixolydian is actually the 5th degree in G Major and for the purpose of this conversation, it’s the same as the G Major Scale. I have another way to look at this riff, though, which is a more helpful learning experience.
It’s quite possible that the thinking behind this riff was to follow the underlying chord progression (D – C – G). Instead of staying in G Major, sometimes you can follow the chord changes. If you look at the diagrams below, you can see how that compares to the tab. The notes fit perfectly into Position 5 for D, C and G.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by guitar scales. But when in doubt, you can keep it simple with the major or minor pentatonic scales. There are infinite possibilities even stopping there.
The pentatonic scale is a great way to understand some of the most well-known riffs and solos in rock and roll. If you can learn to recognize it, you’re halfway to learning all kinds of great songs! Have fun rocking!