Pentatonic Scales

A pentatonic scale is a five-note scale. This scale has wide applications in rock. Whether you're playing progressive rock or synth pop, new age or heavy metal, you will find this scale to be quite useful. Blues, R&B, and jazz musicians also use pentatonics quite effectively. From Delta blues to avant-garde jazz, this scale has seen a lot of action. For ultramodern applications of this scale, check out the playing styles of pianists McCoy Tyner and Mulgrew Miller.

In most cases, pentatonic scales are easy to use because they contain consonant intervals. Consonance refers to harmonic intervals that are euphonious or pleasing on the ear. Dissonance refers to harmonic intervals that are discordant, musically unstable, or demanding on the ear. Consonance and dissonance are relative terms.

As far as this book is concerned, melodic lines are always set against chords. Because of this, it's important to know what intervals fit well together. The bottom line is that pentatonics help you navigate your way around chord changes without too much worry. They are conservative scales, but they are very effective. They are also a great point of departure if you're a beginner learning how to improvise.

FIGURE 5-6 shows you one basic pentatonic scale written in the key of C major. The notes of this scale are C, D, E, G, and A. In other words, this scale comprises a root, a major second, a major third, a perfect fifth, and a major sixth. This is the most common pentatonic variety.

FIGURE 5-6: Basic Pentatonic Scale

Four additional varieties exist. In no particular order, they are as follows:

  • Root, second, fourth, fifth, and sixth (omitting the third)

  • Root, second, fourth, fifth, and minor seventh (omitting the third and sixth)

  • Root, minor third, fourth, fifth, and minor seventh

  • Root, minor third, fourth, minor sixth, minor seventh (omitting the fifth)

These variations, including the two minor keyed versions, are notated in FIGURE 5-7. After you learn about harmony and accompaniment (Chapters 6 and 7), try combining these pentatonics with different chord types. Just remember: Never play minor pentatonics over major chords or vice versa.

FIGURE 5-7: Pentatonic Variations

The black keys on the piano (G-flat, A-flat, B-flat, D-flat, and E-flat) make up a pentatonic scale. Once you learn how to play a blues progression (Chapter 9), try soloing over a G-flat blues using only black keys. This is the easiest way to begin improvising. In this case, use triads as your accompaniment (Chapter 6).

If you wish to get a little more complex, try playing pentatonics over a C major blues. As you solo, shift the pentatonic scale to match each chord. This is shown in FIGURE 5-8. In this example, three chord types are listed: the I, IV, and V chords, respectively. As you can see, roman numerals are used to represent each chord.

FIGURE 5-8: Pentatonics over I, IV, and V chords

In general, pentatonics provide a wonderful springboard for improvisation. When soloing with pentatonics, or with any scale for that matter, mix up the order of the notes. You should not play straight-up, scalar lines; that is too mechanical and boring. Instead, use intervallic leaps to create memorable melodies and cool riffs.

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