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Alternate Pentatonics

Take a simple pentatonic scale and really turn it upside down by changing the harmonic context in which we use it.

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. 1 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, you 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. 3 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 chord’s root.
  • 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.

Jason Shadrick is 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 Guitar Workshop.