Pentatonic Scales

A note to all the rock, pop, funk, country and blues players out there

You probably came to this node looking for some simple information about the minor or major pentatonic scale, and so are going to get a bit more than you bargained for. This is because, well, there is so much more to pentatonics than that. If all you want is information about the "regular" pentatonic scale, just read the section about the minor pentatonic scale and/or the section about the major pentatonic scale and Bob's your uncle. (Also, you can check out Five modes of minor pentatonic for guitar, a writeup about pentatonics directed at guitarists.)

Introduction

A pentatonic scale is a scale that consists of 5 notes (tones). Any combination of 5 notes will constitute a pentatonic scale. Some pentatonic scales are more common than others - the minor pentatonic scale being the most common of all, followed closely by the major pentatonic scale. But the following scale: C, D, Eb, E, F is also a pentatonic scale. Probably not your first choice when improvising, but it is important to remember that there are more than two or three or thirty pentatonic scales.

I will name some important pentatonic scales, and explain how to build them. Lower down, I will also make a chart of which pentatonic scale can be played over which chords.

The minor pentatonic scale

This is the most popular pentatonic scale. You can easily hear it if you listen to just about any blues album. In fact, many blues players use this scale exclusively! It is:

  • A minor pentatonic: A, C, D, E, G

    The minor pentatonic can be constructed in the following ways:

    1. It is the first, third, fourth, fifth and seventh degrees of the minor scale. (The minor scale being A B C D E F G).
    2. Start with the root (in this case A), and build the scale using a minor third, a major second, a major second and a minor third.
    You might notice that it is also the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 7th degrees of the dorian scale (A, B, C, D, E, F#, G) and the phrygian scale (A, Bb, C, D, E, F, G). This is the reason that you can play the minor pentatonic scale over any minor seventh chord.

    Some other examples of minor pentatonic scales:
    C minor pentatonic: C, Eb, F, G, Bb
    F# minor pentatonic: F#, A, B, C#, E
    D# minor pentatonic: D#, F#, G#, A#, C#

    The minor scale can be used to solo over an entire blues progression. Often, the blues scale is used instead. The blues scale is just the minor pentatonic scale with the blue note added. The blue note is the #11 (or b5) - (the note between the 4th and the 5th). So the A minor blues scale is : A, C, D, D# (Eb), E, G. (This scale has 6 notes, so is not pentatonic).

    The major pentatonic scale

    The major pentatonic scale is actually the same as the minor pentatonic scale, but starting on the second note. You hear this pentatonic a lot in country music, although you may also hear the minor pentatonic.

  • C major pentatonic is: C, D, E, G, A

    1. It is the first, third, fourth, fifth and sixth degrees of the major scale. (The major scale being C D E F G A B).
    2. Start with the root (in this case C), and build the scale using a major second, a major second, a minor third, and a major second.
    3. Take the minor pentatonic of the relative minor, and start on its second note. (The relative minor is a minor third down from the major, so the relative minor of C major is A minor. The relative minor of F# is D# etc.) Note that if you find it easier to construct a major pentatonic, to find the minor pentatonic, construct its relative major's pentatonic. So for E minor, construct the G major pentatonic, and start on the fifth note (G, A, B, D, E -> E, G, A, B, D).
    You might notice that it is also the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th degrees of the lydian scale (C, D, E, F#, G, A, B) and the mixolydian scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, Bb). There are other scales it works on, notably the lydian b7 scale (C, D, E, F#, G, A, Bb), but there are other, better pentatonics for that scale.

    Thus you can play the major pentatonic with happiness and fervor over any major 7th, and any 7th chord (that warrants the mixolydian/lydian b7 scales).

    Some other examples of major pentatonic scales:
    Eb major pentatonic: Eb, F, G, Bb, C
    F# major pentatonic: F#, G#, A#, C#, D#
    Ab major pentatonic: Ab, Bb, C, Eb, F

    The minor 6 pentatonic scale

    This is a very useful pentatonic scale in jazz music, but not so much in blues or rock.

  • A minor 6 pentatonic: A, C, D, E, F#

    The minor pentatonic can be constructed in the following ways:

    1. It is the first, third, fourth, fifth and sixth degrees of the melodic minor scale. It has a major sixth. (The melodic minor scale being A B C D E F# G#).
    2. Start with the root (in this case A), and build the scale using a minor third, a major second, a major second and a major second.
    3. Take the minor pentatonic and lower the seventh one half step.
    The minor 6 pentatonic scale can be used over a minor 6 chord, but also over many other chords. For example, you might notice that it is basically a D7 add 9 chord (D, F#, A, C, E) with the notes in order from A, so can be played over most D7 chords (ones without altered 9s). I have written a chart outlining the chords you can play the minor 6 pentatonic over below.

