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Improvisational Theory - Applications of the pentatonic scales

Published January 10th, 2005. © Chris Juergensen/chrisjuergensen.com. All Rights Reserved.

This lesson has been revised and published in THE INFINITE GUITAR. Info >>>


The first scale we learn - Like most guitarists, probably the first scale that I learned was the pentatonic scale, the minor pentatonic scale for that matter. I didn't even bother learning another scale for the next few years. It was easy to remember and easy to use. As the years went on I slowly but surely picked up the "other" scales. The major scale and its modes, the harmonic minor scale, the melodic minor scale and its modes and the symmetrical scales (the diminished and whole tone scales) all became part of my vocabulary and the minor pentatonic scale kind of got tossed aside so I could concentrate on using my new and exciting friends. Once I started playing Jazz and Fusion I would only pull out the minor pentatonic scale for a fleeting moment during a Jazz or minor blues and left it at that. I still used it in Rock and traditional Blues but that was about it. Fortunately, several years ago I realized that my old friend, the minor pentatonic scale can be used in the most interesting ways. It can be superimposed over almost any major, minor or dominant chord to create complex modal harmony. These new uses of the pentatonic scale I'm about to describe has changed the way I approach improvisation and has become one of the most valuable tools that I know. I got my old friend, the minor pentatonic scale, back.

 
The pentatonic scale - Before I get into applying it, let's review a bit and talk a bit about what a pentatonic scale actually is. "Penta" simply means five. That's why a five-sided shape is called a pentagram and a five-pointed star is called a pentacle. Have you ever seen the Pentagon building from above? As you know, It's a five sided building. Therefore, you would be correct in assuming that pentatonic scales are five note scales. Pentatonic scales are as old as dirt, ancient. The major scale is an infant in comparison. Probably any five note scale could be describes as a pentatonic scale but the ones that we generally play in western music are the major and minor pentatonic scales. They look like this written out:
 
 
If we where to stack all the notes of the major pentatonic scale on top of each other what you would basically get is a C69 chord. The minor pentatonic scale would yield a min7(11) chord. If you haven't yet started doing this type of analysis, it is a good time to start. Try to look at scales not just horizontally but vertically as well. That's right, chords are scales and scales are chords just depending on how you place the notes in time. As I said before, pentatonic scales only contain five notes and because of that they don't sound nearly as "scalular" as regular seven note scales and sound somewhat like arpeggios. I mean if you stop and think about it, a five note arpeggio doesn't seem like such a far out idea but a seven note arpeggio strikes you as a little Impractical.
 
The minor pentatonic scale - The applications I'm about to introduce to you are all based on the minor pentatonic scale. The reason that I base all of the following improvisational techniques on the minor pentatonic scale rather than the major pentatonic scale is simple and selfish, being the first scale that I learned, I'm way more comfortable with it. If you are more familiar with its counterpart the major pentatonic scale, simply change the formulas to correspond to the proper major pentatonic scale. If you are not an expert at playing the minor pentatonic scale, take some time and learn them all. I've included all five patterns of the C minor pentatonic scale below as a reference. Go on, get to work, this lesson will be waiting here for you when you are done:
 
Sequences - The same blues licks that you always play may or may not work in these new applications that I'm about to teach you so you may want to break away from your usual pentatonic phrases. The pentatonic scale is full of 4ths and 5ths intervals, try to take advantage of them as much as you can. Not that sequences should be relied on too much but these are some sequences that I tend to use, starting with a intervalic 4th sequence:
 
A variation on the last sequence:
 
 
A intervalic sequence of 5ths:
 
Play the previous sequences descending as well as ascending. There are also dozens of other sequences you should try to discover on your own. Sequences are great tools when used tastefully but if you over do it, you'll sound like a computer.

Minor pentatonic scales over major chords
 
Applying the minor pentatonic scale to major chords - I'm going to get us started on using the minor pentatonic scale over major family chords. For demonstrational purposes, let's pretend that the major chord that we need to improvise over is an Cmaj7 type chord. Here is the basic formula to remember here:
 
Over a major chord, you can play a minor pentatonic scale based on the 7th, 3rd and 6th of the chord.

