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Pentatonic Scale Use

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by MeshMan, Nov 1, 2013.

  1. MeshMan


    Apr 7, 2012
    So I've been trying to understand the role that pentatonic scales serve in my playing. For some reason, Ive had a serious mental block in understanding exactly how to use them. Any explanations given to me are always brief and, I dont want to say 'dismissive', but the general feeling I get toward the situation is that its very easy to understand and that I am over thinking it.

    Now, I think I understand how the forms fit together. I know all five, I see how they follow one another. I felt like I had had an epiphany in this understanding. However, a new question just occurred to me. Considering that the pentatonic scales omit the 4th and 7th scale degrees, what happens when you use those chords in a song?

    For instance, I-IV-V is a very common chord progression. If it were in "C", it would be C-F-G. But theres no "F" in the pentatonic forms played over "C". Although less common than the IV, what if while playing in "C Major", the chord progressions took me to the diminished 7th? Again, theres no "7th" in the forms, no "B's". I must be missing something, to not have the root notes of two chords....

    Maybe I'm not understanding the proper way to use pentatonics, maybe I have some sort of mistake in my calculations, I dont know.

    Any help in this matter would be greatly appreciated.
  2. DiabolusInMusic

    DiabolusInMusic Functionless Art is Merely Tolerated Vandalism Supporting Member

    In a I-IV-V in the key of C you have C (CEG) F (FAC) and G (GBD). In brackets are the chord tones of the traids. If we write them out we get C-D-E-F-G-A-B, those are all the "acceptable" notes. Which is the major scale (or A minor, the enharmonic equivalent). So in this case the appropriate pentatonic scale would be the C major pentatonic, we take 5 tones out of the C major scale, the root, the major second, the major 3rd, the perfect 5th and the major 6th (C-D-E-G-A). The A minor pentatonic works as well.

    Basically you just use whatever pentatonic is the key of the song, so you have to know the key/chords. You can also follow the chord changes. I hope that helps.
  3. MeshMan


    Apr 7, 2012
    @DiabolusInMusic - In a I IV V in C, the IV is F, a note which we're omitted. Or, once we switch to the F Major, do I switch the positioning of my forms to fit F now?
  4. LeeNunn

    LeeNunn Supporting Member

    Oct 9, 2012
    Charlottesville, VA
    Think about switching scales with each chord. When the chord is C, try the major pentatonic scale of C D E G A C (1 2 3 5 6 8). When the chord moves to F, try the major pentatonic scale of F G A C D F (1 2 3 5 6 8), and so on.

    But use your ears. Some blues and rock music uses minor pentatonic over dominant 7 chords.
  5. This is what I do. I also like to, for the right kind of rock or blues tune, use the minor pentatonic even over a major chord, especially a 7 chord.

    Edit: I'm talking about riffing a fill or a solo, more of a lead work. I don't consciously use pentatonics for basslines, although many basslines I play do wind up being covered by a pentatonic form, I am usually thinking about outlining a chord and adding a few color tones for basslines. And by outlining I never feel obligated to play every note in the chord, just the cardinal ones that I want for the bassline.
  6. mambo4


    Jun 9, 2006
    suppose you have song or chord progression
    and all you are told is that it's in the key of X major.
    and you are asked to improvise a line over this.

    you could use the X major scale
    or the X major pentatonic scale (no 4th, no 7th)

    it is more likely that you will hit dissonant notes using the full 7 note scale
    than the pentatonic. (It's not guaranteed of course :each chord progression / song is different)

    this is because the most common chords used in a major key are (I ii iii IV V vi),
    the pentatnoic major contains no notes that outright clash with these.
    in fact, except for the IV it mirrors exactly the roots of those chords.
    It make the pentatonic a very reliable way to travel between root notes.

    Chord moving form C to F (I to IV) might be a good place to switch from C maj pent to F maj pent
    but I am more likely to keep thinking C maj pent and just add F until the chord moves

    Basically the formula I gravitate to tends to be
    Major pentatonic of the key + root of the current chord * whatever my ear tells me works
  7. + 1 to what Mambo4 said. Major pentatonic over major chords, minor pentatonic over minor chords if you like. No reason to run them in pentatonic order, you can use any order you like, and you do not need to sound every pentatonic note.

