No matter where you are on your ukulele journey, learning how to play the pentatonic scale on the ukulele is a great way to expand your musical horizons. All through my violin and piano lessons as a kid, I played lots of scales. It wasn’t until I started studying music in college that I finally learned all about the pentatonic scale. Now that I’m learning how to improvise on the ukulele and compose my own music, the pentatonic scale is one of my go-to starting points!
How to Tune Your Ukulele
Before you start learning how to play scales on the ukulele, start by making sure your ukulele is tuned to G-C-E-A. You can have either a high or low G on your ukulele for the purposes of learning this first pentatonic scale because we’re going to start in C major using the open C (third string) as our first (tonic) note.
You can use a clip-on tuner or a tuning app on your phone or mobile device to make sure your ukulele is tuned properly.
Playing Basic Scales on the Ukulele
If you studied music as a kid like I did, then you probably learned the heptatonic scale that has seven notes, plus the root note on top to make an octave. This seven-note + root octave scale is probably the most familiar to your ear.
Let’s start in the key of C major with no sharps or flats because this is the easiest key to work in when you’re learning how to play the pentatonic scale. If you were playing this scale on the piano, that means you would be playing just the white keys, starting with the middle C. If you want to play this on your ukulele, that middle C is the open C string on your soprano, concert, or tenor ukulele.
Starting with that middle C, the notes of the heptatonic scale are C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. Because our ear wants that resolution, we usually add the octave C at the end of this scale. Playing this scale on the ukulele, you’d start with the open C (third) string, then D (the second fret on the C string), open E (second) string, F (the first fret on the second string), G (third fret on the second string), open A (first) string, and B (second fret on the first string). To finish the scale with an octave, you’d play the C on the first string at the third fret.
How to Play the Pentatonic Scale on the Ukulele
The C major pentatonic scale consists only of five notes: C, D, E, G, and A. Look back at that heptatonic scale we just played and leave out the F and the B – the remaining notes are the only notes you need to play in the C major pentatonic scale on the ukulele!
If we assign a number to each of the notes in the heptatonic scale, instead of playing 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 1, (C D E F G A B C), the pentatonic scale is played 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 (C, D, E, G, A). You can apply this to any major scale in any key.
Take a quick look at the G major scale with one sharp (F#): G (1), A (2), B (3), C (4), D (5), E (6), F# (7). To play the G major pentatonic scale, we leave out the 4 and 7 notes. The G major pentatonic scale is G, A, B, D, E.
Play this scale a few times up and down until your ear starts to become familiar with the intervals between notes. If it sounds familiar to you, you may have heard this scale before in Chinese or Mongolian traditional music.
The Minor Pentatonic Scale
Playing the minor pentatonic scale on the ukulele is a lot easier than you would think. To find the notes of a minor pentatonic scale, all you have to do is look at the notes of the relative major scale – they’re exactly the same!
For this example, we’re going to take the A minor pentatonic scale. A minor is the relative minor of C major – it has no sharps or flats. If you were to play this scale on the piano, you would play just the white keys, starting with the first note of A.
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To play the A minor pentatonic scale, we would take the notes of the C major pentatonic scale – C, D, E, G, and A – and just play them in the order they appear in the A minor heptatonic scale, starting with the A as our root note: A, C, D, E, G.
If you want to look at the minor pentatonic scale another way, we can once again assign numbers to each of the notes in the A minor scale: A (1), B (2), C (3), D (4), E (5), F (6), G (7). The notes that are in the A minor pentatonic scale are 1, 3, 4, 5, 7. You can apply this to any of the other minor keys to find the minor pentatonic scale if you don’t want to bother with finding the relative major.
It works the same way with the relative minor of the G major pentatonic scale we looked at earlier. Instead of playing the notes G, B, D, A, E, we would rearrange them so that the E was the starting note and play E, G, B, D, A. (And don’t forget that the last E is an octave above your starting note!)
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Keep on learning the ukulele and happy strumming!