Whether you’re a strummer, a hummer, a picker, or a singer, you need to know the pentatonic scale. The good news is it’s easy to play and it’s found in most genres of music from nearly every corner of the world. What’s not to love? In this lesson, you’ll explore this often-overlooked musical wonder.

As you can see in the diagram below, the pentatonic scale is simply the open strings plus one new note on each string (for this lesson I’ve chosen C-major pentatonic). It’s that easy!

Start by playing eight times on each note, then try four on each. Then two, then one. Keep the rhythm steady! [Fig. 1]

Fig. 1

A Truly International Scale

If I were stranded on a desert island, the pentatonic scale is the one scale I’d take with me. It’s lightweight (just five notes) and it’s international. By that I mean it’s a scale found in music from all over the world. Want proof? Compare the following melodies. The first is a Chinese folk song from the Ming Dynasty–era (circa 14th century) called “The Flower Drum.” [Fig. 2]

Fig. 2


The second is a well-known ditty by Stephen Foster, the father of American popular music that uses the same notes as “The Flower Drum.” Can you name the tune? [Fig. 3]

Fig. 3

My point is this: the pentatonic scale is well-traveled. It’s a cornerstone of musical traditions from all over the world (European, Asian, and African traditions in particular). It’s a sound that unites humanity across borders and generations. It’s the little scale that could!

Bonus Blues

But wait, there’s more! There’s a bluesy bonus to learning the C-major pentatonic scale: it doubles as the A-minor pentatonic (think blues and old-time music). Why? Because every major scale has a relative minor scale—A minor is the relative minor of C major. That’s right, it’s a two-for-one!

Don’t believe me? Try these blues licks and see for yourself: they only use notes from the pentatonic scale you learned in this lesson. [Fig. 4]

Fig. 4

Now it’s your turn: take the notes of the C major pentatonic scale (aka A-minor pentatonic scale) and create your own melodies. In doing so you’ll join a musical conversation that began centuries ago and continues to echo in the pop, rock, jazz, and blues music of today. (The mystery tune in Fig. 3 is Stephen Foster’s “Oh, Susanna!”)

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of Ukulele.