They’re crazy!…They’re exotic!…They’re out of control!…They’re showing off for the camera!…It’s Pentatonics Gone Wild!
Gone are the days when pentatonic scales had to stay in their “home key" -- now they’re being used everywhere to create many dissonant, exotic, and colorful sounds. When you start out on the guitar, usually the first thing you learn is the minor pentatonic scale (or call it the 'blues scale' if you like, which is the same thing but with one “African” blues note added, the b5th). And usually you were matching the key of a chord to the key of a pentatonic scale: for example, G minor pentatonic is played over a G7, which gives the classic bluesy rock sound. It’s a well-worn sound that has its place, but it tends to be too traditional and predictable for advancing jazz (and rock) guitarists who want to experiment with more modern harmonies.
Let’s start out by looking at the minor pentatonic in 5 positions, which allows you to easily cover the neck. Most of us learn position 1 when we start taking lessons. This is a good start, but now, using the scale diagram, add four more positions if you haven’t done so already. If you follow the fret numbers on the diagram you can play G minor pentatonic in five positions, over the whole neck. Once you have learned that, you can begin transposing it into other keys.
Now the fun begins. Instead of simply matching a scale key to a chord key, such as D minor pentatonic to Dminor7, we are going to think in terms of borrowing pentatonics from other keys in order to create more color in our solos (or in our composing and song-writing). There are many types of pentatonic scales that this can be applied to, but today we are just going to apply it to the minor pentatonics.


Technique 1. A classic Wes Montgomery technique is to play the D minor pentatonic over a G7 chord. (Think of it as ii over V). This adds the chord extensions of the G7 - the 9th, 11th, 13th, - giving more color than simply playing a G7 arpeggio. If you apply this technique to all the dominant 7 chords of a standard 12-bar blues form, your solo immediately becomes more colorful, adding a ‘chill factor’ that only those chord extensions can give.
Technique 2. Over a simple G major7 chord, we are going to borrow the F# minor pentatonic. Playing F# minor pentatonic over a G major7 chord gives a very modern sound to a chord that can sound too “tonicized” (i.e., too resolved). The effect of this application is less of a resolved feel: adding a darker color than simply playing all the diatonic notes of G major, or the G major7 arpeggio.
Technique 3. To take an altered dominant chord more ‘outside’, and emphasize the dissonant nature of the chord, play a minor pentatonic scale that is a minor third away from the root of your chord. For example, play a Bb minor pentatonic over a G7 chord. This emphasizes the altered notes, and thus greater dissonance: the b9, #9, #5, and b5. This application will strongly want to resolve then to some type of tonic C chord.
Technique 4. Play a minor pentatonic scale one whole step up from a tonic minor chord. For example, play the A minor pentatonic scale against a G minor7 chord. Once again, this emphasizes the color tones of the tonic chord, the 9th, 11th, and 13th. This creates a much more interesting and modern harmony, as opposed to simply playing the G natural minor scale.
Technique 5. Play a minor pentatonic scale that is a major third away from a tonic major7 chord. For example, play E minor pentatonic over a C major7 chord. Emphasizing the 9, major7, 13 and 5, this again gives a more interesting modern sound against a traditional major7 chord.
For Practice. Lay down your own rhythm tracks for some ‘play-along’ practice. Really hearing how the different scales sound over the chords will help in internalizing this new application of the scales.
Finally, these are all some good applications that can add a modern twist to your soloing. The most important element, however, is always the melodic nature of the improvised line. Rather than simply playing scales over chords, a solo ‘works’ well when it has a melodic or compositional quality to it, rather than just being a string of scales (although to practice and first get these sounds in our ears, just playing the scales is fine). The final aim is to use the scale material to craft melodic ideas, which will result in a more mature and more ‘moving’ improvised solo. Afterall, our goal is to improvise in a way that is inspiring, exciting, and tells a melodic story.


 Pentatonics Gone Wild!   July 2008                                                                                                         HOME
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