Pentatonic Tricks


Introduction:

Let's explore pentatonic scales again as they are a great way to open up your playing in an intervalic sense. All too often we tend to stick to smaller intervals when executing a scalar idea - we get stuck playing 2nds mostly, but pentatonics are a great way to increase our intervalic palette simply because larger intervals exist between adjacent scale tones - not only do we get 2nds, but we get some 3rds as well. And 4ths and 5ths are more easily accessible using the familiar pentatonic patterns.

In this lesson we re-examine diatonic harmony and modes with pentatonics in mind. Then we'll diverge slightly and explore new ways in which we can approach 7th chords. Finally, we'll blow the doors off all the rules and look at pentatonics from a "12 tone" perspective.
 


Diatonic Harmony Revisited

 

Recall from Lesson 11, we discussed the seven diatonic triads for a major key. Also recall how we use Roman numerals to denote the "harmonic essence" for all major keys. The "one" chord is major, the "two" chord is minor, and so on. Here are the symbols to refresh your memory...

I     ii-     iii-     IV     V     vi-     vii°

 

Let's examine these harmonic symbols with pentatonics in mind and let's work in the key of C major for simplicity's sake.

The "One" Chord:  C maj.7
Analysis: 1 29 3 411 5 613 7 1
 Harmony:  C Major Triad: c   e   g     c
C maj.7 Chord: c   e   g   b c
Scales: C Major (Ionian): c d e f g a b c
C Major Pentatonic: c d e   g a   c

The table above shows the "one" chord and its respective "chord-scales" - C Ionian and C major pentatonic. Note the ' f ' note (in red) is an "avoid tone". Remember, care is needed when playing this note while soloing and it should be avoided when comping (accompanying a soloist). This is nothing new to us, but some things are worth repeating.

We also know from our study of modes and relative minor keys that A natural minor is the relative minor scale to C major, and that A minor pentatonic is the relative minor pentatonic scale to C major pentatonic.

The "Six" Chord:  A-7
Analysis: 1 29 b3 411 5 b6/b13 b7 1
 Harmony:  Am Triad: a   c   e     a
A-7 Chord: a   c   e   g a
Scales: A Natural Minor (Aeolian): a b c d e f g a
A Minor Pentatonic: a   c d e   g a

Again, we see the same ' f ' functioning as an avoid note in this context. But wait... it also happens to be the "characteristic note" for Aeolian mode. I find this interesting, don't you?

If we look at the other diatonic chords for the key of C we see some interesting relationships:

  1. Each major chord has a major pentatonic scale associated with it starting at the same root.
  2. Each minor chord has a minor pentatonic scale associated with it starting at the same root.
  3. The major and minor pentatonic scales are "relatively" related to each other and are separated by a distance of a minor third.
  4. Each pentatonic scale is diatonic to the relative major key.

Check it out:


Major Pentatonic Scales in C Major: C F G
And Their Relative Minor Pentatonics: Am Dm Em

 

The 3 Minor Pentatonic
Scales in C Major:
Dm Em Am
d f g a c d
1 b3 4 5 b7 1
e g a b d e
1 b3 4 5 b7 1
a c d e g a
1 b3 4 5 b7 1

 

The 3 Major Pentatonic
Scales in C Major:
F G C
f g a c d f
1 2 3 5 6 1
g a b d e g
1 2 3 5 6 1
c d e g a c
1 2 3 5 6 1

 

I must admit, it somewhat defies me why it took me this long (so late in the lesson plan) to mention these somewhat obvious relationships, but at least it has been stated now. With this knowledge and the information presented in the lessons on modal harmony, we have the foundation for modal rock. (Pink Floyd comes to mind.)

What about that damn "seven" chord?

Well, the "seven" chord doesn't directly relate to a diatonic minor pentatonic scale starting at the same root - it's kind of the odd-ball of the bunch. For instance, in the key of C, a B-7(b5) does not relate to a Bm pentatonic scale because Bm pent. contains an F# which is nondiatonic to the key of C. However, if you were to flatten this note making it an F natural you do come up with an interesting sounding "pentatonic" (5 note) scale which is indeed diatonic to the key of C. Check it out:

R b3 4 b5 b7 R
B D E F A B

Now, here's a question for you... of the 6 pentatonic scales mentioned previously (C, Dm, Em, F, G, and Am), which one do you think would be the best choice to use when playing over a B-7(b5) chord and why? I won't answer this question yet as I want you to think about it.

