using the pentatonic scales in bass lines_featured image

Using the pentatonic scales for great basslines

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Pentatonic scales are probably the most used scales out there. They are used in every style, whether it’s funk, blues, rock, reggae, jazz, you name it! The reason they are used by every player, is that they always sound good. That’s because the pentatonic scales contain all the sweet notes that sound good over a chord. If you want to learn how to play the pentatonics and how you can apply them to your playing, this is the lesson for you!

What are pentatonic scales?

A pentatonic scale is a five note scale that is derived from either a major or a minor scale. There are two pentatonic scales you should definitely learn, the major and the minor pentatonic scale. If you don’t know what the difference between major and minor is, be sure to check out my article about how chords are constructed.

The major pentatonic scale is built up using the root note, major second, major third, perfect fifth and the major sixth. The minor pentatonic scale is built up using the root note, minor third, perfect fourth, perfect fifth and minor seven. Since the bass guitar is a very visual instrument, showing you how this looks on the fretboard will make this a lot easier to comprehend.

The shapes for the pentatonic scales:

Using the pentatonic scales in bass lines_shapes
Figure1 – Shapes for the pentatonic scales

In every shape the red note indicates the root note. So if you would play the first shape starting on a G, you would be playing a G minor pentatonic scale. The shapes in the right column contain the same notes as the shapes in the left column, but have a different fingering. We will get more into different fingerings later on in this article. For now it’s important to know you should memorize both fingerings for every scale.

Which pentatonic scale works where?

So now you know the shapes of the major and minor pentatonic scales, the next step is to know where you can use which shape. As the name indicates, you can use the major pentatonic scale over every major chord you encounter. You can use the minor pentatonic scale over every minor chord you find. See, theory is not that hard ;)!

How the pentatonic scale relates to the modes

If you have already studied my article about the modes, the pentatonic shapes (Figure 1) in the left column, will probably seem pretty familiar. That is simply because the pentatonic scales are simplified versions of our normal modes. If you haven’t studied modes yet, don’t worry! You can skip this paragraph for now. It will only complicate things unnecessarily. For those of you who did, take a look at these shapes and see how the minor pentatonic scale corresponds to the different minor modes:

Using the pentatonic scales in bass lines_shapes2
Figure 2 – The relation of the minor pentatonic scale to the minor modes

In the mode shapes above, I marked the notes that are in the minor pentatonic scale with the color blue. As you can see, the notes that are in the minor pentatonic scale exist in every three of the minor modes! You can also apply this concept to the major modes and the major pentatonic scale. Try to figure this out for yourself!

The importance of knowing different fingerings

Earlier in this article I gave you two shapes for every pentatonic scale. It’s important you study every shape extensively, because every shape comes in handy in a different situation. The shapes on the left are more compact, but they are also harder to play, because a lot of the fingerings are three frets apart. The shapes on the right don’t contain fingerings that are more than two frets apart. Use slides in the right places to play the shapes more easily. You can see how I approach them later on when I play an example bassline using the pentatonic scales.

Applying what we learned about pentatonic scales

Now that you know how to play the pentatonic scales and when you should use which, the next step is to apply them in a real life setting. After all, the best way to learn about a new concept, is by applying it in a situation where you would benefit from using it.

Using the pentatonic scales in bass lines_3
Figure 3. Our chord progression

Here you see a small chord progression I wrote for this article. It’s probably never going to be a hit, but It’s good enough for this article.

So we see three major chords here. The F, the Bb and the C. We also see two minor chords here. Namely the D minor and the G minor chord. As we’ve discussed earlier in the article you can use a major pentatonic scale on each of the major chords and the minor pentatonic scale on each of the minor chords.

If I want to write a bassline for this song, I can:

  • …use the F major pentatonic scale in the first bar.
  • …use the Bb major pentatonic scale in the second bar.
  • …use the D minor pentatonic scale in the third bar.
  • …use the G minor pentatonic scale on the first two beats of the fourth bar.
  • …use the C major pentatonic scale on the last two beats of the fourth bar.

Example bassline with the pentatonic scales

Using the pentatonic scales in bass lines_4

So we could now play something like this! Notice that I use different fingerings of the pentatonic scales at different times. You should find which fingering works the best for you in a certain situation. For example: On the first bar I use the second shape for the major pentatonic scale so I don’t have to use open strings.

Update! Extra example

I made an extra example to show you even more possibilities. You can view it below. The transcription is is available by clicking here.

Demystifying the pentatonic scales

You will get the most out of this article if you try to make up your own basslines using the pentatonic scale. First try making a bassline over just a minor chord, and then over just a major chord. When you get the hang of it, try applying both the minor and the major pentatonic scales to a progression like I did in the exercise above.

I hope this article gave you some insights into how you can use the pentatonic scales. If you have any questions, suggestions or remarks about this lesson, please let me know below in the comments.


  1. Excellent content. Question. If I have a song that goes. G. F Am C. do I play a G major pentatonic scale or what? How do I know if I should play a Major or Minor pentatonic scale. And if it was minor, not sure how I would know, but do I play a G minor pentatonic scale?


    1. Hi Dean-O,
      Basically, on every major chord you play a major pentatonic scale. On every minor chord you play a minor pentatonic scale. So on the G, play a G major pentatonic, on the F play an F major pentatonic, on the Aminor play an A minor pentatonic.

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