Do You Really Know the Pentatonic Scale?

Most guitarists learn the pentatonic scale as one of the first things they ever learn on the guitar, and most of the time it is not a scale that we think too much about when we use it. It's just the pentatonic scale and it's something that is in our ears and fingers for years, even if we are already for the rest playing music with extended chords, altered dominants, etc.

Do You Really Know the Pentatonic Scale?
Most guitarists learn the pentatonic scale as one of the first things they ever learn on the guitar, and most of the time it is not a scale that we think too much about when we use it. It's just the pentatonic scale and it's something that is in our ears and fingers for years, even if we are already for the rest playing music with extended chords, altered dominants etc.

In this lesson I am going to take apart the pentatonic scale and look at some of the things that you can find in there since that might yield some new ways of using it by combining what you know of the pentatonic scale and what you know about improvising with chords and arpeggios.

The Pentatonic Scale

The pentatonic scale that I will spend time on in this lesson is this D minor pentatonic scale:

If you try to remember all the exercises you have done in a pentatonic scale you will probably find that they are all sequences and groups of notes (3 and 4 are very common) more than they are practicing specific structures that could be seen as a chord.

Building Diatonic Chords

In a major scale we create chords by stacking diatonic 3rds. A diatonic third is basically a just a note followed by the note 2 steps higher in the scale. If we build chords in the scale like this we get this scale exercise:

To get a better overview of what these arpeggios are you can play them as chords (the pentatonic scale is very forgiving with it's 2 note per string fingerings) and that will give us the following set of chords that are diatonic triads in the pentatonic scale.

As you can see the triads that we build are almost never consisting of actual 3rd intervals and especially the 4th is much more present in the chords which is why we get stacks of 4ths (the sus chord inversions).

The chords we have are then Dm, F, Gsus4, Csus4, Dsus4 which you could consider the diatonic triads in the scale.

Even if it is possible to play this in a position like I did in example 3 it is very useful both for comping and for using them as arpeggios to practice these on a string set like shown in example 4:

It is worth while to keep in mind that if you can use the pentatonic scale to play a solo over a chord then probably the chords in example 4 are good for comping over that chord. Maybe try out example 4 over a Bb bass note to get a Bbmaj7 sound.

Open voiced diatonic chords

Now that we have 3 different types of chords: major, minor and sus4. We can start getting more out of the chords by playing them as open voiced triads. The easiest place to start with making open voiced triads is to take example 4 and then lower the 2nd note an octave. If you do that you will get the following chords:

 With open voiced triads you get a lot out of inverting them, because they contain a lot of quite large intervals. To just cover that I've written out a set of inversions for each type of the open voiced triads.

Practicing these open voiced triad inversions is a great thing to put to use with pentatonic scales and they are also great for right hand accuracy and technique since they contain a lot of irregular string skips.

If you want to check out open voiced triads in more detail you can also have a look at this lesson: Open Triads in Solos

Shell voicings in the pentatonic scale

One way to think of the D minor pentatonic scale is to think of it as a Dm7 arpeggio with an added G. Since the Dm7 chord is to be found in the scale we can of course also use a Dm7 shell voicing and try to play that through the scale.

I have written this out in example 9. The most logical starting point seemed to be the standard Dm7 shell voicing in the 5th fret. From There I take it through all 5 degrees of the scale to get some other voicings. Some of the voicings have nice seconds in them and can be put to good use in any situation where Dm pentatonic is an option.

If you want to know more about using shell voicings as arpeggios you can also check out my lesson on this subject: Shell Voicings as Arpeggios

A few examples

All three examples are basic II V I progressions in the key of C, so Dm7, G7alt and Cmaj7.

The first example is using the open voiced triads, and more or less just playing the first two arpeggios from example 5, which are a Dm and then an inversion of a Csus4 (or an open voiced Fsus2 if you will). From there the line descends down the scale and continues to a G7 alt line that is based around an AbmMaj7(9) arpeggio that then is resolved via the Ab to the 5th (G) of C.

Using the "diatonic triads" from example 2 in a similar basic way is also a very useful. In the 2nd line I start of with an A and then go into the F major 2nd inversion and Gsus4 triads from example 2. On the G7alt the line is using the Bb min pentatonic scale. First a stack of 4ths from Bb, which would be the same as the Dsus4 triad in example 2.  From here it descends down the scale and resolves to the 7th of Cmaj7.

The third example is mixing up the open voiced  triads and stacks of 4ths. First an open voiced Csus4 triad followed by a Gsus4 triad. From there it continues with a basic line on G7alt that is build around an AbmMaj7 arpeggio that via an chromatic approach resolves to the 5th (G) of Cmaj7.

Some of the chord names that I end up using in this lesson like the Gsus4 and the Dsus4 are maybe not the best names to describe the sound that you have at your disposal with these arpeggios, but it is still very worth while to use this approach to get some new arpeggios and melodic structures out of the pentatonic scale. By looking at it in the same way we would the major or melodic minor scale.

I hope that you can use the material that I went over here to get some new ideas and make some good surprising lines using pentatonic scales.

If you want to download a PDF of the examples I went over here for later study you can do so here: Do you really know the pentatonic scale?

If you have any questions, comments or suggestions for topics or how I can make the lessons better then please feel free to leave on the video or send me an e-mail. That is the best way for me to improve my lessons and make them fit what you want to hear.

About the Author:
By Jens Larsen. I hope that you liked the lesson. There are more lessons on my website. If you have any questions or comments then feel free to leave them here or on the video. Please subscribe to my YouTube channel and feel free to connect with me via Instagram, Facebook, Google+ or Twitter to keep up to date with new lessons, concerts and releases.

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    Hi Jens Still new to theory and was interested in the minor pentatonic chord progression eventhough it's not used that often. I was wondering why you have 2 different D chords (Dsus4 + Dmin) and why there's a minor chord. When I tried adding it up to make my own progession i got: Sus4;Maj6;Sus4;Sus4;Sus4(add6) at the end. Have I totally flawed this?
    I get two different D chords because one has the notes A D G, which is an inversion of D G A (Dsus4) and the other one is F A D which is an inversion of D F A (D minor) I don't find it that surprising that the D minor pentatonic scale contains a Dm chord? Or am I misunderstanding your questions? And the you have a progression written out, and you have that from which example in the lesson? I am not sure what you mean there either Thanks for checking out the lesson!