Let's continue spelling out the chord-scales like we did above for the "one" and "six" chords and then get into some pentatonic "trickery":

The "Two" Chord:  D-7
Analysis: 1 29 b3 411 5 613 b7 1
 Harmony:  Dm Triad: d   f   a     d
D-7 Chord: d   f   a   c d
Scales: D Dorian: d e f g a b c d
D Minor Pentatonic: d   f g a   c d

The "Four" Chord:  F maj.7
Analysis: 1 29 3 #4/#11 5 613 7 1
 Harmony:  F Major Triad: f   a   c     f
F maj.7 Chord: f   a   c   e f
Scales: F Lydian: f g a b c d e f
F Major Pentatonic: f g a   c d   f

And to finish off the key:

The "Three" Chord:  E-7
Analysis: 1 b2b9 b3 411 5 b6/b13 b7 1
 Harmony:  Em Triad: e   g   b     e
E-7 Chord: e   g   b   d e
Scales: E Phrygian: e f g a b c d e
E Minor Pentatonic: e   g a b   d e

Again, notice ' f ' is an "avoid note" yet it is also the "characteristic note" for Phrygian mode. We also have ' c ' as an "avoid note" too. It's also an "avoid note" below on the "five" chord:

The "Five" Chord:  G7
Analysis: 1 29 3 411 5 613 b7 1
 Harmony:  G Major Triad: g   b   d     g
G7 Chord: g   b   d   f g
Scales: G Mixolydian: g a b c d e f g
G Major Pentatonic: g a b   d e   g

 

Summary: I use the diatonic chord symbols (I, ii-, iii-, etc.) to encapsulate these ideas and relationships. At a minimum, the symbols help remind me of the connection between the modes and the pentatonic scales and I hope you can see why. The symbols are powerful and they can really deepen your musical vision.

A Slight Digression: Can you see how the diatonic chord symbols can also be useful when it comes to playing 6ths on the guitar? Sixths are little 2-note structures that are usually played on every other string on the guitar. For instance, you can play diatonic 6ths on the high E and G strings of the guitar. One way to help you get around a key is to think about the types of chords that exist in that key (use the diatonic symbols). Then translate that knowledge to the shape of each 6th. Afterall, these shapes are contained in the bigger diatonic chord structures. Think about this for a moment and more importantly, experiment a bit to really see what I mean. Play some 6ths in the key of G. Here's a drawing to really get my point across. Can this type of thinking be useful when playing other types of intervals?
 


Pentatonic Trickery

Okay, basically what we have above is a bunch of abstractions (or permutations) using natural notes: pentatonic scales, modes, 7th chords, triads (arpeggios), etc. What's cool is that the pentatonics have a pruning effect by eliminating some of the natural notes (we get 5 natural notes instead of 7), hence, they open up one's sound (intervalic palette.) And we get to use the cool pentatonic fingerings!!! Yes!!! Life *IS* good afterall.

Now, doesn't it make sense that if we are playing over a C maj.7 chord (functioning as a "one" chord) we can also play a Dm and/or a Em pentatonic scale over this chord? And why not? We know that both of these scales contain diatonic notes to the key of C, so it only makes sense then that these scales would be available to us when soloing. This is a cool idea. Check it out, let's analyze these scales relative to the "one" chord in the key of C and see what we learn:

The "One" Chord:  C maj.7
Analysis: 1 29 3 411 5 613 7 1
 Harmony:  C Major Triad: c   e   g     c
C maj.7 Chord: c   e   g   b c
Scales: C Major: c d e f g a b c
C Major Pentatonic: c d e   g a   c
Trickery: D Minor Pentatonic: c d   f g a   c
E Minor Pentatonic:   d e   g a b  

As we can see from our analysis, Em pentatonic is the better scale to use instead of the Dm pent. because it doesn't contain any "avoid notes". In fact, it contains the 2 available tensions (9 and 13) and 3 chord tones minus the root. Now, as a playing exercise, record yourself playing a C maj.7 chord and solo over it using an Em pentatonic scale. It's a totally hip sound.

