I’ve saved the broadest application of a scale to a chord for last, because it is often used as a jumping-off point for taking a solo—from the most basic and “inside” playing to very advanced and sometimes seemingly atonal excursions. This month we explore some of the many applications of the Pentatonic scale for your soloing.
First of all, CLICK HERE to download a ZIP file of all the sheet music examples for this lesson. We normally put them with the text as JPGs, but there are a whole lot of them, and this way, you can open them in a separate window, or print them out (or put them on your iPad) for placing on your music rack.
Five Notes To Rule Us All
The pentatonic scale is one of the most universal groupings of tones found in the music of cultures from around the world. The name derives from the Greek word “pente,” meaning five, and “tonic,” meaning tone. The common pentatonic scale starting on C is shown in Ex. 1, consisting of the root, second, third, fifth and sixth notes of the major scale. If you play it over a C major triad, C6, or Cmaj7 chord it sounds very consonant, peaceful, and “inside.” It outlines the triad chord tones with an added sixth, avoiding the non-chord tone of the fourth step of the scale, and the slight tension of the major seventh note.
Ex. 2 shows some licks that you can practice to get the pentatonic scale under your fingers. If you absorbed the lessons from last month’s column on the major and minor blues scales, you should notice that the pentatonic scale is very close to the major blues scale, only omitting the flatted third note (see Ex. 3). So when analyzing some solos it may be unclear which of those two scales the licks are coming from. Not to worry.
The Minor Pentatonic Scale
Just as we learn that the major key has a related minor key, we can apply the same construct to the use of the pentatonic scale. The keys of C major and A minor share the same key signature, and the same notes of the major scale can be used over the relative minor (and is called the natural minor scale as we learned in the August, 2014 column on scales and modes). So if we play the same five notes from the C pentatonic on an Amin7 chord it sounds great. Rearrange the scale tones so you start on the A note and you can describe the scale as being the root, minor third, fourth, fifth, and flatted seventh (see Ex. 4a). Go back and play the licks from Ex. 3 against an Amin7 chord and they sound great, but again, very “inside” since the notes mostly outline the minor seventh chord, with only one “color” tone (the fourth, or 11th). Compare that scale to the blues scale we learned last month and you see that it is only missing one note, the flatted fifth (see Ex. 4b).
At this point you might understand these two scales, but you’ll need to put in the time to learn them in all 12 keys and to get the fingerings down pat so you can execute them freely. Go ahead, I’ll wait for you!
Now It Gets Interesting
The fun starts when you utilize pentatonic scales that are not based on the root tone of the chord. By superimposing different scales or key centers onto a given chord, your note choices become more colorful. This is the concept that jazz and fusion artists explored to create more sonic variety while they jammed on more modal songs and one-chord vamps. I’ll take each chord type and show you some starting points.
Major seventh and major sixth chords: Use the major pentatonic based on the fifth note of the chord/scale; in the key of C this would be G major pentatonic (see Ex. 5). You can also think of this as the minor pentatonic starting on the third note of the scale/chord; this is the relative minor (E) of the superimposed key center (G). This gives you the fifth, sixth, seventh, second/ninth, and third of the chord, avoiding the root tone. It’s a bit more colorful, but still sounds very nice and even “pretty.”
Using the major pentatonic starting on the second note of the scale (D major/B minor pentatonic), gives you the second/ninth, third, sharp 11th, sixth, and major seventh (see Ex. 6). This gives you a Lydian mode sound, but causes you to center on more of the color tones than if you thought of the scale/mode.
Minor seventh and 6th chords: use the Major Pentatonic based on the flatted seventh note of the chord/scale; in the key of C this would be the Bb major pentatonic (or G minor pentatonic), which gives you the flatted seventh, root, ninth, fourth/11th, and fifth. (see Ex. 7). Then try the major pentatonic based on the fourth tone of the scale (F in the keys of C major or D minor). Both of these choices still sound “inside” and can be thought of as still relating to the Dorian mode we discussed in the August 2014 column. These choices also work well over suspended fourth and minor 11th chords.
Dominant seventh chords: using the minor pentatonic based on the root tone of the chord (or the major pentatonic a minor third above the root) gives you a sound very close to the blues scale (see Ex. 8). The next choices all offer a sound that works well when your dominant seventh chord has a raised or flatted ninth. Try the major pentatonic based on the raised fourth/flatted fifth of the scale (Gb major or Eb minor pentatonic in the key of C) to get the sound of a very “altered” chord: it gives you the flatted fifth, raised fifth/flat 13th, flatted seventh, flat ninth, and sharp ninth. The major pentatonic based on the flatted sixth (Ab major /F minor pentatonic in the key of C) gives you the raised fifth/flat 13th, flatted seventh, root, sharp ninth, and the 11th. Finally, a major pentatonic starting up a half-step from the root (Db major in the key of C) gives you the flat ninth, sharp ninth, fourth, raised fifth/flat 13th, and flat seventh.
Compared to the print version of this story in our November 2014 issue, I have included more examples at keyboardmag.com/november2014 to support these concepts, but I’m only dipping our toes into this water to define some terms and concepts we can use to analyze solos such as those Adam Holzman provided us back in the July 2014 issue. Next month we’ll explore how you can use these scales, or fragments to move further outside the tonal center, and we’ll look at a few more five-note scale concepts.