The pentatonic scale is usually the first scale beginning guitarists know and use for improvising.
The pentatonic and blues pentatonic scales are used very frequently in rock,blues & pop music, but you hear them less frequently in jazz music and when you hear them it is usually on a modal tune or a jazz blues, but almost never on standards.
After we've learned the other scales that are useful for playing jazz, we tend to forget the pentatonic scale, but it's actually a very good device to add some variety to your improvisations.
If after the following lesson you'd want to know even more about pentatonic scales, I suggest you take a look in The Jazz Theory Book (it's the jazz theory bible).
Let's start with the basics of the pentatonic scale: A pentatonic scale is any scale that contains 5 notes. Any scale that contains 5 notes can be called
pentatonic, but when people talk about pentatonic scales they refer to the minor pentatonic scale or the major pentatonic
The major pentatonic scale consists of the 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6 of the major scale. The C major pentatonic scale for example has the following notes:
|C Major Pentatonic Scale||C D E G A|
The minor pentatonic scale consists of the 1, 3, 4, 5 and 7 of the natural minor scale (the aeolian scale). The A minor pentatonic scale has the following notes:
|A Minor Pentatonic Scale||A C D E G|
You might notice that the C major pentatonic scale en the A minor pentatonic scale have exactly the same notes, just like the C major scale (ionian mode)
and the A natural minor scale (aeolian mode) have the same notes. If you're not sure what modes are, you might want to
check this other lesson: The Modes.
Some advantages of the pentatonic scale:
So, how do you use the pentatonic scale?
The obvious way of using pentatonic scales is playing them on modal tunes or on a blues, but they are also very useful to play over chord changes.
Here's a list of what pentatonic scale you can play on what chord. Let's do the first one together so you can see how the list works:
|Chord Type||Chord Tensions||Major Pentatonic Scale||Note Functions|
|Major||6,9||I||1 9 3 5 6|
|V||5 6 7 9 3|
|9,#11||II||9 3 #11 6 7|
|Minor||6,9,11||bIII||b3 11 5 b7 1|
|IV||11 5 6 1 9|
|bVII||b7 1 9 11 5|
|Minor/major||6,9||IV||11 5 6 1 9|
|Dominant||9,13||I||1 9 3 5 13|
|b9,#9,b5,b13||bV||b5 b13 b7 b9 #9|
|Sus 4||9,13||IV||4 5 13 1 9|
|bVII||b7 1 9 4 5|
|Half Diminished||b6,11||bVI||b6 b7 1 b3 11|