Sunday, November 13, 2011

Pentatonic Scales

Q: The way you use pentatonic scales fascinates me. Not only does it sound cool, it is easy since most of us already know the patterns. In your book and on your site lesson: superimposing pentatonic scales, you describe the guidelines perfectly well (as in "play a minor pentatonic scale on the 3rd, 6th and 7th of any major chord") but what is the theory behind this? How and why does it work?

A: Good question. I suppose you are at the point in your studies where you need to question these things. I did the same thing a long time ago. I learned about the concept of superimposing minor pentatonic scales years ago and by simply memorizing the rules I could apply the concept any time I saw fit. Let's review the basic rules:

For a major chord:

Play a minor pentatonic scale on the 3rd, 6th and/or 7th degree of the chord

Let's try it. Record yourself a long Cmaj7 or Cmaj9 vamp. What is the 3rd, 6th and 7th of this chord? The 3rd is E, the 6th is A and the 7th is B. If you can't understand this yet, this lesson is too much for you so you should go back and study theory starting with scales, chords and intervals. Go here for that lesson >>>

It doesn't matter what scale pattern you play as long as you play the proper pentatonic scales. E is the 3rd of the C chord so you can play an E minor pentatonic scale. Try it and you'll see. Be a little careful though because the usual lines you play might not work as well but in general all the notes are OK. 

Why does it work? Well, the best way to figure that out is by comparing the chord to the scale. Let's see, the scale looks like this:

E-G-A-B-D and compared to the chord, these notes are the 3-5-6-7-2 of the C major chord. These are all very consonant tones and match the chord with little rubbing or grinding. it actually looks like a C69 chord if you place all the notes on top of each other.

Next, let's look at the minor pentatonic scale from the 6th. The 6th of C is A so an A minor pentatonic scale is what we are looking for. The A minor pentatonic scale looks like this:

A-C-D-E-G and compared to the C chord: 6-1-2-3-5. All perfectly nice sounding notes over the C major chord. I bet someone out there figured this out already but what we have created is simply the C major pentatonic scale with here. Right? A minor pentatonic and C major pentatonic are the same scales.

Next up, the minor pentatonic scale on the 7th. The 7th of C is B so B minor pentatonic is what we're looking for: B-D-E-F#-A or 7-2-3-#4-6. Now this looks very lydian to me because of the #4 (or #11 if you prefer).

All three of these scales combined give you the C lydian scale. Check it out yourself. C lydian: C-D-E-F#-G-A-B or 1-2-3-#4-5-6-7

Now, go on, get to work. Over your Cmaj9 vamp, try all three of these scales. 

The pentatonic scales always intrigue me because by simply taking 2 notes away from the 7 note scale you get something that actually has more personality. Less is more sometimes.

The next thing I did is look for the minor pentatonic scale patterns inside the scale itself. I mean, if all three pentatonic scale combined look like the lydian scale, all three must be inside somewhere. Take a look:

C lydian









Look, here is an E minor pentatonic scale:











And an A minor pentatonic scale:












And finally a B minor pentatonic scale:












Can you see that they are all inside the lydian scale?


We used our ears to make sure these scales work right? Next we used our eyes by looking inside the lydian scale and finding the three minor pentatonic scales. 

Now we'll use our brain. You can see this one more way. Remembering that there is a major pentatonic scale for every minor pentatonic scale:

E minor = G major 
A minor = C major and 
B minor = D major. 

Now look at the diatonic chords in the key of G major (G major is the same as C lydian):

G - Amin - Bmin - C - D - Emin- F#dim


Are you getting my point here? The three diatonic minor and the three diatonic major chords = the same three minor and major pentatonic scales that work over our C chord.


I've basically examined the minor pentatonic scales that work over major family chords. If you want to investigate more, go to the original lesson >>>

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