Improvisation - Pentatonic Scales 2

The pentatonic scales are very widely used in rock, jazz, blues and country. Now that you know what notes are contained in these scales, let’s see how you can use them.

The simplest way to use them is to remember that, if you’re playing in a major key, you can improvise with the major pentatonic scale throughout the entire piece. Provided, that is, there are no chromatic chords. Similarly, in a minor key based on the natural minor scale, and containing no chromatic chords, you can improvise with the minor pentatonic scale.

In the following table, the notes for the diatonic triads of the key of C major are shown. Those notes in bold print are the ones also contained in the C major pentatonic scale. The other notes in that scale (and not used in the chord) are shown underneath. You'll see that with the exception of Bdim, all the triads contain two or three notes from the major pentatonic scale.

Diatonic Triads in C

So, apart from Bdim, you almost can't help playing the right thing, as long as you stick to the C major pentatonic scale. (Diminished chords should be treated separately.) Extend the triads into quadrants, and it's even more difficult to play a wrong note. Since the diatonic chords from the natural minor key will be identical, the same will be true of the key of A minor.

So what about chromatic triads? These are almost as simple. Most times if you're using a major chord, you can improvise with its major pentatonic scale. And usually if you're using a minor chord you can improvise using its minor pentatonic scale. For instance, C is a chromatic chord in the key of D major, but using this principle, use the C major pentatonic scale to improvise.

If you study the following diagrams, you'll see that pentatonic scales only have two notes extra to a major or minor chord anyway:

Pentatonic Scals

You might also notice that the notes in the C major pentatonic scale, if played concurrently, would form a C6/9 chord. And that doing the same with the A minor pentatonic would form an Am11 (without the ninth).

Believe it or not, you now have enough information to be able to improvise over any major or minor chord (including the chromatic ones) in any key you like. For instance, in the following chord progression, there are two chromatic chords, D7 and E:

|C / / / |D7 / / / |G / / / |C / / / |C / / / |E / / / |Am / / / |E / / / |C / / / |

They now present no problem. You simply play the pentatonic scale of the same name. So for D7 (At this stage treat all sevenths as major triads when improvising.) you play D major pentatonic, and for E you play E major pentatonic. If we managed to throw in a Bm chord, then you'd just use a B minor pentatonic scale.

Even diatonic chords can be treated separately for improvisational purposes. For instance, in the following chord progression:

|A / / / |E / / / |D / / / | A / / / |

Even though you can use the A major pentatonic throughout, you can also use the E major pentatonic and the D major pentatonic for the relevant chords.

For information and chart on which pentatonic scales to use in improvising over major, minor, sus 4, Maj 7, Maj 9, Maj 11, 7, 9, 11, 6, m6, m7, m9, and m11 chords, buy Contemporary Music Theory. (This link will take you to, a subsidiary of Amazon.)

Understanding Scales | Understanding Chord Structure | Understanding Diatonic Chords | Understanding Minor Scales | Diatonic Chords in Minor Keys | Scale Degree Names | Chord Substitution - Extended Chords | Chord Substitution - Overlapping Chords | Improvisation - Arpeggios | Improvisation - Major Scales | Improvisation - Pentatonic Scales | Improvisation - Blues Scales