I've always had a difficult time incorporating pentatonics into my playing. I understand the theoretical principles regarding their use in jazz, but whenever I try to use them they always end up sounding so predictable and "pentatonic-y". I try to sound like Woody Shaw and just end up sounding like Dickey Betts. A friend of mine recently asked me to write about my thoughts on using the pentatonic scale in jazz, so I treated his request as a good opportunity to revisit this problem-spot of mine.
What is a Pentatonic Scale?
As its name implies, a pentatonic scale is scale made-up of five notes. There are two basic forms of the pentatonic scale: the major pentatonic scale and the minor pentatonic scale. The major pentatonic scale is essentially a major scale without the 4th or 7th degrees. The minor pentatonic scale is essentially a natural minor scale without the 2nd or 6th degrees (this can also be seen as the fourth inversion of the major pentatonic scale). Thus, from a C major pentatonic scale would contain the notes C, D, E, G, & A; and a C minor pentatonic scale would contain the notes C, Eb, F, G, & Bb.
That seems simple enough. So can I just substitute those scales for my major and minor scales?
Ah, herein lies the confusion. Pentatonic scales are one of the most commonly-used scales in music, and due to the fact that they lay well on the guitar, they are extremely prevalent in guitar-based musics such as blues, rock, country, pop, and R&B. In these styles of music, the pentatonic scale is being used in a lyrical way to execute basic notes within the tonality. For example, a country guitarist such as Dickey Betts would use a G major pentatonic (or E minor pentatonic) scale over a G major chord, and a blues guitarist such as Albert King would use an A minor pentatonic scale over an A blues. From jazz's inception, pentatonic scales were also used in this manner. However, during the 1960s, jazz musicians such as Woody Shaw and Wayne Shorter began using pentatonic scales in different ways to create much more colorful and angular sounds. When jazz musicians refer to using pentatonics, it is in this manner that they are referring to. Below are three tips to help you begin incorporating pentatonic scales into your jazz playing in less of a Betts-esque way, and more of a Shaw-esque way.
The first way you can start sounding more like Woody Shaw when playing pentatonic scales is to opt for more colorful pentatonic-chord relationships. Using a G major pentatonic scale over a Gmaj7 chord is not a very colorful option, and can give your improvising a very "country-ish" sound. Instead, try using either a D major or A major pentatonic scale over a Gmaj7 chord. These two scales highlight more colorful extensions (9th, #11, 13) and will produce more stylistically appropriate melodies. Over an A-7, rather than using A minor pentatonic, try using E minor pentatonic (which will give you the 9th & 11th) or B minor pentatonic (which will give you the 9th, 11th, & 13th). A great pentatonic option over a dominant chord is the major pentatonic scale built off the tri-tone (#4/b5). This gives you all the altered tones (b9, #9, b5, #5) and is a real colorful sound!
The second way you can start sounding more like Woody Shaw when playing pentatonics is to incorporate skips and jumps into your pentatonic lines. One of my favorite pentatonic sounds is the sound of all the 4ths contained within the scale. For example, the A minor pentatonic scale contains three quartal triads: A-D-G, D-G-C, E-A-D. Arpeggiate these three triads and listen to how interesting they sound. Those three quartal triads contain all the notes of the A minor pentatonic scale, and it sounds a lot cooler to present the notes in that manner than it does to simply ascend/descend through the scale!
A third way you can start sounding more like Woody Shaw when playing pentatonics is to move between pentatonic scales that are a half-step away from each other. Moving between two parallel sounds that are a half-step apart is a technique often referred to as "side-slipping". A great place to do this is in a ii-V-I progression. Let's take a ii-V-I in C major, for example (D-7 | G7 | Cmaj7). Over the D-7 we can play A minor pentatonic--a colorful choice which highlights the 9th and 11th extensions. The next chord is a G7, and if we move the A minor pentatonic up a half-step to Bb minor, we arrive at a very colorful scale to play over the G7. A Bb minor pentatonic played over a G7 highlights all the G7's altered extensions: #9, b5, #5, & b9. The last chord of the progression is Cmaj7, and if we move the Bb minor pentatonic up a half-step to B minor pentatonic, we arrive at a colorful option to use over the Cmaj7--one that highlights the 9th, #11th, & 13th. Thus, over our D-7 | G7 | Cmaj7 progression we have travelled chromatically from Am pentatonic to Bbm pentatonic to Bm pentatonic, and have hit a ton of colorful notes along the way! Try it out--it's a great sound![divider]
Hopefully this gives you some ideas to work with in beginning to develop a pentatonic vocabulary within the jazz idiom. Post your thoughts and comments below, and feel free to send me any questions you have!