Only five notes. Yet, the possibilities are endless. I’m talking about Pentatonic scales. These five-note scales are popular, and have been used in lots of different styles of music, like jazz, blues, rock, and folk music.
You’ll often hear pentatonic scales used in solos and improvisation because of their simple, memorable melody and the ease with which they can be played on many instruments.
Many jazz musicians have used pentatonic scales in their solos. Take a listen to some recordings of John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Michael Brecker, Herbie Hancock, and Chick Corea. You’ll quickly hear how exciting your lines can sound by limiting your note options to just five notes.
In this article, you’ll learn:
- What are pentatonic scales (major and minor)
- 3 Useful pentatonic scales and the chords they sound great on
- Best ways to use pentatonic scales in jazz
- Guidelines for improvising
Let’s get started.
If you’re short on time, watch my video that shows 3 easy ways you can “hipify” your pentatonic scales. I’ll demonstrate the concepts and break them down for you.
What are Pentatonic Scales?
Pentatonic scales are musical scales that contain five notes per octave. They are called “pentatonic” because they have five notes, just as “heptatonic” scales have seven notes.
These five-note scales (there’s many of them) are common in all types of music, including jazz, blues, rock, and folk music. They have a familiar melodic sound that’s singable and catchy.
The most common pentatonic scale is the minor pentatonic scale, which is made up of the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 7th degrees of the natural minor scale. The major pentatonic scale, which is made up of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 6th degrees of the major scale, is also commonly used.
Now, let’s dive deeper into the different kinds of pentatonic scales and the chords they sound great on.
3 Useful Pentatonic Scales and What Chords To Use Them On
There are 12 notes in Western music. And, any 5 of those notes can be used to create a pentatonic scale. Having that said, you can accomplish a lot by knowing just few useful pentatonic scales.
Here are 3 pentatonic scales to get you started, their numeric formulas, and the types of chords they sound best on.
Major Pentatonic Scale
- Numeric Formula: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6
- Here are the notes of a C Major Pentatonic Scale: C, D, E, G, A
Chords that a C Major Pentatonic Scale sounds great on:
- C Major 6
- F Major 7
- A minor 7
- G minor 7
- F♯ alt 7
- D 7 sus4
- B♭ Major 7♯11
Minor Pentatonic Scale
- Numeric Formula: 1, ♭3, 4, 5, ♭7
- Here are the notes of a C Minor Pentatonic Scale: C, E♭, F, G, B♭
Chords that a C Minor Pentatonic Scale sounds great on:
- C minor 7
- B♭ minor 7
- F 7 sus4
- A alt 7
- E♭ Major 6
- Ab Major 7
- D♭ Major 7♯11
If you’ve ever ran your fingers along the black keys of a piano, that’s the sound of an E♭ minor pentatonic scale.
Dorian Pentatonic Scale
- Numeric Formula: 1, 2, ♭3, 5, 6
- Here are the notes of a C Dorian Pentatonic Scale: C, D, E♭, G, A
Chords that a C Dorian Pentatonic Scale sounds great on:
- C minor 6
- A Minor 7♭5
- D 7♭9
- B alt 7
- E♭ Major 7♯11
- B♭ Major 7
A Super-Versatile Scale
Memorize the foundation of these scales in the key of C, then move on to learning them on all 12 keys.
You can see from the openness of the pentatonic scale, that it lends itself to being used over a wide variety of chord sounds. These work well over major chords, minor chords, half-diminished chords, dominant chords, and even altered dominant chords.
When starting out, learn one or a few chords to apply this scale over when you’re soloing. Keep applying until it becomes second nature.
How to Use Pentatonic Scales in Jazz
Jazz musicians have inarguably had a massive influence on modern music. Their impact is generation-spanning and endlessly meaningful, as it continues to inspire incredible new works and creations today.
A powerful distinction that has set numerous jazz artists apart over the years is their creative application of the pentatonic scale, revealing captivating musical exploration pathways, which is demonstrated particularly masterfully in their impressive improvisations.
Using pentatonic scales undeniably creates favorable, familiar, and predictable melodies. Remarkably, this is true even when only the first few notes are given. Omitting the two half-step (or semitone) notes of each natural scale creates these enjoyable note patterns.
Rather than relying on pentatonic scales alone, applying them strategically can more effectively help to tell a well-rounded and engaging story. Pentatonic scales are best when supported by other melodic patterns to bring greater diversity and range to the piece.
5 Guidelines For Creating Jazzy Lines With Pentatonic Scales
Here are some guidelines for creating exciting lines with your pentatonic shapes:
- Focus on 2-note, 3-note, and 4-note shapes.
- Shift your shapes up or down a ½ step to create temporary tension and release.
- To create even more drama, explore dividing the octave. For example, you can continue to shift your shapes up major 3rd intervals until you’re back. This creates a very hip sound. Musicians, like Michael Brecker, have used this approach in a lot of solos. Another idea is to play the same shape along scales degrees. This creates an entirely different vibe.
- Be sure to introduce non-pentatonic sounds every now and then. That way your sound will have more depth. For example, you can end your pentatonic phrases with triad pairs. This will introduce a melodic and brighter sound to your lines. Or, you can even end with a string phrase that uses the blues scale.
- Rhythm is the key to making pentatonic lines sound hip.
Jazz Musicians That Use Pentatonic Scales In Their Solos
There are many jazz musicians that play the pentatonic scale in their solos. Here are some of my favorites:
- John Coltrane
- McCoy Tyner
- Michael Brecker
- Chick Corea
These are just a few examples, but many other jazz musicians have also used pentatonic scales in their solos. You can use these scales in just about any musical situation because they’re versatile, widely used, and easy to remember.
Listen to John Coltrane’s use of the pentatonic scale, here.
Or, check out how Michael Brecker approaches pentatonic scales to create exciting lines.
Offering a fun element of freedom, pentatonic scales bring various pattern, shape, sequence, and fragment possibilities right to your fingertips. After all, the notes are naturally complementary in any order. They also lend themselves well to tension building and release, for interesting phrase creation and chord progression, especially in solos.
Every genre, from metal and pop to jazz and classical, has made musical use of this type of scale in myriad ways, making it one of the most influential forces in the evolution of music. Grasp the concept of pentatonic scales. Listen to musicians that have taken this concept further. And keep exploring.