world gone shred

Not all pentatonic scales are created equal.


Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Advanced
Lesson Overview:
• Develop an understanding of the Hirajōshi scale and its modes.
• Learn how to apply traditional Japanese sounds to Western tonalities.
• Create compelling lines based on variations of the pentatonic scale.


Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

Japanese pentatonic scales are an improvisational home base for many musicians—certainly guitarists, whether they know it or not. Some of the scales, such as Ryo, are simply the major pentatonic scale, and it’s hard to say whether it’s first use was in Japan or much earlier in African and European folk songs. Other scales, however, have a distinct Japanese flavor to them. We’re going to investigate five of these scales, which are really just modes of the same scale, and see how they can be used both melodically and harmonically in such different genres as metal, blues, and even jazz fusion.

The main scale we’ll check out is called Hirajōshi. There are five forms, or inversions, of this scale, each with its own distinct tonality. It is important to know that these scales are actually derived from tunings of the koto, a 13-string instrument from Japan. The formula for the scale is 1–2–b3–5–b6. In the key of A, for example, that’s A–B–C–E–F. You could think of it as a natural minor scale without the 4 and b7. Ex. 1 shows a three-octave fingering for the scale.

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Photo by Linda Brindley

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