Jazz Guitar Pentatonics – Part 4 – On Major and Minor Chords

Let’s turn up the heat a little on this one. We are going to take everything we studied so far in Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and apply it to improvisation on actual chords. Meaning that we’re now learning to improvise and apply the jazz guitar pentatonics here.

Yay!  🙂

This is really where the fun begins. We finally start to apply minor and dominant pentatonic scales on harmony. We’ll work on them using some static chords for now… and those contexts closely ressemble what you can stumble upon in real playing situations.

Since there are so many chord types to deal with (that’s Jazz, right?!), we’ll have to break this down into two parts. Part 4 will deal exclusively with major and minor chords. We’ll go about this business by considering different types of major and minor chords too. We have 9 applications to look at in this post.  And then, in Part 5, we’ll look at darker types of chords. Watch the video above.

Applied Pentatonics for Jazz Chords

Ok before we start, here’s my little “treatise” on using pentatonics for jazz guitar improvisation. A few words of caution:

  1. These approaches are only my suggestions. They come from my very own practice and experience (in other words : “works for me…“) Feel free to experiment and make sure you listen for your favorite sounds. Never mind what the teacher said, do your own thing! Also: read books on the matter to give you other, fresh ideas. Suggestions: Jerry Bergonzi’s Volume 2 and Steve Khan’s Pentatonic Khancepts.
  2. The scope of my approach is only on a “chord to chord” basis. The examples do not necessarily work on entire chord progressions. I simply aligned a SINGLE chord with a SINGLE pentatonic scale choice. Applying pentatonic scales to chord sequences could be the topic of another article. However, if you’d like to apply pentatonic scales to improvisation on chord progressions, consider the examples below as a buffet of scales in which you can pick and choose your favorite “flavours”! 🙂
  3. Go by sound! Listen and listen even more! You’ll get nothing by wailing on a certain pentatonic application (just noodle) if you can’t sing / hear / play some simple improvised melodies on it. Try and see if you can come up with obvious, beautiful yet convincing pentatonic ideas on some of your favorite tunes. Also, you don’t necessarily have to play just pentatonics for your whole solo. You could, for instance dedicate pentatonic applications to just a few of the chord changes within the song.
  4. Apply Carefully. Work on the different pentatonic sounds you like over chords during your practicing but NOT in your performance: never try to brute force an idea you practiced into your performance just for the sake of it. There lies the danger in learning new things… We are impatient and seeking to use “it” right now! We all wish we had the flexibility of Woody Shaw or Wayne Shorter with pentatonics… Once more:  be careful and patient. What you practice will show up, eventually, when you are ready and the musical context is optimal.
  5. Know your pentatonics first! Know the Am and D7 pentatonics as we worked on in Part 1. Then practice the five jazz guitar positions for these pentatonic scales, as seen in the PDF in Part 2. Then practice the four nice pentatonic patterns from Part 3. Remember: all you need, really, is minor pentatonic scale and its dominant counterpart. (Think Am7 to D7 to keep this in your memory).

Jazz Guitar Pentatonics on Major Chords

I have four favorite applications here: two for the normal, unaltered major chord and two for the lydian-sounding chord (i.e., chords which have a #11).

On Unaltered Major Chords
(plain C major chord: Here’s a play-along of 4 x 8 bars of Cmaj7)

Use the minor pentatonic from degree vi or degree iii.

Degree vi is simply the relative minor. On C major, use A minor pentatonic. This is the most obvious pentatonic application of all, since we know A minor pentatonic contains the same notes as C major pentatonic.

 Am Pentatonic on Cmaj7

Next, degree iii is a standard substitute for I. On C major, use E minor pentatonic. I say “standard” because:

C major 7th = C E G B
E minor 7th = E G B D  (notice the three notes in common).

This is the more interesting application for “straight” major chords.  Degree iii application uses some extensions (7th and 9th).

Em Pentatonic on Cmaj7

This one above (use Em pentatonic on C major) is my favorite pentatonic application for unaltered major chords.

On Lydian Chords
(Lydian C major chord: Here’s a play-along of 4 x 8 bars of Cmaj7(#11))

Use minor pentatonic from degree vii
or dominant pentatonic from degree ii.

First, degree vii is the “note sensible”. On C major (#11) use Bm pentatonic. Think John Scofield.

Bm Pentatonic on Cmaj7#11

Next, degree ii is the “Take the A Train” chord. On C major (#11) use D7 pentatonic.

D7 Pentatonic on Cmaj7#11

Remember : D7 pentatonic originated from Am pentatonic from which we lowered the G to an F#… (see Part 1)

You may find other more interesting options major (#11) chords. Simply make sure you have the #11 (raised fourth degree) somewhere in the pentatonic scale you will select. Personally, I still stick to those two basic ones above for maj(#11) chords because I hear them well enough to use convincingly in playing contexts.

Pentatonics on Minor Chords

I have five favorite applications here: two for our basic minor 7 chords (often associated with the Dorian mode) and three for so-called tonic minor chords (minor with 6th and/or maj 7th)

On Minor 7th Chords
(Plain Am7 chord: Here’s a play-along of 4 x 8 bars of Am7)

Use the minor pentatonics on degree i or degree v.

First, degree i is just too obvious: On Am7, use Am pentatonic …

Am pentatonic on Am7

Next, degree v has more extensions. So, on Am7 simply use Em pentatonic.

Em pentatonic on Am7

I really like the second. It gives just enough “spice” to my improvisations!

On Tonic Minor Chords (m6 and/or minor-maj7th chords)
(“Tonic minor” Am chord: Here’s a play-along of 4 x 8 bars of Am6)

Use the minor pentatonic on degree ii and
dominant pentatonics degree iv and on degree v.

First, degree ii give a minor 6/9 sound: On Am6, use Bm pentatonic.

Next, degree iv dominant is in reality the minor 6th pentatonic. On Am7, use D7 pentatonic, (aka Am6 pentatonic). This is just like playing on a ii-V (from the root), easy to remember! 🙂

D7 Pentatonic on Am6

And lastly, degree v dominant is also like literally playing on the ii-V. On Am6, use E7 pentatonic … (aka Bm6 pentatonic) … it gives the minor-major 7th sound.

E7 Pentatonic on Am6

Wrap Up

Practice applying the suggestions above using the play-along vamps provided. See which ones make sense and sound good to you. Keep in mind that it is possible that some of my suggestions are too “foreign” and strange for you. Just find your own things. 🙂

Then move on to Pentatonics: Part 5 where we’ll tackle “darker” types of chords (dominants, half-diminished, altered dominants, etc.)

10 thoughts on “Jazz Guitar Pentatonics – Part 4 – On Major and Minor Chords

  1. Hi Marc-André,

    Great lesson. Could you pls tell me what are you using as comping track? Is that BiaB? And if so, what would be the setting?

    Thx in advance,

  2. Hi Marc,
    This lesson series on pentatonics reminds me of a True Fire course named The Power of Five. It also teaches how to use different minor pentatonics on different chords.
    I’m wondering if you saw that course on True Fire and could comment how close or not your series is to that.

  3. Thanks for these cool lessons and the backing tracks. It’s time to enter the Jazz woodshed again. I really enjoy using pentatonics. For me they don’t quite sound scalular or arpular (I think I just made that word up) sort of in between which lay the notes out just right for really cool lines

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