The video above is based on the lesson below.
The minor pentatonic scale is a fairly well-known scale, and I imagine many of you have used it before. However, I find that many musicians think about using this scale with a limited perspective.
Often times it’s thought of in a blues context, which of course the minor pentatonic scale lends itself to quite nicely. But if you take a deeper look, you’ll discover that the minor pentatonic scale has a lot more to offer!
Now before I dive in to the lesson, let me offer up my philosophy on scales in general: Scales can offer us a way to conceptualize music and help us learn our instrument better. But they are not musical in and of themselves.
They can help us group notes together in a functional way, and understand music theoretically, but it is up to the musician to use that knowledge to create actual musical ideas. Okay, that’s my disclaimer, now let’s move on!
In case you aren’t familiar with the minor pentatonic scale, here is an A minor pentatonic notated, which we will be using as a reference point for this lesson:
You’ll notice I added the 9th (C) as the top note before going back down the scale. You’ll also notice I notated two octaves of the scale, which I believe is important to be able to do.
Okay, now let’s start checking out some different ways to apply the minor penatonic scale to different kinds of chords. For the most part, I’ll try to stick to the A minor pentatonic scale to help provide more clarity.
The Usual Suspects
1. Root Minor Chords
This one makes a lot of sense right? It’s a minor scale with 5 notes (hence minor pentatonic) so playing this scale over a minor scale is going to make sense.
When I say root minor chords, I mean that the root of the chord is the same root of the scale. So you can play an A minor pentatonic over an Amin7 (or just Am) chord. Take a look and then a listen:
2. Root Dominant 7th Chords
In the same way, an A minor pentatonic can be played over an A7 chord. This is most commonly applied in a blues situation. The scale does skip the 3rd of A7 (C#), which would spell out the difference between a minor and a dominant chord.
Regardless, this grouping of notes works out well. Just remember, nothing is stopping you from adding that 3rd in yourself!
In the context of a key center
We can also think about using minor pentatonic scales in the context of a key center. The important thing to understand is this: for every minor chord there is a relative major and vise versa.
For example, An A minor chord (which corresponds with our A minor pentatonic scale), is relative to C major. A trick to finding that out is to move up a minor third from the root. Or if you are starting with a major chord, move up a major sixth and that is the relative minor.
Now we are in the key of C major. What chords are all relative to C major? Here they are:
vi: Amin7 (relative minor)
For pretty much all of these you can play an A minor pentatonic, although some I would suggest otherwise. Let’s go over them:
3. The relative major chord
The A minor pentatonic scale is really the same as a C major pentatonic scale, only starting on an A note. In a musical situation, what note you start on doesn’t really matter. This is only just a way to conceptualize it.
4. The major IV chord of the relative major.
If we are thinking in the key of C major, the IV chord is F major 7. The 6th note of the F major scale is played in the A minor pentatonic, so if you wanted to be more specific, you could play an Fmaj13 chord.
5. The minor ii chord of the relative major.
In this case, we would be playing an A minor pentatonic scale over D minor 7. More accurately, you could play a Dmin9 or a Dmin11, since both of those extensions are hit in the A minor pentatonic.
Of course, you could also just play a D minor pentatonic over a Dmin7 chord.
6. The V sus4 chord of the relative major.
In this case, a G7sus. You could just play a regular V dominant chord, but since the relative minor pentatonic emphasizes the sus4, it would be appropriate to think of it this way.
In fact, it would be more accurate to play a G13sus chord since the 6th is also played.
Alternatives in the key center
Like I said, you could play an A minor pentatonic over any of the chords in the key center of C major, but for some there are better options. The most obvious one is playing an E minor pentatonic over the iii chord (Emin7).
But the one that deserves a little bit more attention is the vii half diminished chord (Bmin7b5).
This chord is often thought of as the ii chord in the relative minor (A minor), but the A minor pentatonic doesn’t highlight the most important note in that chord: the flat 5 (F).
7. The ii minor pentatonic over the vii chord.
The minor pentatonic scale that would highlight that b5 is the D minor pentatonic scale, therefore this is a better option to play over this chord.
The Unusual Suspects
8. Minor pent. a half step down from a Major 7(b5) chord.
Have you ever saw this chord in a playing situation and just had no idea how to improvise over it? This is a great option for organizing a grouping of notes to play over this chord.
In this particular case, we are playing an A minor pentatonic scale over a Bbmaj7(b5) chord. Why? Because the scale starts on the 7th of Bb major and the pentatonic highlights the most important note in this chord: the flat 5 (E).
9. Applying minor pentatonics to a ii-V-I.
This is a really cool application to what arguably is the most important chord progression in jazz. Check out this video for starters:
Pretty cool huh? Jazz guitarist Vic Juris has a pretty inventive way to help us start applying this scale with some chordal movement. Take a look at it notated out:
We’ve already gone over how the A minor pentatonic works over a Dmin7. We’ve also already covered the concept of playing a minor pentatonic scale a half step down from a maj7(b5) chord.
The new member to the group here is the A# pentatonic over the G7alt chord. You can think of this as just playing a minor pentatonic a minor third up from the root of a given dominant chord. Essentially you are hitting all of the possible alterations in a dominant 7 chord (#9, b9, #11, #5).
It may sound a little bit “out” but when you resolve to the Cmaj7(b5) it has a really nice sound.
Hopefully, this stuff gets you hitting the practice room to start working on some of these applications of the minor pentatonic scale. Good luck!