1. Minor pentatonic played on the 7th degree of a major chord - Yes it's true, on the 7th. This means that you first need to locate the 7th of your maj7th chord, in this case, Cmaj7. What is it? That's right, the major 7th of Cmaj7 is B. So, you can play a B minor pentatonic scale against the Cmaj7 chord. I know it seems strange but check out the analysis below and you'll see why it works:
 
 
The first thing that might strike you as odd is that there is no root present in the scale. Don't worry about it, roots are not a necessity in scales when used for improvisation. When I realized the fact that roots don't need to be present, it opened up thousands of new scale/chord relationship possibilities. It may be helpful to think of this pentatonic scale as "lydian" because of the #11 present in the scale. As the scale played over a C major chord contains all the upper extensions (9, #11, 13) it may work better over a chord with the same or some of the same extensions (Cmaj7#11, Cmaj13, etc.) but it functions well over simple maj7 and maj9 chords as well.

2. Minor pentatonic played on the 3rd degree of the chord - A minor pentatonic played on the 3rd degree yields us another nice choice. The 3rd of C is E, so all we need to do is play an E minor pentatonic scale. Check the chord tones we get below:
 
 
As in the previous example, we also do not have a root present in the scale. Unlike the strait major pentatonic scale, we get the nice addition of the major 7th. We are kind of trading our root we get in the major pentatonic scale for a major 7th in this one.

3. Minor pentatonic played on the 6th degree of a major chord - The 6th of C is A, so we need to play an A minor pentatonic scale to give us our next possibility. Check the scale tones we get with this choice:
 
 
If you know your theory, you know that the A minor pentatonic and C major pentatonic scale are one in the same. So nothing new and exciting here but it will still come in handy later.

Here is the handy-dandy formula chart for applying the minor pentatonic scale to major chords:
 
minor pentatonic scales/major chords
degree to be played on
chord/scale tones created
7
2,3,#4,6,7
3
2,3,5,6,7
6
1,2,3,5,6

Putting it into practice
 
Putting it into practice - Let's start by using what we have learned over an all major chord progression. It is a simple three chord progression made up of a Amaj9, Cmaj9 and Emaj9 chords for four bars each. I tend to make a mental (sometimes a physical) chart of the minor pentatonic scale possibilities and find the ones that are a fret or so apart. This way it becomes very easy to connect lines and motifs. In the example below, I would probably tend to chose:
 
chord minor pentatonic
Amaj9 G#
Cmaj9 A
Emaj9 G#
or maybe...
chord minor pentatonic
Amaj9 C#
Cmaj9 B
Emaj9 C#
Record the changes and experiment with all possible pentatonic scales:
 
 
The reason I picked these pentatonic scales is because for the Cmaj9 chord all I have to do is move the G# minor pentatonic scale up a half step to an A minor pentatonic scale. Not so much for a lack of effort but because it is a great way to connect a motif over the barline. Check out how I use this intervalic 4ths and 5ths pattern to do so:
Audio samples - The previous chord progression is actually from the title track, "Prospects" from my first solo release. I've posted two mp3s of both guitar solos that I played. I play pentatonic scales throughout both solos but the most obvious lines can be found at 00:18-00:28 and 00:49-00:53 on the first solo and 00:37-00:43 on the second:
 

Minor pentatonic scales over minor chords
 

Applying the minor pentatonic scale to minor chords - Next we are going to do the same thing but this time we'll be using minor pentatonic scales to improvise over minor chords. The formula to learn:

 
Over a minor chord, you can play a minor pentatonic scale based on the root, 2nd and 5th of the chord.

1. Minor pentatonic played on the 1st degree (root) of the chord - This scale over this chord is most likely how you've been using it anyway so I'm not going to get into much detail here. Before you move on to the next examples at least check what chord tones we get with the most common application of the minor pentatonic scale:

 
 

2. Minor pentatonic played on the 2nd degree of the chord - You can play a minor pentatonic scale a whole step up from a minor chord. Check out why:
 
 
This application of the minor pentatonic scale played on the 2nd of the minor chord will give you the major sixth which is "dorian" by nature so I tend to think of this scale used in this context as the "dorian" pentatonic. Superimposed this way, the minor pentatonic scale contains all the upper extensions of the minor chord (9th, 11th, 13th) and works nicely over a min6 or min13th chord.

