Last updated on July 12, 2020
I’m a huge fan of pentatonic scales, but not just the major and minor ones; there’s so much more you can do with pentatonics. After all, pentatonic means 5 tones—any 5 tones—and there are literally hundreds of combinations available, 330 to be precise, if you just take the time to permutate them all–and that’s the idea with custom pentatonic scales. If you don’t have the time, read on because I’ve permutated a bunch of them below for you to wail away on. As guitarists, we’re so used to pentatonics and they feel reassuringly comfortable under our fingers, so why stop at just the major and minor?
The rules for creating custom pentatonic scales are simple: the scale must have 5 notes. That’s all there is to it. We’ll base our custom pentatonics on the box 1 major and minor shapes as it’s by far the most comfortable area on the fretboard. If you really like any of these scales, you can map them out in the other four positions.
Here’s the minor pentatonic box:
Here’s the major pentatonic version:
Custom Lydian Pentatonics
7-note scales such as the major scale and its modes, the melodic and harmonic minor scales will be our source of custom pentatonic scales. Let’s start with the Lydian scale; if you haven’t ventured into modes too much, or got stuck there, this will help you get that Lydian sound into your playing without trying desperately to squeeze some music out of those clunky 3NPS or CAGED shapes.
The Lydian mode has the following intervals: 1, 2, 3, #4, 5, 6, 7. The #4 is what makes it Lydian so that interval is a must. The Lydian mode is a major mode, so we can base our Lydian pentatonic scales off the major pentatonic.
Here are a couple of permutations that sound sick:
1, 2, 3, #4, 6
We only changed one note here from the major pentatonic, but it changes the sound dramatically.
Here’s another possibility:
1, 2, 3, #4, 7
In this one we swap the 6 for the 7 to get a different Lydian vibe. There’s a bit of a stretch on the B string from the #4 to the 7 for the sake of not breaking the two-notes-per-string ideal, but this won’t always be the case if you map out the other four patterns.
The fourth mode of the melodic minor scale yields the Lydian b7 mode which, as the name suggests, is a Lydian scale with a b7: 1, 2, 3, #4, 5, 6, b7.
If we flatten the 7 in the above scale, we get the following permutation:
1, 2, 3, #4, b7
Here’s another possibility based off the Lydian b7 mode:
1, 2, #4, 5, b7
What’s interesting here is that there’s no third which makes the scale sound ‘out’ and very unsettled, great for creating some tension over a dominant chord.
Custom Dorian Pentatonics
If you’re not quite able to bring out the sound of Dorian mode in your playing, try the following scales as we follow the same procedure by trimming down the 7-note scale. The Dorian mode has the following intervals: 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6, b7. The 2 (9) and the 6 are what make the Dorian scale interesting, so let’s see what pentatonic permutations we can come up with. Use these pentatonics over minor and m7 chords.
Our first permutation is: 1, b3, 4, 5, 6
This one strays just far enough from the minor pentatonic to get a different sound, and reminds me of a John Scofield type sound, although he probably doesn’t think this way.
Our next permutation features the 2 and the 6 but no third for a fusion type sound.
1, 2, 4, 5, 6
Notice that this is also box five of the minor pentatonic but with a different root note, and it follows that the rest of the boxes for this scale would be minor pentatonic ones, just with different starting notes.
You can probably see that there are plenty of permutations you could work out, and some you’ll like more than others. If you want to find more pentatonics, simply follow these steps:
- Take a 7-note scale. (major, harmonic minor, harmonic major, melodic minor etc.)
- Reduce it to five notes that permutate to two notes on a string (if possible) which include the characteristic notes of the scale.
- Write out your custom pentatonic scale on the blank fretboard sheets below, which you can download and print out.
FREE EBOOK: This custom pentatonic scales lesson is included in our free pentatonics eBook along with 9 others – pick up your copy here.