New Ways to Use Pentatonic Scales
(05 Apr 05)
The first scale we learn - Like most guitarists, probably the first scale that I learned was the pentatonic scale, the minor pentatonic scale for that matter. I didn't even bother learning another scale for the next few years. It was easy to remember and easy to use.
As the years went on I slowly but surely picked up the "other" scales. The major scale and its modes, the harmonic minor scale, the melodic minor scale and its modes and the symmetrical scales (the diminished and whole tone scales) all became part of my vocabulary and the minor pentatonic scale kind of got tossed aside so I could concentrate on using my new and exciting friends.
Once I started playing Jazz and Fusion I would only pull out the minor pentatonic scale for a fleeting moment during a Jazz or minor blues and left it at that. I still used it in Rock and traditional Blues but that was about it.
Fortunately, several years ago I realized that my old friend, the minor pentatonic scale can be used in the most interesting ways. It can be superimposed over almost any major, minor or dominant chord to create complex modal harmony.
These new uses of the pentatonic scale I'm about to describe has changed the way I approach improvisation and has become one of the most valuable tools that I know. I got my old friend, the minor pentatonic scale, back.
The pentatonic scale - Before I get into applying it, let's review a bit and talk a bit about what a pentatonic scale actually is. "Penta" simply means five. That's why a five-sided shape is called a pentagram and a five-pointed star is called a pentacle. Have you ever seen the Pentagon building from above? As you know, It's a five sided building. Therefore, you would be correct in assuming that pentatonic scales are five note scales.
Pentatonic scales are as old as dirt, ancient. The major scale is an infant in comparison. Probably any five note scale could be describes as a pentatonic scale but the ones that we generally play in western music are the major and minor pentatonic scales. They look like this written out:
If we where to stack all the notes of the major pentatonic scale on top of each other what you would basically get is a C69 chord. The minor pentatonic scale would yield a min7(11) chord. If you haven't yet started doing this type of analysis, it is a good time to start. Try to look at scales not just horizontally but vertically as well. That's right, chords are scales and scales are chords just depending on how you place the notes in time. As I said before, pentatonic scales only contain five notes and because of that they don't sound nearly as "scalular" as regular seven note scales and sound somewhat like arpeggios. I mean if you stop and think about it, a five note arpeggio doesn't seem like such a far out idea but a seven note arpeggio strikes you as a little Impractical.
The minor pentatonic scale - The applications I'm about to introduce to you are all based on the minor pentatonic scale. The reason that I base all of the following improvisational techniques on the minor pentatonic scale rather than the major pentatonic scale is simple and selfish, being the first scale that I learned, I'm way more comfortable with it. If you are more familiar with its counterpart the major pentatonic scale, simply change the formulas to correspond to the proper major pentatonic scale. If you are not an expert at playing the minor pentatonic scale, take some time and learn them all. I've included all five patterns of the C minor pentatonic scale below as a reference. Go on, get to work, this lesson will be waiting here for you when you are done:
Sequences - The same blues licks that you always play may or may not work in these new applications that I'm about to teach you so you may want to break away from your usual pentatonic phrases. The pentatonic scale is full of 4ths and 5ths intervals, try to take advantage of them as much as you can. Not that sequences should be relied on too much but these are some sequences that I tend to use, starting with a intervalic 4th sequence:
A variation on the last sequence:
A intervalic sequence of 5ths:
Play the previous sequences descending as well as ascending. There are also dozens of other sequences you should try to discover on your own. Sequences are great tools when used tastefully but if you over do it, you'll sound like a computer.