3. Minor pentatonic played on the 5th degree of the chord - This is another nice alternative for the plain old minor pentatonic. Played up a fifth you will get the following chord tones:
 
 
Unlike the straight minor pentatonic scale, you get the nice addition of the 9th when played in this context. You will also be losing your b3rd which gives the scale more of an ambiguous tonality which I personally like.

Once again the formula chart, this time for applying the minor pentatonic scale to minor chords:
minor pentatonic scales/minor chords
degree to be played on
chord/scale tones created
1
1,b3,4,5,b7
2
1,2,4,5,6
5
1,2,4,5,b7

Putting it into practice
 
Putting it into practice - Let's start by using what we have learned over an all minor chord progression. This chord progression is a simple two chord vamp of a Cmin9 and a Emin9 chord for four bars each. Again, I tend to pick the pentatonic scales that are close to each other so I can connect motifs over the barlines:
 
chord minor pentatonic
Cmin9 C
Emin9 B
or maybe...
chord minor pentatonic
Cmin9 G
Emin9 F#
 
Record the changes and experiment:
 
This is an intervalic 5th sequence played over the barline:
 
 
Audio samples - I used the same chord progression on "Where Spirits Dance" on the "Prospects"CD. Check out the guitar solo. The blatant pentatonic phrases can be found at 00:35-00:42 and 00:57-01:09:
 

Minor pentatonic scales over altered dominant chords
 
Applying the minor pentatonic scale to altered dominant chords - Next we are going to do the same thing but this time we'll be using minor pentatonic scales to improvise over altered dominant chords. The formula to learn:
 
Over an altered dominant chord, you can play a minor pentatonic scale based on the b3rd, 4th and b7th of the chord.

1. Minor pentatonic played on the b3rd degree of the chord - The flat 3rd or #9th of C is Eb so that is the minor pentatonic scale we will play here. Check out what we will get:
 
 
What more could you ask for here? You get all four of the altered extensions (b5,#5,b9,#9).

2. Minor pentatonic played on the 4th degree of the chord - In the case of C7(alt), a F minor pentatonic scale:
 
 
Maybe not the best choice for a 7(b9,b5) chord but a great match for a C7(#5,#9) chord. You will have to be a little careful in your handling of the natural 4th but because the pentatonic scales have so many perfect 4th intervals anyway, it doesn't seem to bother the ear too much.

3. Minor pentatonic played on the b7th degree of the chord - In the case of C7(alt), a Bb minor pentatonic scale:
 
 
As with the previous example, you'll need to exercise a little caution with the 4th but other than the b5 you get all the other extensions for the altered dominant chord (#5, b9, #9).

Once again the formula chart, this time for applying the minor pentatonic scale to altered dominant chords:
 
minor pentatonic scales/alt chords
degree to be played on
chord/scale tones created
b3 b5,#5,b7,b9,#9
4 1,4,#5,b7,#9
b7
4,#5,b7,b9,#9

Putting it into practice
 
Putting it into practice - Let's finish by using what we have learned over a ii-V-I chord progression. As I mentioned in the previous examples, I tend to look for the scales that are a half step apart. Out of the three pentatonic choices we get for each chord, these are probably the scales I would pick:
chord minor pentatonic
Dmin7 A
G7(alt) Bb
Cmaj7 B
or maybe...
chord minor pentatonic
Dmin7 E
G7(alt) F
Cmaj7 E
 
Record the changes and experiment:
 
Notice how in this example I simply move the pentatonic scale up half steps to accommodate each chord:
 
 
Using the same pentatonic scales over a two chord per measure ii - V - I chord progression:
 
 
In this example I use the same intervalic motif as our first example but this time starting on an E minor pentatonic scale, moving up a half step for the G7(alt) chord and resolving it by moving back to the E minor pentatonic scale:
 

Check out this video of me demonstrating how to supimpose minor pentatonic scales over the Jazz standard "Footprints"
 
It is still important to learn all your scales and arpeggios but the various applications of the minor pentatonic scale we covered in this lesson are just one improvisational tool that you can keep up your sleeve. Until next time...

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