I think the pentatonic scale has
a real PR problem. It isn’t as
sophisticated as the “fancy” modes
and therefore gets overlooked by
many players. Every guitarist’s first
exposure to scales probably included
the first “box” position of the
minor pentatonic scale, yet some
horn players view the pentatonic
scale as a more advanced concept
usually reserved for some of the
ultra-hip post-bop players of the
’60s. How does a single five-note
scale seem so basic to some musicians
and so abstract to others?
Let’s try to bridge the gap
between these two contrasting
but equally valid viewpoints.
We’ll take a simple pentatonic
scale and really turn it upside
down by changing the harmonic
context in which we use it. In
addition, we’ll check out some
different formulas for pentatonic
scales that will give us extra colors
on our sonic palette.
A simple way to gain a new
perspective of the fretboard and
discover new sounds is to use a
pentatonic scale based on a note
other than the root. For example,
over a C7 chord, instead of playing
a C minor pentatonic scale
(which would be a typical blues
approach), try a G minor pentatonic
scale. If we look at each
note of the G minor pentatonic
scale relative to the key of C, we
get the following:
Every note in the G minor
pentatonic scale can be viewed
either as a chord tone or as an
extension of C7. This relationship
of a perfect fifth between the root
of the chord (C) and the root of
the pentatonic scale (G) works no
matter what key you’re in. In Fig.
you can see one fingering for
this scale and hear how each note
sounds over C7. Download example audio...
One reason this technique is
so easy to get under your fingers
is that you aren’t learning an
entirely new scale. You are simply
using an already well-worn
fingering in a new way that will
open some melodic and harmonic
doors. This can also work with A
minor pentatonic as well. Here’s
how that scale lines up over C7:
The biggest difference is the
A, or 13th of the chord. The 13th
is a common extension in jazz
chords and can be used as a great
passing tone between the 5th and
7th tones of the scale.
Once you have these new
sounds under your fingers, throw
in the b5 (Gb) of the scale to get
that blues sound. In Fig. 2
can see a cool lick that uses the A
minor pentatonic scale and uses
some elements of the C blues
scale over a C7 chord. Download example audio...
We now have a few options for
playing over dominant chords, but
what happens when you are at the
local blues jam and you’re faced
with a minor blues? We can apply
the same idea, but use some different
shapes. If you look at the breakdown
of G minor pentatonic over C
in the chart above, the chord tones
can still work over a Cm7 chord.
Another option would be
to play a minor pentatonic
scale that is a whole-step above
the root of the chord you’re playing
over. For example, over a Cm7
chord, try D minor pentatonic. Fig.
shows a fingering for D minor
pentatonic over a Cm7 chord. Download example audio...
This fingering can serve as the
bridge between the C minor pentatonic
in the eighth position and
the A minor pentatonic in the fifth
position. Both A minor and D
minor have nearly identical notes,
the only difference being the F in
the D minor scale goes down to E
in the A minor scale. Combining
the A, D, and C minor pentatonic
scales can really unlock the
fretboard and open your fingers
and ears to new sounds simply by
changing the context.
So now we have several different
tricks for pentatonic scales.
When it comes down to actually
using them over a blues progression,
the idea is to not overdo it.
The most interesting improvisers
use a unique combination of
scales, arpeggios, and passing
tones to create their own voice.
One exercise I learned when first
getting into this was to create
some rules when soloing. In the
heat of the moment on a gig, you
want to be as free as you can,
but for practice purposes, such
self-imposed rules help you dig
deeper into the material.
In Fig. 4
I’ve written some suggested
scale choices for a standard
12-bar blues. These choices reflect
merely one option for navigating
the changes. Let your ear be your
ultimate guide when it comes
to deciding where the next note
should be. In a few instances, I’ve
listed a blues scale in order to keep
the melodic content grounded
and remind the listener that this is
indeed a blues progression.
Here are a couple of simple
rules to get these new applications
under your fingers:
Over dominant chords, try
using a minor pentatonic scale
that has its root either a perfect
fifth or a perfect sixth above the
Over minor chords, use a
minor pentatonic scale located
a whole-step or a perfect fifth
above the chord root.
The goal of any new musical
application is to blend it into
your own vocabulary and style.
Set up a drone or loop a chord
progression and explore how
the sound of each scale changes
over different chords.
an associate editor of PG
and he as been mixing
blues, jazz, and rock since
he first picked up a guitar.
Mostly because nobody
told him not to. He has
degrees in Music Business and Jazz
Pedagogy, and he previously worked with
Lower Dyad Records and the National