    Some other interesting pentatonic scales

    There are literally hundreds of pentatonic scales. Most are useless for all practical purposes, but there are several which an improviser might find very useful. Now I must confess I have yet a long way to go in researching pentatonic scales, but I will list some of the more common of the less common scales. These are a personal choice and you or Jerry Bergonzi or Michael Brecker or McCoy Tyner may disagree with my choices and think there are more important scales. The only advice I can give here is work out many pentatonic scales, see what chords you can use them on, and find out which ones you like.

    In Sen scale

    The In Sen scale is a traditional Japanese scale.

  • A In Sen : A, Bb, D, E, G

    This is part of the A phrygian mode, and can be used to give a more "oriental" feel to the music. It is mostly used over A minor (phrygian), and over Bb lydian.

    Major #9 b7 pentatonic
  • C major #9 b7 pentatonic : C, D#, E, G, Bb

    This pentatonic scale is actually made up of 2 triads: C major and Eb major, which is kind of cool. You can us it in conjunction with the two triads, mostly over a C7 #9 chord.

    Major b9 pentatonic
  • C major b9 pentatonic: C, Db, E, G, A

    This is a cool pentatonic because it can be used over C7, Eb7, F#7 or A7, where the symmetric diminished scale would be used. The sound is slightly different for each one. So you can use a C7b9 pentatonic over a C7 chord, giving a b9 tension, over an Eb7 chord, giving b9, #11 and natural 13, over F#7, giving b9, #9 and #11 and over an A7 chord, giving the #9.

    The pentatonic scale and quartal harmony

    Before I even get into this, let me say that it's pretty complicated, especially if you don't know much about music, but despite that I'll try to be as simple as possible. Also, I will not dig seeply into this topic, because it's not the topic of this writeup, but the connection is an interesting one, and a relevant one.

    When John Coltrane started playing pentatonics, a new sound was required from the pianist, as conventional harmony works with conventional scales. McCoy Tyner, who worked with Coltrane, started playing using a new appraoch to harmony, which you could say developed from the pentatonic scale.

    In western music, chords are usually made by stacking thirds. So in the C major scale (C D E F G A B, we can take C and add a third, E, and another third, G, and we have a C major triad, C E G, adding another third, B, we get C major 7th. Adding another, D, we get C major 9th, etc. In western harmony, this is the basic guideline for building chords.

    But what if we stack fourths? Thirds in the major scale are two notes apart (C and E are separated by D). If we take the minor pentatonic scale, and do the same thing (take notes which are two notes apart), we get C, F, Bb, Eb, G. Put G at the beginning, and we have perfect fourths. So you can play a Cm7 chord using only fourths. You could even start with D as the lowest note: D, G, C, F, Bb, Eb. This sound is much more "spacey" than what was being played until then, and fit in with the more spacey pentatonic scale. It was unheard of in jazz until then.

    Of course, there is a lot more to be said on the subject, but that is for another node.

    Which chord over which scale?

    In the following two sections (Which chord over which scale? and Which scale over which chord?) I will give two examples of which scales fit which chords.

    In this section, I will take the A minor pentatonic and A minor 6 pentatonic scales, and analyse which chords you can use them over. The table contains all the regular chords I could think of that take these scales. I may have missed some, and there are dozens of "abnormal" chords that can use these scales, but I'll omit them for many reasons, but mostly if you're playing over chords like Ebmaj7 b9 sus, you should be able to figure out which pentatonic to use by yourself.