    I at first had trouble fitting a 5 note "thing" into a 4/4 time signature bass line, until I found that I did not have to use all five notes. That seemed to free me from one of the main problems I had with pentatonic scales.

    I liked what Mambo4 had to say about:
    Get lost - revert to the tonic pentatonic till you realize the chord progression being used. Then just add the root chord note into your tonic pentatonic improve.

    My two cents.
  8. Itzayana


    Aug 15, 2012
    Oakland Ca
    I don't care what you call it or how you figure it all out. Just play the "right" notes and we will get along just fine!
  9. Bainbridge


    Oct 28, 2012
    You should use the pentatonic scale with a reason, not an excuse. You really don't need to think of a new scale for every chord change. You really don't. You're probably playing four notes to a bar at most in most cases anyway, and at least two of those notes are going to be chord tones. I IV V is the most common chord progression in the entire world. It's completely diatonic - you can jam the entire thing with one major scale. Hit the chord tones, use the non-chord tones when you know how and why to use them, and you will never be wrong.
  10. Fergie Fulton

    Fergie Fulton

    Nov 22, 2008
    Retrovibe Artist rota
    I view and teach scales as across the whole neck, not as just eight notes, i do the same with Pentatonic.
    You learn scales within there tonic to tonic format, but practice them over the whole neck as one. In doing so for example a C pentatonic will incorporate the major and the minor in your practice.
    As with the Diatonic C scales the lowest note available on a standard precision is pitched at E and the highest is pitched at D nearly three octaves above that E.

    So in practicing in this way you do not practice a major or a minor Pentatonic, you practice them both with the dual tonality they share, so CMaj pentatonic and an Am pentatonic get practiced as one.
    This will teach you not to see them simply as five notes, but as a function within melody and harmony.
    As with all scales practised in this manner you learn to see 'outside the notes' and not confine yourself within there limited tonic to tonic pitch.

    Add to this the ideas of approach notes and you will learn that in Cmaj for example you can start on any note and construct melodies without having to use the note C at all. This will help you hear the tonality of pentatonics rather than as just a pattern of five notes. :)

    In the link there is a de-construction of two Stevie Ray Vaughan songs, the bass lines are based on Pentatonic's, but related to the chord structures being used, and as such flow across the neck rather than being confined. The theory is simple enough, it sounds great, but the application can take many forms....this is just my take on it as i hear the dual tonality of both songs and treat the application as one idea within two very different songs.


    Riveria Paradise
  11. Groove Master

    Groove Master

    Apr 22, 2011
    Author of Groove 101, Slap 101 and Technique 101
    What do you want to do exactly with them in your playing?

    -Soloing? Or
    -use them in your basslines?

    2 very different things. Let me know and I'll be able to guide you ;)
  12. MeshMan


    Apr 7, 2012
    @GrooveMaster- using them in my bass lines. Using them to construct a bass line. As it is now, I figure out the chord progression and start with the roots of those, but theres no flow between the chord changes.

    I could also be crazy and Im playing fine... I just really feel like I should have this pentatonic thing figured out by now
  13. Zootsuitbass


    Mar 13, 2011
    Groove is going the right direction. Soloing and Bass line construction,,,VERY different.

    The main point of pentatonic is to omit the 1/2 steps of the parent scales. Those are where the real dissonances are created and you need to handle with care. You can think This makes that easier.

    Lots of Classic Blues.R&B and all it's children Guitar/Piano Riffs are based out of the sounds of the Penta scale.

    SO lots of bass lines created in support of these styles are based out of the same sounds.

    Now some more modern music shows it's it's roots to the old stuff very clearly…others not so much.

    There is some theory you should know….

    There is a Ionian mode and it's relative minor,Aeolian.

