Are you someone who’s just getting started with pentatonic scales? Or maybe you’ve been playing them for years and you’re feeling like they’ve gotten stale and you need a little extra spice to make them interesting again.
Well today we’re going to go through 3 exercises for insane pentatonic lines, and these exercises are really great for building your pentatonic technique.
Before we get going, you’ll definitely want to check out some of the other pentatonic content we have here on Jazz Lesson Videos—we even have a full pentatonics masterclass, as well as our PDF package Pentatonic Patterns for Jazz Improvisation. If you’re really looking to dive in deeper, these are great resources to use. Plus, make sure to check out our accompanying video on YouTube to hear Chad play through these exercises!
Building Pentatonic Scales
When you think of a scale, you probably think of the major scale—do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do. But there are other scales that you may want to use, and a popular favorite is the pentatonic scale. As the name implies, pentatonic scales are five-note scales, instead of the standard seven-note scales.
There are a few kinds of pentatonic scales, and today we’re going to cover major, minor, and dominant pentatonic scales. The cool thing about pentatonic scales is that because they only have 5 notes, they have a really focused and edgy sound.
Major pentatonic scales
The major scale is the same one we mentioned above—do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do, or 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. When we’re building a major pentatonic scale, we’re going to remove the fourth and seventh scale degrees (effectively eliminating the half steps in the scale). This leaves us with 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, or in A major, A, B, C#, E, F#. Likewise, from F major, we’d have F, G, A, C, D.
Minor pentatonic scales
Closely related are minor pentatonic scales. We can look at either the Dorian (1, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6, b7) or Aeolian (1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7) minor scales as our reference for this—it won’t matter in this case. What we’ll do is take our minor scale and remove the second and sixth degrees, leaving us with 1, b3, 4, 5, b7, or from D minor, we’ll have D, F, G, A, C (also omitting the half steps in the scale).
If you look back at the F major pentatonic, you’ll notice that it shares the same notes as D minor pentatonic. That’s because F major and D minor are relative major and minor keys. Still, it’s important to know these scales as their own individual selves, instead of deriving one from the other.
Dominant pentatonic scales
On to our last pentatonic scale for today—we’ll talk about the dominant pentatonic. This scale is built from the mixolydian scale (mode), which is effectively just a major scale with a b7. With that in mind, we’ll take a similar approach to our other pentatonics and omit the half steps in the scale, which in this case are the fourth and the sixth. This leaves 1, 2, 3, 5, b7, or in D, we would have D, E, F#, A, C.
Let’s take a look at all three of our pentatonic scales starting from D for comparison.
Now getting into the good stuff—how do we use these scales? Well we want to get flexible with these scales by creating patterns that give us variations in the melodic contour. Basically that means that we want to have a bunch of different ways to play our pentatonic lines, and the more shapes we have under our fingers, the more prepared we’ll be to use them when it comes time to improvise.
We’re going to check out three patterns from the Pentatonic Patterns for Jazz Improvisation PDF package. This PDF has all the exercises written out for you in all 12 keys, which is going to be great practice and will help you be able to feel these patterns throughout the range of your instrument. And, all of these patterns are applied to major, dominant, and minor tonalities.
Pentatonic Exercise 1: Keeping it close
Our first shape is really cool. You’ll notice that measure by measure it stays pretty compact in terms of intervallic range (meaning all the notes stay pretty close together in terms of pitch). But this creates a pretty intense effect because you’re playing all these notes in the same part of your range. Instead of zipping up and down on your horn, try using techniques like this to build some intensity gradually as you move throughout the range of your instrument.
What we’re going to do here is step down from the root to the seventh, then step back up, moving until we get to the third degree of the pentatonic scale. Then we’ll step back down to the original note and hop back up to the third degree. Then we’re going to start the whole shape sequentially up from each scale degree.
To descend, we’re going to turn the shape around and play the inverse of the pattern. So every single motion of the ascending sequence, we’ll play the inverse—all notes going up will go down, and all notes going down will go up. In that first four-note group, we’ll go up, down, and down, and so on.
A pattern like this is so much more helpful than just zipping up and down your instrument. It sounds cool when you’re playing alone, but it sounds stale when you’re improvising. This pattern has a really cool effect when you internalize this language, because it creates tension in a smaller range.
Pentatonic Exercise 2: Going further
This next exercise is going to do the opposite of the last. It’s going to cover a very wide range very quickly, but it’s going to do so with a fascinating wide intervallic sequence.
What we’ve got here is a jump in the middle of each four-note group. So for the first four notes, we see the jump between the F and Bb, coming from Eb major. If we put a G in there, we would just be playing up the major pentatonic scale—but we have that little jump in there to mix things up.
A lot of times when we play a pattern, we work up a shape on each degree sequentially like we did in the last exercise. So if we’re playing a shape on E flat major, we’d generally move the sequence up to F. But in this case, we’re going to go up and start it on the G instead, skipping the F—but notice that we’ll be playing the F later, just in the next octave—this way we’ll end up playing the shape from every degree, but it’s hipper than just playing straight through. This was used a lot by John Coltrane in the ‘60s.
Pentatonic Exercise 3: Making it move with triplets
Finally for exercise 3, we’re going to mix it up with some triplets. It sounds really cool when you can freely go back and forth between eighth notes and triplet rhythms with your pentatonic shapes, so it’s important to practice triplet patterns as part of your vocabulary.
This time, we’re going to have to use a six-note shape for two groupings of triplets. You’ll see the shape has a jump in the middle where it hits the peak of the melodic contour, then steps down until it gets to the next degree. Then it builds the same shape up and down continuously.
When we descend, we’ll turn the whole shape around again.
Once you get a handle on enough pentatonic patterns, you can start improvising using your own combinations of all these naturally. Beyond that, you can start implementing other concepts like pentatonic shifting, where you shift in and out of tonalities to create tension and release.
That’s it for today, but if you’re looking to up your pentatonic chops, you’ll definitely want to check out our PDF package Pentatonic Patterns for Jazz Improvisation and our accompanying video on YouTube.
We’ll see you next time!