Jazz Guitar Pentatonics – Part 1 – What is the pentatonic scale?

In this article / video series, we will study pentatonic scales and how they can be applied in Jazz guitar improvisations. The jazz guitar pentatonics are used extensively throughout recorded Jazz history.

We will go very slow, starting from the construction of two very common and simple to use pentatonic scales. We will then work on them throughout the fretboard (positions), using several patterns. Finally, we’ll see how to apply pentatonic scales on major, minor, dominant, half-diminished, altered (etc.) chords and chord progressions.

See video above. Enjoy!

What is the Pentatonic Scale Anyways?

Penta means Five

Ok ok, so pentatonic scales contain five notes. We could say that any five notes constitute a pentatonic scale, but let’s stick to the one in common use for now. Here’s how to extract the “regular” pentatonic scales:

Start with the major scale (in C major here) :

C – D – E – F – G – A – B – (C)

cmajor

If you now your major scale theory a little, you may remember that half-steps exist only between E-F and B-C. Looking at those troublesome notes (F and B), we get the interval of a tritone, the most naturally tense interval in the scale that REALLY needs to resolve.

To get the pentatonic scale, we simply  remove this “tension” from the major scale to keep only the most stables notes. The trouble makers are F and B, corresponding to the degrees 4 and 7 of the scale. By omitting them, we get:

C – D – E – G – A – (C)
This is C major pentatonic scale also spelled
1 – 2 – 3 – 5 – 6 – (1)

cmajorpentatonic

Thinking in terms of this formula, we can then conclude :

Remove the degrees 4 and 7 from a major scale to get its pentatonic.

Simple, right? Now let’s see how we can make our lives more complicated! [Laughs]

Jazz Guitar Pentatonics: Major and Minor

Now, I don’t know exactly why but most musicians like to use the minor pentatonics as a point of reference most of the time. There’s a tendencey there … If you get books on pentatonic, they’ll use the minor pentatonic as the starting point.

So, instead of “fighting the system” and always thinking in major scales and pentatonics (which I did for a while), its better to relate to pentatonic scales by their minor counterpart. It’s more “universal” I guess …

Here’s how to get to the relative minor pentatonic: start on the fifth note of the major pentatonic. (what used to be the 6th degree of the major scale.)

In C major pentatonic:
C – D – E – G – A – (C)

—-> start on “A” note to get …
A minor pentatonic :
A – C – D – E – G – (A)

Aminorpentatonic

Notice that the minor pentatonic scale has the following spelling: 1 – b3 – 4 – 5 – b7 – (1)

This is the same concept as relative minor and major scales. You may recognize the good old “blues box” … if you add only one note to this, you get the SRV / Hendrix / Jimmy Page / AC DC / BB King traditional BLUES SCALE. (Right guy?!)

The formula could be :

Remove the degrees 2 and 6 from a natural minor scale to get its pentatonic.

Although it may seems like this is all we need to know, there’s more! We will modify this minor pentatonic to get another more obscure one …

Other Pentatonics

Ok, you got the theory down for the most common pentatonic (major and minor) above … but you may start to wonder about all the other possible five note scales? Well…

While I believe it’s always good to practice as many options as possible, pentatonics application is where it gets very interesting… So, less is more. You only need to know one or two jazz guitar pentatonics, and it will sound very good in applications.

For instance, we’ll consider in next instalments of this series that a simple minor pentatonic can be applied to fit 5 or 6 different chords, always outlining different extensions of the same chord. Basically what I am saying here: one pentatonic goes a long way.

And throughout this article series, we’ll be using only TWO pentatonics. Since major and minor pentatonic scales are basically the same, we need one more spelling (one we did not look at yet).

Here’s the only other pentatonic possibility that I use very often: from the regular minor pentatonic, lower the b7 a half step (to the 6th) to get this :

A minor Pentatonic (normal)
A – C – D – E – G – (A)

Lowering the b7 to the 6th:
A – C – D – E – F# – (A)

If you know your II-V’s very well, you may have realized that this outlines the Am7 to D7 progression. Lowering the b7 of Am7 to become the 3rd of D7 …

Most people (including myself) like to call this new pentatonic the D dominant 7th pentatonic, or

D7 Pentatonic :
D – E – F# – A – C – (D)
Spelled : 1 – 2 – 3 – 5 – b7

D7pentatonic

Other people like to call this same scale the Am6 pentatonic instead. Am6 Pentatonic: A – C – D – E – F# – (A). Spelled: 1 – b3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – (1). I don’t really like this spelling, though. But keep it in mind if it works for you.

