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)
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)
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)
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 …
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
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!