Pentatonic or Gin and Tonic?

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Definitely partial to gin and cranberry juice with a slice of lime; it tastes like a Christmas tree. Don’t ask! Anyway.. We will be dealing with the major and minor pentatonic in this article. Five points for the five note scale.

1. What is a pentatonic?

It is a scale containing 5 notes. They are commonly used in rock music, but if you analyse John Coltrane’s famous solo on Giant Steps you will find a heavy reliance on pentatonic motifs. Many post bop trumpeters like Woody Shaw and Freddie Hubbard would use them. Many classical composers such as Chopin, Copeland, Mussorgsky, Stravinsky, Gershwin use this scale. In short it is a useful musical scale which is not bound to style, genre or instrument.

2. What notes do I play?

You could make your own pentatonics up provided they contained 5 notes, however there are 2 common ones: the major pentatonic and the minor pentatonic.

Major: 1 2 3 5 6 or C D E G A
Minor: 1 b3 4 5 b7 or C Eb F G Bb

What you may not know is that this is a total of 10 scales…

3. Really? 10 scales from 2?

Yes. By taking each 5 note scale, but starting and finishing of differing degrees of the scale we play a mode of the scale. As there are 5 notes in the scale, there are 5 notes. In the same manner there are 7 modes of the major scale. Don’t worry if you are confused, here is a worksheet to clear up any uncertainty.



4. Show me this in context; I hate learning scales!

You should purchase an orchestral excerpt book, and look at “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Mussorgsky. This iconic trumpet solo is largely based on the pentatonic scale. Similarly, you should watch the transcription of John Coltrane’s solo on “Giant Steps” – this is also very pentatonic in nature.


5. What chords can I play these pentatonics over?

Very simply:

The major pentatonic will suit major chords such as the major 7 and dominant 7th. It has no 7th to confuse these chords with. It can be used in many other ways and substitutions, but we will address that later.

The minor pentatonic will work over minor 7 and dominant 7th chords (minding the 4th) and many other chords, but we are keeping this simple for now!

Please comment on this article, and do contribute to our forum. I will be writing more on how to apply this to improvisation in the coming weeks.

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One Response to “Pentatonic or Gin and Tonic?”

  1. I choose Gin & Tonic but since this is a music blog I will talk about the Pentatonic Scales instead….bummer!

    So lets use the same notes in a C Minor Pentatonic.
    Minor: 1 b3 4 5 b7 or C Eb F G Bb

    You can use those same notes over various other jazz chords like:
    Db Maj. 13 which we omit the Root spelling this chord:
    Db Maj. 13: 7 9 3 +11 13 7 or C Eb F G Bb C

    It gives that Chord more color to it.

    So lets use the C Major Pentatonic.
    Major: 1 2 3 5 6 or C D E G A

    I like to play this Pentatonic over a D min11
    D min 11: 7 1 9 11 5 7 or C D E G A

    You can use major and minor pentatonic over so many different chords which will give them more life instead of just playing them over major and minor changes.

    You can also practice these by playing the chords with your left hand while playing with your horn in the right hand to work on these chords to bring more color and texture to your jazz playing.

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