Crazy Stuff To Do With Pentatonic Scales

author: beginnerguitarn date: 07/27/2012 category: music theory tips
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Crazy Stuff To Do With Pentatonic Scales
For guitarists, the pentatonic scale is like a hammer. It's a simple, essential, and elegant tool with lots of common uses. You can use a hammer for what it was meant for (hammering nails) or plenty of things it wasn't (smashing in the windshield of a cheating lover). Your pentatonic scale can be wielded in the same ways. You can't smash a window, but you can smash conventional guitar playing.

I'll start with simple, more common ideas, and we'll get crazier from there. I imagine you're already familiar with a standard minor pentatonic pattern if you're reading this in the first place, but just in case... This is A pentatonic minor and it can be transposed to any key by moving the pattern to a different starting fret.


The most obvious and common use for a minor pentatonic is over a minor chord. In anything that's blues-influenced you can also use it over a major or dominant 7th chord of the same root. Try playing your A pentatonic minor over and A major or A7 chord. In theory that's totally against the rules because you're playing a minor 3rd (C) in the scale and a major 3rd (C#) in the chord. But doing it definitely creates a "bluesy sound" in whatever style you're playing.

The reasons for why this minor-against-major sound works are many. In a theory sense, the b3 can be reinterpreted as a #9, which further alters your 7th chord. In an anthropological sense, it's a sound the attempts to mimic traditional African sounds with western instruments. Or you can just say "it sounds cool". Personally that last one is good enough reason for me.

That same exact pentatonic box can be morphed into a major pentatonic scale by thinking about relative keys. The term "relative keys" means two scales that have the same key signature (and notes, of course), but with a different root note (the starting note or 'tonal center').

Here's and example:

G major and E minor have the same key signature, one sharp (F#). These are the two scales:

G  A  B  C  D  E  F#  G
E  F#  G  A  B  C  D  E

Exactly the same notes, just a different starting point. The formula is this... Start from the major root and count to the 6th note in the scale. That's the starting note for your relative minor. If you're starting from the minor and need to find major, count back six notes.

So for our A pentatonic minor example, C would be the relative major. That means this same scale will work just fine over a C major chord as well.

The important thing in doing this effectively is making sure you know which note is the root. If you're playing over the Am chord, A is the root. If you're playing over Cmaj, then C is the root. Other than that, it's exactly the same notes.

Ok, those are the basic uses of the pentatonic that you may be familiar with already. Let's take a look at some "stupid pentatonic tricks". All of these are theoretically valid. Whether they're musically valid is up to you, your guitar, and your ears. Each of these examples would be played over a G major chord.You can easily transpose them anywhere else you need by checking out the interval between the chord root and the scale root.

1. Use the pentatonic minor a tritone away from the major chord.

C# pentatonic minor - C# E F# G# B - This one will definitely spice up that bland major chord by using the b5 (C#), the major 7th (F#), and the b2 (G#). It's pretty "outside" sounding.

2. Play a pentatonic minor that's a major 3rd above the root of the chord.

B minor pentatonic - B D E F# A - This one sits a little easier on the ear by using the major 7th (F#) and 9th (A)

3. Play the minor pentatonic a half step below the chord.

F# minor pentatonic - F# A B C# E - Much like the last one, this gives you the major 7th (F#) and the 9th (A), but also that cool b5 tritone (C#).

4. Use the pentatonic minor a half step above your chord.

G# minor pentatonic - G# B C# D# F# - This one could be used to run off stray animals or force terrorists out of their hiding place. You'll be accessing the b2 (G#), b5 (C#), #5 (D#), and major 7th (F#). "Pretty" is not a word that comes to mind, but if your ear likes it, by all means, it's there to abuse.

5. Play the pentatonic minor a whole step below your chord.

F minor pentatonic - F Ab Bb C Eb - This gives you some cool blues extensions like the minor 7th (F), minor 3rd (Bb), and minor 6th (Eb), plus a very Phrygian-sounding b2 (Ab).

6. Use the pentatonic minor that's a whole step above your chord.

A minor pentatonic - A C D E G - You'll have the 9th (A) and a weird suspended feel with the C.

Some of these sounds may cause your ears to try and murder you in your sleep. More likely you'll run across some exotic new sounds that inspire you to new creative heights. Experiment with each one of these ideas and squeeze every bit of musical juice from that good 'ol pentatonic box.

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