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How to Use Altered Pentatonics

I’ve discussed the major pentatonic scale here on LJS before and some of its uses. In this post I want to briefly review the major pentatonic scale and then talk about what I call altered pentatonic scales.

Pentatonic scales are useful because they allow you to focus your melodic improvisation by whittling your note choice down to just 5 notes.

This gives you more freedom to play “across the bar line” since a single pentatonic scale can often work well over multiple different chords. It also allows you to be more selective with your note choice and focus on hitting more “color tones,” i.e., notes from the upper extensions of chords.

I find these scales are fun and useful melodic tools to practice and improvise with. By limiting my note choices, using pentatonics forces me to focus on being more creative and expressive with other aspects of improvisation such as rhythm, phrasing, using space, motivic development, etc. I hope these scales give you melodic ideas while improvising and practicing.

First, lets’ review the major pentatonic scale:

This scale has a wide variety of potential uses. You could play C major pentatonic over any of the following chords:  Cmaj.6, A-7, Fmaj.7, D-11, D7sus, Gsus, B(Phrygian) or B-11(b9,b13), F#7alt., Bbmaj7(#11), E-7(b13).

So abstractly, how are these chords related to the pentatonic scale? Let’s rethink this in Roman numerals so we can make general rules to help us use this scale in different keys over different chords.

If C major pentatonic is the tonic key, let’s call C the I. So if you have a major pentatonic built from the I, the chords it works over are:

I(maj.6), VI-7, IV(maj.7), II-11, II7(sus4), V(sus4), VII(Phrygian), bV7alt., bVII(maj.7,#11), and III-7(b13).

And keep in mind, a minor pentatonic scale is merely a major pentatonic scale played starting on the relative minor. So A minor pentatonic is just C major pentatonic played starting from A.

By altering one note at a time, you can generate variations on this scale.

Here are some examples with explanations of the “parent scale” that they are extracted or derived from as well as a list of potential chords they work over:

You can follow the same process outlined above to take these key-specific scales and their uses and abstract out general principles of how and when to use them by converting the chords into Roman numerals.

Feel free to experiment with some of these and see which ones stand out to you the most.

Josiah Boornazian
Josiah Boornazian is a saxophonist, composer, educator, and scholar primarily active in Brownsville, New York City, Miami, and California. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Jazz and Applied Saxophone at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. For more information, please visit:


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