Most musicians are pretty familiar with pentatonic scales. For many musicians, especially guitarists, these may be the first scale you learn when you start on your instrument. They’re easy to play, and since they omit the half steps in the scale, it takes away some of the tension notes that should be handled with care.
We’re going to talk a bit about how you can use pentatonics over jazz standards, but before we get going, we have a super helpful PDF package to get you comfortable with pentatonics in no time—30 Pentatonic Etudes on Jazz Standards.
This package contains 15 standards, and Chad LB wrote two etudes for each tune—one that uses inside pentatonic language the whole way through, while the other etude uses pentatonic shifting, which gives different techniques for going inside and outside to create tension and release. Pentatonic shifting is a really sweet modern sound that gives you more creative ways to move through the chord changes.
How do pentatonic scales work?
Before we start talking about inside and outside sounds with pentatonic scales, let’s look at what they are and how they work.
Major Pentatonic Scales
We’re going to start with the major pentatonic scale. We can think of this as the major scale, minus the fourth and seventh degrees (i.e. the half steps, the tension tones). So we will build 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 1, or in C major, C, D, E, G, A.
When playing over a major seventh chord, the traditional and easy option is to play the root’s pentatonic scale. Here’s a C major pentatonic over Cmaj7.
This option works fine, but if we want a little more intrigue, how about we play from the fifth? Here’s a G major pentatonic played over that same Cmaj7.
Minor Pentatonic Scales
We could also look at the G major pentatonic as E minor pentatonic—that’s because the relative major and minor scales line up with the relative major and minor pentatonic scales.
That said, it’s still important to learn these scales individually from their roots, because they have totally different sounds, depending on where your root is. You’ll be able to find them faster if you know it from the root, rather than from a relative major or minor scale.
So instead of thinking of it as a mode from the major pentatonic scale, think of it in reference to the Dorian scale—one of our most commonly used minor scales in jazz. This would be taking the 1, 3, 4, 5, 7 from Dorian, or in C Dorian, C, Eb, F, G, Bb.
Used in context, we’ve got of course the root minor pentatonic played against a minor seventh chord—or C minor pentatonic against a Cm7.
Another cool option is to use the four dominant (which we can think of as diatonic to Dorian or melodic minor).
So in C minor, this would be an F dominant pentatonic scale.
Dominant Pentatonic Scales
Now let’s check out how you build a dominant pentatonic.
We’re going to pull this from our common jazz dominant scale, mixolydian. We’ll take the 1, 2, 3, 5, and 7 from that scale, or in C dominant, C, D, E, G, Bb.
Obviously you can use this scale over a dominant chord, but like in the previous example, we have some more creative uses, too.
Check out some of the uses in our video, like a G major pentatonic over Cmaj7, C minor pentatonic over Cm7, F dominant pentatonic over Cm, and C dominant pentatonic over C7.
Playing “inside” on a standard with pentatonics
Now that we know the general pentatonic scales you can use on the three most common chords in jazz, let’s check out what it sounds like to use them over real lines in a standard progression.
This first standard should look familiar to you—this etude is called “All the Things You Could Be.”
So in these first eight bars, we’re only using notes from the pentatonic scale that sound harmonious and inside. There are a lot of changes here and it gives a nice opportunity to practice playing these scales over a few kinds of harmony.
In the first four bars, you’ll see a G minor pentatonic scale, a C minor pentatonic, an F dominant pentatonic, and a B-flat major pentatonic. You’ll notice what makes all this work and sound melodic and inventive is that we’re using cool shapes with the pentatonic scale and voice leading from measure to measure.
You’ll see from the first measure to the second, our voice leading makes a smooth transition from a chord tone into the seventh of Cm7, into the third of the F7, into the Bbmaj7, then into the fifth of the Eb, where we have the E-flat major pentatonic scale. Over Em, we just use the E minor pentatonic scale with a couple notes from the A dominant pentatonic over the A7. The interesting trick is when we reach the Dmaj7, we don’t play D major pentatonic, we actually play A major pentatonic. This gives it a little extra cool color.
Check out our video to hear Chad LB play through the whole etude.
Playing “outside” on a standard with pentatonics
For our second etude, we’ll check out one called Don Lee. This will help us with some pentatonic shifting, which will take us into some inside and outside tonalities.
Right off the bat, we see some inside pentatonics. On the first measure, we have a Bbmaj7 with a B-flat major pentatonic. But in the second bar, we’re not playing inside G7.
And so the important consideration for shifting and getting in and out of different tonalities is that how you get there and how you get out is actually more important than the actual harmonic substitution. We could say it’s more about the glue than the pieces.
So on the G7, we’ll shift to F# minor. We shift there by going up a half step from the last note of the Bbmaj7 into a B natural on the G7, which is tight voice leading getting us into the G7. But instead of playing in the G7 tonality, we’re going into another tonality that has B in it.
Essentially, if you pick a note from the chromatic scale, you’re going to have five different pentatonic scales that use that note.
Here, we’re using the note B from G7. Now instead of playing inside a G dominant tonality, we’re going to use a minor tonality. From this B, we could pick B minor, G# minor, F# minor, E minor, and C# minor. We end up picking F# minor, and this is a slick transition because we’re using a shared note in the G7 sound.
We’ll also pivot out, using the F# on beat three of the second bar to pivot to C# minor for a new sound. Then on beat two of the third bar, we move down a half step to get us back inside the C7 sound, where we use the C dominant pentatonic scale.
As with a lot of these jazz concepts, it’s important to remember that you’re not thinking through all of this stuff when you’re improvising on the stage. The idea is to get a hang of using these notes as anchors to go to different places and come back inside again. Like we mentioned, it’s more about the glue that brings the line together than any specific substitution. It’s more a matter of how outside it sounds, depending on how tense the substitution you’re using is.
We’ve got plenty more about this in the PDF package, which will get you feeling confident in no time.
Moving along, we’ll see a part at the end where a D7 goes to Gm, which is a very common V - i sound (or in this case from the tonality of B-flat major, V/vi - vi). But what’s important to understand is that we’re just using a tritone substitution with the pentatonic scale we pick.
We have a D7 chord, but we’re using a G# minor pentatonic scale. You’ll notice this glue holds the line together through good voice leading from measure to measure. We moved down by a half step from F# at the end of the D7 back to F natural on the Gm, which brings us to the seventh and back inside the G minor pentatonic sound. Then we voice lead into the next bar to bring us to another substitution—playing an F# minor pentatonic on that D7, which brings us into the G minor sound, and the next bar we’re connecting by a half step to move from one tonality to another.