Some players are often complaining about their improvising: "All I seem to be doing is playing off of my Pentatonics !" It is as if Pentatonic scales were the cheater's way to improvise, or just a way to fake it.

There is really nothing wrong with using Pentatonic scales in Jazz Improvisation. The problem really, is what we have been taught to do with them, and how we just limit our possibilities.

Where does the misunderstanding come from ? Well, when it comes to improvisation, a lot of guitar players start playing over the Blues: 3 simple chords, a short 12-bar cycle-- easy enough for a start, right ?

Then, it will take a well-meaning (but ill-inspired) friend or teacher who points out that all we have to do is "play-that-easy-5-note-scale-that-sounds-good-over the-entire-progression", and the damage is done !

Yes, it sure can sound good with just one Pentatonic scale. Just listen to what Stevie Ray Vaughan, Hendrix, B.B. King and some of the Blues greats can do with it !

But here's the problem: if we get too comfortable with the idea of playing the same scale over an entire Blues tune, what are we going to do when we start playing over some other chord progression ? How are we going to outline the chord changes ? Because let's face it: that concept of one magic scale over the whole song pretty much only works on a 3-chord Blues progression. Any other Jazz tune will require some other approach. We want to acknowledge all of the chords.

So, before we go any further, let's examine those Pentatonic scales we are talking about.

Any 5-note scale can be called a Pentatonic scale, however, when people discuss Pentatonics, they generally refer to 2 basic ones:

The Major Pentatonic, and the Minor Pentatonic.

Here is a C Major Pentatonic scale: C D E G A

The formula is: R M2 M3 P5 M6

and here is a C Minor Pentatonic scale: C Eb F G Bb

The formula is: R m3 P4 P5 m7

Ever wondered why those 2 scales sounded so "right", so consonant ?

Here's an explanation:

Take a C note, and build a series of perfect fifths. From C we go to G, from G we go to D, from D we go to A, and from A we go to E.

The 5 notes we end up with are: C G D A E

If we re-arrange those 5 notes within an octave, we get the C Major Pentatonic scale: C D E G A

If we keep that same sequence, but now start from A, we get the A Minor Pentatonic scale: A C D E G

C Major Pentatonic and A Minor Pentatonic are said to be relatives. It is simply the same major/minor relationship that we already have between a C Major scale and an A Natural Minor scale.

The interesting aspect of a Pentatonic scale (Major or Minor) is its satisfying melodic content: it contains wider intervals than most other scales.

Also, the Minor Pentatonic configuration may even seem more balanced because of its perfect mirrored layout:

Look at the A Minor Pentatonic scale again: A C D E G

The first two notes are a minor 3rd apart, and so are the last two notes.

The second and third notes are a M2 apart, and so are the third and fourth notes.

And finally, the first, middle and last note are all a P4 apart.

One last thing:

C Major Pentatonic is a C Major scale minus 2 notes (F and B). Incidentally, those 2 missing notes formed the one and only Tritone that was contained in the Major scale. That could also explain why the Major Pentatonic scale sounds more grounded, more stable than the Major scale.

So, now that we know more about where Pentatonic scales come from, let's go back to the Blues for a moment, and try to see why it works so well in that context.

When playing over a Blues in A Major, the correct Pentatonic scale will be A Minor.

Now wait a minute: if the Blues is in a Major key, why should we play an A Minor Pentatonic, and not an A Major Pentatonic instead ?

Good observation ! But let's think about the 3 chords that will be found in that A (Major) Blues progression.

Those 3 chords are A, D, and E, which are respectively the I chord, the IV chord, and the V chord. More often than not, those 3 chords will all be Dominant 7th chords.

Let's now analyze the 5 notes of our A Minor Pentatonic against all 3 chords:

      A    C    D    E    G

For A7: R, #9, P4, P5, m7

For D7: P5, m7, R, 9, P4

For E7: P4, #5, m7, R, #9

What are we noticing ?

That same A Minor Pentatonic scale contains:

1. the root of each chord.

2. the P4 of each chord (aka the suspension) yet none of the chords get a M3.

3. the 7th of each chord.

4. the 5th of each chord (#5 for the E7)

That is why the A Minor Pentatonic will fit over all 3 chords: all of the notes "work", but what we really hear are 3 suspended chords, while none of the chords are clearly defined since their 3rd is missing.

So, yes, even though we are in a Major Blues key, we do want to play the Minor Pentatonic scale from the tonic of that key.

A common variation when playing the Minor Pentatonic scale in a Blues context is to add an extra note between the P4 and the P5. That extra note (#4) is called the Blue Note, and we now have what is called the "Blues Scale":

A C D (D#) E G

There is also such a thing as the "Major Blues Scale": we can add an extra note to a Major Pentatonic scale (the #2) and it is found between the M2 and the M3 of the scale:

C D (D#) E G A

Now that we are clear on what happens in Blues, let's discuss what we can do with our Pentatonic scales in other contexts. I did explain at the beginning of this article why Pentatonic scales were so strong and melodically stable, so it would be silly to abandon them when we play other tunes.

So, what I would like to do now is take different 7th chords and review the various Pentatonic scales that could fit over them.


Let's take a CMaj7 chord as our example.

We can play:

from the Root: C Major Pentatonic (same as A Minor Pentatonic)

from the M2: D Major Pentatonic (same as B Minor Pentatonic)

from the M3: E Minor Pentatonic (same as G Major Pentatonic)

from the P5: G Major Pentatonic (same as E Minor Pentatonic)

from the M6: A Minor Pentatonic (same as C Major Pentatonic)

from the M7: B Minor Pentatonic (same as D Major Pentatonic)

Therefore, we can then play a Pentatonic scale from all of the notes of that C Major scale-- except from F (the P4) which is considered an "avoid" note.

Even though I listed 6 scales, there are actually only 3 different ones, considering the Major/Minor relationships.

You may want to first try those various Pentatonics on tunes that have several measures of the same Maj7 chord:

"I'll Remember April"
"Jitterbug Waltz"
"Little Sunflower"


Let's take Cm7

We can play:

from the Root: C Minor Pentatonic (same as Eb Major Pentatonic)

from the M2: D Minor Pentatonic (same as F Major Pentatonic)

from the m3: Eb Major Pentatonic (same as C Minor Pentatonic)

from the P4: F Major Pentatonic (same as D Minor Pentatonic)

from the P5: G Minor Pentatonic (same as Bb Major Pentatonic)

from the m7: Bb Major Pentatonic (same as G Minor Pentatonic)

We have a possible Pentatonic scale from all of the notes of a C DORIAN scale (except from the 6th).
There again, 6 scales, but actually only 3 different ones, considering the Major/Minor relationships.

Good tunes to experiment with those sounds would be:

"So What"/"Impressions"
"Maiden Voyage"
"Little Sunflower"

and here are a few more articles I wrote on the subject of Pentatonics:

Pick Your Pentatonic: a Review of The Most Important Pentatonic Scales
Pentatonics For The Sus7 Chord
Creating Some Pentatonic Scales
Altered Pentatonics



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