Pentatonic Soup

Many years ago I made a diagram of parallel Major and minor pentatonic scales for a student who was working on improvising on an A blues. It’s worth looking over because there are many times when switching from Major to minor pentatonic is useful, such as on blues tunes or over funky or soulful I-IV chord progressions. I often use minor blues or pentatonic ideas on turnarounds in Major keys.

Major vs minor pentatonic – A

Read left to right to see the two fingerings for Maj and min that are overlapping with each other. The two scales only have two notes out of five in common.

Read top to bottom on one column to learn all of the fingerings for Maj or min pentatonic. Note that the fingerings are the same but the pitches are different relative to the tonic.

Pentatonic scales are extremely useful and can be applied in some very creative ways, but the first thing to know about them is that the Major pentatonic is 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 while the minor is 1, b3, 4, 5, b7. So in C that would be C D E G A and C Eb F G Bb respectively. The scales can also be thought of as being relative instead of parallel. F Ab Bb C Eb spells F minor pentatonic while Ab Bb C Eb F spells Ab Major.

A simple way to look at the pentatonic scales is that the Major pentatonic works well with Major chords because it contains a major triad (1 3 5) plus two notes that are not very dissonant to the triad (2 and 6). It is basically a Major 6/9 arpeggio and sounds good with Maj7, 6, or Dom7 chords. A great deal of country, bluegrass, rock, folk, and swing melodic material can be traced back to Maj pentatonic. Add some chromatics and you can sound really hip! The minor pentatonic works well over minor chords because it contains a min7 chord (1 b3 5 b7) plus the 4th. It’s also commonly used over major blues progressions in electric blues and rock. It’s safe to say that the minor pentatonic scale is the basic scale for rock improvisation, though it is worth noting that virtually every great rock soloist has a musical vocabulary that is greater than just the minor pentatonic. Even Stevie!

A more sophisticated way of looking at pentatonics is to view them as a pitch set and think about what chords they could potentially be used with, and what extension and chord tones they imply as a result.

Examples over a C root

D E F# A B                  2 3 #4 6 7         Maj7 with a 9 and b5/#11     CMaj9(#11), Cmaj9(b5)

G A B D E                   5 6 7 2 3             Maj9 with a 6                            CMaj9(13)

C D E G A                  1 2 3 5 6             Maj triad with 6 and 9                C9, CMaj9, C6/9

F G A C D                  4 5 6 1 2             Sus4 with a 6 and 9                   Cmin6/9, Cmin(Maj9), Cmin13, Csus4

Bb C D F G                b7 1 2 4 5           7sus4 with a 9                           Cmin9, C9sus4

Eb F G Bb C              b3 4 5 b7 1         min7 with a 4                            Cmin7(11)

Gb Ab Bb Db Eb       b5 b6 b7 b2 b3   altered 9ths and 5ths, b7          C7alt, C7(#/b9 #/b5)

D pentatonic implies C Lydian.

G pentatonic implies C Major.

C pentatonic is typical for chords based on a C triad

D min (F) pentatonic over a Cmin chord implies C dorian.

G min (Bb) pentatonic is a great way to get a Cmin9 sound.

C min (Eb) is typical for chords based on a Cmin triad.

Gb pentatonic contains all the notes of C altered except the 1 and 3. And it’s a lot easier to play!

My response to people who tell me that they are tired of pentatonics is usually to say, “You have not looked at them closely enough.” It’s amazing how new uses for old shapes will pop up again and again.


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