    In the table, there are four columns

    1. chord - the chord over which you can play the pentatonic
    2. tensions - the tensions that the pentatonic creates. Thus, if there is a natural 6, don't play it over a C7b13 chord.
    3. scales - the scales the the pentatonic is a part of, so that you can substitute it for them. thus, if you want to use lydian b7 over a C7 scale, you can use the A minor pentatonic instead
    4. degrees in the scale - the actual degrees in the scale that you will be playing when you play the pentatonic.
    The degrees in the scale are written as degrees from the major scale. This is a convention that is used in many places. You may find it more comfortable to think of C as the 3rd of A minor, and not the b3. That is okay, but it is not the convention I used. I find the way I chose leads to much less ambiguity. Also, I may have written "6" in some places, and "13" in others. I wrote what I felt was most appropriate at the time. Just remember - 9 is 2, 11 is 4, 13 is 6. I may have made mistakes and omissions, because there is so much information here, and this is not copied out of a book, so please correct me if you find any.
    A minor pentatonic
    
    chord   |    tensions            |     scales         | degrees in the scale
    ________|________________________|____________________|________________________
            |                        |                    |    
    Am7     |                        | aeo, dor, phry     | 1 b3 4 5 b7
    Dm7     | natural 9              | aeo, dor           | 1 2 4 5 b7
    Gm7     | natural 9, natural 6   | dor                | 1 2 4 5 6
            |                        |                    |    
    Cmaj7   |                        | ion, lyd           | 1 2 3 5 6
    Fmaj7   |                        | ion, lyd           | 2 3 5 6 7 
    Bbmaj7  | #11                    | lyd                | 2 3 #11 6 7 
            |                        |                    |    
    C7      | nat 9, nat 6           | mix, lydb7         | 1 2 3 5 6 
            |                        |                    |    
    D7sus   |                        | mix                | 1 2 4 5 b7
    G7sus   | nat 6                  | mix                | 1 2 4 5 6
            |                        |                    |    
    Gmmaj7  | nat 9, nat 6           | mel                | 1 2 4 5 6
    Bbmaj7#5|                        |                    | 2 3 #11 #5 7
    C7lydb7 | nat 9, nat 6           | lydian b7          | 1 2 3 5 6
    D7b13   | sus4                   | sus4b13nat9        | 1 2 4 5 b7
    Em7b5   |                        | loc, loc nat 9     | 1 b3 4 b13 b7
    F#7alt  | altered tensions       | alt                | b9 #9 b5 b13 b7
    
    
    
    
    A minor 6
    
    chord   |    tensions            |     scales         | degrees in the scale
    ________|________________________|____________________|________________________
            |                        |                    |    
    Am6     |                        | dor                | 1 3 4 5 6
    Am7     | nat 6                  | dor                | 1 3 4 5 6
    Ammaj7  | nat 6                  | mel                | 1 3 4 5 6
            |                        |                    |    
    Cmaj7   | #11                    | lyd                | 1 2 3 #11 6
            |                        |                    |    
    F#m7b5  |                        | loc, loc nat9      | 1 b3 b5 b13 b7
            |                        |                    |    
    D7      | nat 9                  | mix, lydb7         | 1 2 3 5 b7
            |                        |                    |    
    C7#11   | nat 9, nat 6           | lydb7              | 1 2 3 #11 6
            |                        |                    |    
    Ab7alt  |                        | alt                | b9 3 b5 b13 b7
    F#7alt  |                        | alt                | 1 #9 b5 b13 b7
            |                        |                    |    
    Bbmaj7#5| nat 9, #11             | lyd #5             | 2 3 #11 #5 7
    
    

    Which scale over which chord?

    In this section, I will take the Cmajor7#11 and C7 altered chords, and analyse which pentatonics you can use them over. I chose these pretty arbitrarily, as there are dozens of chords, and I just wanted to give two examples.

    For the C major7 chord I added a new pentatonic about which I hadn't spoken. As for the C7 altered - an altered chord can take many other pentatonics, but this is left as an exercise to the reader. I just listed the ones I mentioned in this writeup, but they should supply plenty of food for thought as it is. Note the Eb minor pentatoni over a C7 chord - it brings out every single tension!

    
    C major7 #11 - (if you don't want a lydian sound, don't use pentatonics with #11)
    
    pentatonic scale | degrees in the scale
    _________________|__________________________
                     |                   
    C maj (Am)       | 1 2 3 5 6
    D maj (Bm)       | 2 3 #11 6 7
    G maj (Em)       | 2 3 5 6 7
                     |
    A min 6          | 1 2 3 #11 6
    B min b6 *       | 2 3 #11 5 7  
    
    
    * B min b6 is B D E F# G
    
    C7 altered
    
    
    pentatonic scale | degrees in the scale
    _________________|__________________________
                     |                   
    Eb minor         | b9 #9 b5 b13 b7
                     |
    Db minor 6       | b9 3 b5 b13 b7
    Eb minor 6       | 1 #9 b5 b13 b7
                                          
    
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