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How to Use Pentatonics on Jazz Standards

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.


Contents


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

The C major scale, compared to C major pentatonic
The C major scale, compared to C major pentatonic

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.

C major pentatonic played over C major 7 chord

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.

G major pentatonic played over C major 7 chord in jazz music

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

G major pentatonic and its relative minor E minor pentatonic jazz music
G major pentatonic and its relative minor E minor pentatonic

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.