Pentatonic scales are incredibly useful tools that sound great and are easy to get a handle on. They’re different from modes or eight-note “bop scales” in that, generally, any note in the scale sounds good either on or off the beat. By using a pentatonic scale that includes fewer chord tones and more color tones, as well, we can take our playing “outside” and superimpose different flavors onto the chord we’re improvising over. One thing that I love about these types of scales is that mastery of just one of them can give you lines to play over a wide variety of chords.
1. Pentatonic Basics
Let’s take a look at the many different contexts in which we can use the humble C minor pentatonic scale (or Eb major pentatonic scale). Ex. 1 shows the scale in its simplest form.
2. Approaches and Extensions
In Ex. 2 we’ll create a line using this scale, thinking of it over a C minor chord. We’ll also use a little approach pattern in the middle of the line, in the first half of bar 2 to hinge things together. Play this line over a Cmin7 chord to see where our starting point is. Played this way it sounds “inside,” like a classic funk line, perhaps, hitting mostly chord tones of the Cmin7. But now the fun begins. Take the same line and play it over a DbMaj7 chord. Note that all the notes of the exact same line fit perfectly over the DbMaj7, including the approach pattern, yet it takes on a more exotic flavor. What’s happening here is that the line is now mostly formed out of notes that are extensions of the DbMaj7 chord. We’re roughly framing out an Eb major sound against the DbMaj7. All the same contours in the line work great, including the approach pattern, but that same line and scale take on a new life over a different chord.
3. Altered Sounds
Ex. 3 takes things further out by playing our line over an A7alt chord (we’ll resolve this one to Dmin7 in bar 3, changing the end to fit our Dmin7 chord). This is a “goto” sound for me on an altered seventh chord as, again, it puts interesting notes in the line (such as the flatted 5, flat 13, flat 9 and sharp 9). Notice how the exact same line that works on Cmin7 and DbMaj7 now works great on the A7alt as well.
4. Inside and Outside
In Ex. 4 we create another line, this time sitting on EbMaj7, another chord where this same pentatonic scale works great. But the new line sounds pretty bland on this chord, because it’s composed mostly of chord tones and consonant, major-key extensions such as the sixth and the ninth. But play it over an F7sus, another chord where our C minor pentatonic is a good fit, and you’ll notice that it provides you with a nice way to run around on this chord, too. Play it on our DbMaj7, and for good measure, play it over an AbMaj7, as well. The same twists and turns in the line work perfectly well over each of these chords, but you will hear how things that sounded “inside” originally are now more “outside” of the harmony.
5. More About Altered
Ex. 5 uses this same line over A7alt resolving to Dmin7. Note that we are modifying the last note to land on the Dmin9 sound.
6. Pentatonics and Progressions
Ex. 6 shows this idea over a ii-V-I chord progression. Let’s use our C minor pentatonic on yet another chord, this time an Amin7b5. We then go to another pentatonic (F minor) over the D7alt chord, then resolve to G minor. The great thing about this sort of repurposing is that a lot of our more “inside” playing takes on a new life and a different sound over different chords.
I’ve given you seven different chords on which the same pentatonic line can work, so experiment with different harmonies and it will help you breathe new life into your improvised lines.
“Pentatonic scales have a nice sweep to them, covering more territory than seven-or eight-note scales. They’re also nicely spaced to play angular lines,” says acclaimed keyboardist George Whitty, who has worked with David Sanborn, Herbie Hancock, Carlos Santana, and the Brecker Brothers. Whitty teaches lessons around the world via Skype at jazzlessonsonskype.com and is the Professor of Jazz Piano at artistworks.com. He’s also the creator of BURN, a fun, flexible, play-along app for iOS. Whitty’s latest release with his group Third Rail is entitled Ignition: Live Across Europe. For more info visit gwhitty.com.