    If you took out all the 2 half steps,,,, Walla Ionian becomes Major pent and Aolian becomes ITS RELITIVE Minor pent.
  14. Zootsuitbass


    Mar 13, 2011
    Tell me what you know about penta's?
  15. MeshMan


    Apr 7, 2012
    I know that they omit the 4th and 7th degrees. I know the actual forms, the 5 patterns so to say. I know each one has a relative minor.

    I believe they follow in a specific order. i.e: 123451 or 234512, or 451234, etc.

    I dont know how to use them... though I think I am starting to understand. Maybe. But not having the IV in the penta is really throwing me off. To omit such an important chord while playing in the major key... I dont know, evidently I have no idea how these work.
  16. Zootsuitbass


    Mar 13, 2011
    Each of these five shapes? Do you know where the roots of the Minor is each one?? Thirds of the Major?? Could you put a C jam track on and make solid sounds that reflect that sound?
    Then can you put on a A min track and make sounds that reflect it?

    Can you do that in all the shapes with equal skill?
  17. Alder P Ashman

    Alder P Ashman

    Aug 27, 2013
    I totally agree. Playing the relative major/minor pentatonic over a tonal center is a great thing to do. ie:
    C minor/Eb maj pentatonic
    D major/B minor pentatonic
    G minor/Bb maj pent...and so forth.
    Examine closely some Stevie Wonder songs with this in mind and it'll open up some windows of your harmonic and melodic perception. (Of course many other examples can be found).

    Another way to expand your ears and vocabulary with the pentatonic is to use it to explore upper chord extensions (this is reiterating what Fergie Fulton said, just with another example). For example, play a D major pentatonic over a C major7 chord. Now, instead of D maj pent with D as the root, you are playing Cmaj7#11 chord tones. D is the 9th, E is the 3rd, F# is the #11, A is the 13, B is the Maj7th, and D is the 9th again. Hip. This idea can be taken very far, and can be used to play some very singable melodies while at the same time playing the hippest upper chord extensions.

    Note that this approach is often thought of as limited to the jazz approach to harmony, but it doesn't have to be: think of some kind of opportunity like the last chord of a rock song, while the band is doing the fermata/crash and burn thing, etc...
  18. Groove Master

    Groove Master

    Apr 22, 2011
    Author of Groove 101, Slap 101 and Technique 101
    I think you have it wrong with the pentatonics.
    These kind of scales are reduced versions of diatonic and functionnal scales. A pentatonic will NEVER give you the function of a particuliar chord beside been major or minor or sus4.

    For bassists and guitarists, the pentatonic scale is easy to play because of the shapes on the fingerboard. Also there is rarely a WRONG note when playing a pentatonic over a related chord.

    So, learn more theory if I would be you for a deeper understanding of the harmony and scales choices.

    Also the pentatonics (especially the minor mode) is a great place to create good riffs, basslines and fills. The major mode is also a good choice for FILLS in a major key.

    Here my take on the nmodes of the major pentatonic scale of C:

    I mode) c-d-e-g-a: C6/9. Can be played over any type of C major chord and even C7.

    II mode) d-e-g-a-c: To me this is the perfect mode to play over a D7sus4

    III mode) e-g-a-c-d: For me this is more of and inversion of the C major chord starting on the third or the minor scale(A minor) starting on the fifth. Remember the riff of Black Dog from LZ?

    IV mode) The major scale starting on the fifth or the minor mode starting on the b7 of A min.

    V) the relative minor mode of the major pentatonic Aminor 7. The most useful mode of all with the I mode ;-)

    Hope this helps,

  19. Lownote38


    Aug 8, 2013
    Nashville, TN
    I-IV-V is a blues progression, and usually every chord has a b7 on it (dominant quality) if it has a 7. If you listen to a bluesman soloing over this progression if I=C, you might hear a C minor pentatonic, or a C major pentatonic. I've heard Jimmy Page switch between the two quite often in the same song over the same I-IV-V progression. A lot of blues implies a #9, so a lot of soloists will play a minor pentatonic over a I-IV-V in that context. The #9 being the same as a minor third.

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