If you solo over C maj.7 using a Dm pent. scale you'll encounter some "weirdness" when you play the ' f ' note and that makes sense because ' f ' is a half-step (or a minor 9th) above the 3rd of the chord, the ' e '; it's an "avoid note" as stated earlier. (Remember the lesson on tensions?)

Furthermore, because Dm pent. doesn't contain an ' e ' note, the ' f ' note would never get resolved down a half-step if one were to strictly adhere to the Dm pentatonic scale while playing over the "one" chord, the C.

Let's continue working in this way to see what other jems are in store for us. For simplicity's sake, we'll just be adding the minor pentatonic scales under the "trickery" catagory with the understanding that each minor pentatonic scale has a relative major pentatonic scale that could easily be substituted in our analysis. Check it out:
 

The "Two" Chord:  D-7
Analysis: 1 29 b3 411 5 613 b7 1
 Harmony:  Dm Triad: d   f   a     d
D-7 Chord: d   f   a   c d
Scales: D Dorian: d e f g a b c d
D Minor Pentatonic: d   f g a   c d
Trickery: E Minor Pentatonic: d e   g a b   d
A Minor Pentatonic: d e   g a   c d
The "Three" Chord:  E-7
Analysis: 1 b2b9 b3 411 5 b6/b13 b7 1
 Harmony:  Em Triad: e   g   b     e
E-7 Chord: e   g   b   d e
Scales: E Phrygian: e f g a b c d e
E Minor Pentatonic: e   g a b   d e
Trickery: D Minor Pentatonic:   f g a   c d  
A Minor Pentatonic: e   g a   c d e
The "Four" Chord:  F maj.7
Analysis: 1 29 3 #4/#11 5 613 7 1
 Harmony:  F Major Triad: f   a   c     f
F maj.7 Chord: f   a   c   e f
Scales: F Lydian: f g a b c d e f
F Major Pentatonic: f g a   c d   f
Trickery: Dm Pent. (Same as F maj. Pent.) f g a   c d   f
E Minor Pentatonic:   g a b   d e  
A Minor Pentatonic:   g a   c d e  
The "Five" Chord:  G7
Analysis: 1 29 3 411 5 613 b7 1
 Harmony:  G Major Triad: g   b   d     g
G7 Chord: g   b   d   f g
Scales: G Mixolydian: g a b c d e f g
G Major Pentatonic: g a b   d e   g
Trickery: D Minor Pentatonic g a   c d   f g
Em Pent. (Same as G maj. Pent.) g a b   d e   g
A Minor Pentatonic: g a   c d e   g
The "Six" Chord:  A-7
Analysis: 1 29 b3 411 5 b6/b13 b7 1
 Harmony:  Am Triad: a   c   e     a
A-7 Chord: a   c   e   g a
Scales: A Natural Minor (Aeolian): a b c d e f g a
A Minor Pentatonic: a   c d e   g a
Trickery: D Minor Pentatonic a   c d   f g a
E Minor Pentatonic a b   d e   g a

 

Summary:

I've just presented a lot of information above, but let's see if I can distill it down to something a little more palatable:

  1. For both I maj.7 and IV maj.7, a minor pentatonic scale starting at the 3rd of each chord works nicely. This yields the following notes: 9, 3, 5, 13, 7. For example: In the key of C, play Em pent. over C maj.7, or play Am pent. over F maj.7

  2. For a Lydian sounding pentatonic scale, play a half-step below the root of a major 7th chord. In the key of C, play an Em pent. over F maj.7, the "four" chord. This yields the following sounding notes: 9, 3, #11, 13, 7 You can also think of this scale as starting at the 7th of the major 7th chord.

  3. For both the ii-7 and vi-7, play a minor pentatonic scale starting at the 5th of each chord. This scale yields the following notes: 1, 9, 11, 5, b7. For example: In the key of C, play an Am pent. over D-7, or play an Em pent. over A-7.

  4. For a Dorian sounding pentatonic scale, play a minor pentatonic scale starting a major second above the chord's root or starting at the 9th of the minor 7th chord. This yields the following notes: 9, 11, 5, 13, 1. For example: In the key of C, play an Em pent. over D-7.