Jazz Guitar Pentatonics Wrap Up

To summarize all this, you need to know only two pentatonic scales and you can go a very long way :

• The Minor Pentatonic (1 – b3 – 4 – 5 – b7)
• The related Dominant 7th Pentatonic (aka Minor 6th)

The related Dominant 7th is found by changing only one note from the minor pentatonic… Can you spell them in all keys?

Cm7 Pentatonic Scale (C Eb F G Bb C) … change one note …

F7 Pentatonic (F G A C Eb F) (aka Cm6 penta)

Try and spell the notes in your head for the following :

Dm7 – G7
Gm7 – C7
Cm7 – F7
Fm7 – Bb7
Bbm7 – Eb7
Ebm7 – Ab7
Abm7 – Db7
C#m7 – F#7
F#m7 – B7
Bm7 – E7
Em7 – A7
Am7 – D7
(now play them on the guitar, if you can) …

If you didn’t memorize II-V’s in all keys yet, now would be a good time! 😉

In Jazz Guitar: Pentatonics – Part 2 we will study those pentatonic scales throughout the fretboard, in positions. You are in for a ride!

Click here to go to Pentatonics: Part 2 …

21 thoughts on “Jazz Guitar Pentatonics – Part 1 – What is the pentatonic scale?

  1. A super introduction to pentatonic scales Marc! Your succinct & lucid intro makes them so easy to understand.
    Thanks!

    Dilip in India

  2. How do you get the 5 2 out of Am7 to D7 or Cm7 to F7? Maybe it’s my blues orientation that gets in the way, because I think 1 4 instead of 5 2.

    • Hello Nick. I completely understand you question. The movement from, for example, Am7 D7 is indeed of the type “1 to 4”. That is: going up a fourth. But in Jazz, when we look at Am7 to D7 we think of it as a II-V chord cell. Why? Because both chords belong in the key of G major. The Am7 chord is the diatonic chord built on the second degree of the G major scale, while D7 is built on the fifth degree of the G major scale. I hope this makes sense. Also see this series of articles: The Non-Nonsense Guide to Jazz Harmony

  3. Marc Andre,

    You have a nice way of explaining things even if we know some…you bring some color to it all. thanks GD

  4. Marc,

    This is the best I’ve seen on how how to use the pentatonic scales to solo over a chord progression. You’ve demystified the art of jazz soloing for beginners like me. I’ve bought several jazz chord and soloing books, including online lessons, that have cost me a small fortune, and none of them gave me the results I’ve been looking for. YOUR SIMPLE METHOD WORKS! You should convert this into a book/DVD format for resale! Thanks a million!!!

    Nestor

  5. Hey thanks for posting all your stuff. I’m learning some new ways to look at things already. 🙂 I’ve been playing professionally for about40 yeas and decided I’m going to buckle down and work on some jazz chops. (yeah, I put it off…lol) Question for you: In the Pentatononic Pt 2, at 3:30 in, you’re playing in the 7th position. But shouldn’t the note on the B string be F#? (The 3rd) Thanks again for posting these!

  6. I’d rather fight the system and any confusions, therein.

    (1) Strings have no numbers,
    (2) higher strings are higher in pitch,
    (3) higher frets are closer to the bridge and,
    (4) even while playing substitute scales, arpeggios or pentatonics, think in terms of the functional harmony.

  7. If you look @ how music is taught today even you start on the C Major scale, my question was why C & not a minor? Minor is to say a sadder key where Major is a happier key. We want are children to be happy playing music not the hum drum sadness of minor keys. We should be fighting the traditional methods where everything starts in Major!

    • Good comment, but remember that the “feelings” associated with minor versus major are arbitrary. We associated “happy” with major, and so on. But actually, there’s nothing to it. The best examples of this are found in film scores. In fact, emotions in movies are carried more by the degree of dissonance (i.e. how our ears “accept” these sounds) than by the modality of the music (major versus major).

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