  5. Now funny things happen over the "three" chord. We don't really have a "nice" sounding scale to work with. D minor pentatonic over E-7 does kind of yield a Phrygian sounding scale, but one will probably want to resolve the b9, an ' f ', down a half-step to ' e '. The same could be said with the ' c ' note wanting to resolve down a half-step to ' b '. So experiment and see if your ear "likes" something. If you do play a Dm pent. and/or an Am pent. over E-7 (in a Phrygian context) try to figure out ways to combine the two pentatonic scales or at the very least figure out ways to resolve the "avoid notes" down a half-step - your phrasing will need to be carefully planned, as is the case in any playing situation really.

  6. Now the "five" chord is not as fruitful as one might hope in terms of playing "tricked-up" diatonic pentatonic scales, but here is a trick that does indeed work well. In fact, this trick will work over any major chord (and dominant 7th and/or major 7th chord). Simply play the "blues" scale starting at the same root. In the key of C major, over the "five" chord, or G7, play a G minor pentatonic scale and/or a G "blues" scale. These two scales along with G major pentatonic are more than enough notes to choose from. In fact, all of rock-n-roll and the blues can be summed up in terms of these 3 scales. Really.

    And to review, the "blues" scale is just a minor pentatonic scale with a b5 added in for good measure. Check it out:

    The "Five" Chord:  G7
    Analysis: 1 29 b3/#9 3 411 b5 5 613 b7 1
     Harmony:  G Major Triad: g     b     d     g
    G7 Chord: g     b     d   f g
    Scales: G Mixolydian: g a   b c   d e f g
    G Major Pentatonic: g a   b     d e   g
    Trickery: G Minor Pentatonic: g   Bb   c   d   f g
    G "Blues" Scale: g   Bb   c Db d   f g

Hopefully, you've learned some new ways to use pentatonic scales at this point. With all that has been said in this lesson up to this point I should probably stop here, but I won't because I want you to get your money's worth. So let's change gears slightly and talk about 7th chords.



 

However, you may want to take a yoga break before proceeding.


 


Rethinking 7th Chords

Here's a cool way to think about (and play) 7th chords. Think of them as triads with bass notes. For instance, a C maj.7 chord can also be viewed as an Em triad with a C in the bass. This is notated as Em/C. Continue along this line and we get the following "rewrites" for the key of C major:

Rethinking 7th Chords in the Key of C Major

This simplifies things immensely. It brings us back to the land of triads - simple, pure, three-note strutures. Instead of playing a voicing for a C maj.7 chord, one could play an Em triad instead. (This assumes that the bass player is playing a C in the bass. Otherwise, you'll just sound like you're playing Em.) Check it out:

7th Chord Chord Tones Triad / Bass Note
C maj.7 c   e   g   b Em / C
D-7 d   f   a   c F / D
E-7 e   g   b   d G / E
F maj.7 f   a   c   e Am / F
G7 g   b   d   f / G
A-7 a   c   e   g C / A
B-7(b5) b   d   f   a Dm / B

In each case above, the triad inside the 7th chord is the 3rd, 5th, and 7th of the overall 7th chord. A nice little abstraction, really.

One could continue along this line and do the same thing with 9th chords. That is, one could play the 5th, 7th, and 9th of a chord simply by playing a diatonic triad starting at the 5th of the 9th chord. (Yeah, I know, that's a mouthful, but think about it - it's a very simple idea.)

For instance, one could play a G major triad (g, b, d) over a C maj.9 chord (c, e, g, b, d). One could also play an A minor triad over a D-9 chord and so on. Try experimenting with this idea and see where you can play triads as part of larger chords. For instance, can a triad cover all of the available tensions for a chord?

Hmm... I wonder.

Look at the "four" chord in a major key... say, G maj.7 in the key of D major.

The available tensions for this chord are diatonic notes a ninth above each chord tone - that gives us 3 tensions and the following structure:

The  IV  Chord R 3 5 7 9 #11 13
G maj.7 (9, #11, 13) g b d f# a c# e

We've got 5 triads hanging out inside this beast! Check it out:

  1. G major   ==>   g,   b,   d

  2. B minor   ==>   b,   d,   f#

  3. D major   ==>   d,   f#,   a

  4. F# minor ==>   f#,   a,   c#

  5. A major   ==>   a,   c#,   e

Now, over this chord, improvise using all 5 triads. That is, solo using notes in a D major triad over the G chord and hear how it sounds. Then play an F#m triad over G major and so on. Each triad yields a different flavor, a different mood. Simply amazing.

After a little experimentation you'll discover some great little triadic "tricks" or "short-cuts" which you can apply to your playing over time. Just take a tune, analyze it using diatonic harmony, figure out available tensions over each chord, then apply some of these ideas to your soloing and voila! That's it.

NOTE: This goes without saying, but I'll say it anyways... You can always, always, use chord tones as note choices when soloing. A chord tone will never fail you. In fact, as an exercise, I encourage you to solo over a tune while playing only chord tones.

TIP: When soloing, it's a good idea to start (and end) your solos on a chord tone. Why? Because chord tones never let you down. They always sound "right". Starting a solo on "the right foot" can't hurt. And if you end on a good note, people will remember that too. If you do start a solo on a note other than a chord tone, your next best bet is an available tension. Stay away from the avoid notes when starting or ending phrases unless you want to sound "out". As I said in the lesson on melodic minor scales, it's hard to sound "out" without sounding like crap, so be careful.

More Pentatonic Trickery: Remember the question I posed earlier regarding B-7(5b) and what pentatonic scale would be a good choice to use when soloing over this chord? Well, if you look at what triad is contained in B-7(b5) starting at the third of the chord, I believe you have your anwser.

B-7(b5) can be rewritten as Dm/B, so doesn't it make sense that a D minor pentatonic would be a good choice? Check it out:

Dm Pent. over
B-7(b5)
b3 b5 b6 / b13 b7 b9 b3
D F G A C D

If we follow this kind of logic and apply it to the other chords diatonic to a major key, we'll see that we've already discovered the other "hidden" pentatonic scales in our discussions above. For instance, C maj.7 can be rewritten as Em/C, therefore, we can play an E minor pentatonic scale over C maj.7, but we already knew that. F maj.7 ==> Am/F ==> A minor pentatonic over F maj.7, etc.
 


12-Tone Pentatonics

Finally, this last idea is a simple one yet extremely powerful. If we write out all the minor pentatonic scales and analyze the notes relative to some chord, say E maj.7, we expose all 12 ways in which pentatonics can be used. Note... if we change the base chord to an E-7, of course the 12 pentatonics are going to sound differently, yet the basic idea remains: analyze each minor pentatonic scale to some root and see what you get.
 
 

E maj.7 E G# B D#
R 3 5 7

T h e    B a s i s
 
 
 

Cm Pent. C Eb F G Bb C
#5 / b13 7 b9 b3 / #9 b5 / #11 #5 / b13

Gm Pent. G Bb C D F G
b3 / #9 b5 / #11 #5 / b13 b7 b9 b3 / #9

Dm Pent. D F G A C D
b7 b9 b3 / #9 4 / 11 #5 / b13 b7

 
 

Am Pent. A C D E G A
4 / 11 #5 / b13 b7 R b3 / #9 4 / 11

Em Pent. E G A B D E
R b3 / #9 4 / 11 5 b7 R

Bm Pent. B D E F# A B
5 b7 R 9 4 / 11 5

 
 

F#m Pent. F# A B C# E F#
9 4 / 11 5 6 / 13 R 9

C#m Pent. C# E F# G# B C#
6 / 13 R 9 3 5 6 / 13

G#m Pent. G# B C# D# F# G#
3 5 6 / 13 7 9 3

 
 

D#m Pent. D# F# G# A# C# D#
7 9 3 #11 6 / 13 7

A#m Pent. A# C# D# E# G# A#
#11 6 / 13 7 b9 3 #11

Fm Pent. F Ab Bb C Eb F
b9 3 b5 / #11 #5 / b13 7 #11

 

Now all that remains is for you to play these 12 minor pentatonc scales over an E maj.7 chord. Break out the tape recorders, you should know the drill by now. Do the same thing for an E-7 and an E7 chord. At the very least, if you do not want to use a tape recorder, use the low E string on the guitar as a drone or pedal-tone and improvise over it instead.

As my great guitarist and friend Sten Höstfält said to me once, "Anything can sound beautiful if it's played with conviction." Now do yourself a big favor and listen to some Ornette Coleman records. Then listen to some John Coltrane and Charlie Parker recordings. Afterwards, listen to some of Miles Davis albums - "Kind of Blue", "Bitches Brew", "Big Fun", "Pangaea", "Agharta", etc. When you think you've had enough, then listen to some Jimi Hendrix. Then come back to this exercise and play it again, this time, with conviction. Beauty will follow.