Use What You Know: Creative Applications for Minor Pentatonic Scales
Like many young guitarists, the minor pentatonic was one of the first scales I learned. Two notes per string, you can pretty much play it with two fingers, and you can almost sound like Jimmy Page. Almost. Freshman year of high school I joined the jazz band and occasionally had the chance to solo. I had no idea how to solo over jazz changes--the only scale I knew was the minor pentatonic! I quickly started figuring out how to use what I already knew over more complex chords because, at the very least, I'd be able to play something some of the time while I figured out how to actually play jazz.
Today's lesson will examine what I learned in a methodical fashion. It should be an enlightening study for beginners, but even intermediate players, or anyone still developing their theory chops, ought to learn something. At the very least I hope my approach can transfer to other chord/scale relationship studies.
If all the writing and theory is too dense for you, I recommend starting with the audio examples and the corresponding fretboard diagrams. Once your ears are familiar with the sounds, and your fingers know their way around the scale, you can go back and learn why it works.
Minor Pentatonic Scales
Let's begin with a quick review of pentatonic scales. As the name suggests, there are only five notes in a pentatonic scale, compared to seven notes in the major scale. There are different types of pentatonic scales, but today we'll focus only on the minor pentatonic because, as I mentioned, this is a fundamental scale for most guitar players.
The five notes in a minor pentatonic scale--with regards to their interval from the root--are the root, minor 3rd, perfect 4th, perfect 5th, and minor 7th. There is no 2nd or 6th, and because of that, there are also no half steps. The interval sequence is: minor 3rd, whole step, whole step, minor third, whole step.
Minor Pentatonic Patterns on the Guitar
On the guitar, there are five common scale patterns for pentatonic scales, commonly called box positions (ie. Box 1, Box 2, etc.). Each box position starts on a different note of the scale, and since there are five notes in the scale, there are five positions.
The figure below shows all the notes of an F Minor Pentatonic Scale from the 1st to 13th fret. Below that are the five box positions. Roots are highlighted in red.
The notes are: F (Root), Ab (b3), Bb (p4), C (p5), Eb (b7)
Click on any of the images for a larger, easier to read size.
For consistency, we'll stick with the F Minor Pentatonic scale for the rest of the lesson.
Minor Scales and Minor Pentatonics
Now let's take a look at how these minor pentatonic scales fit into the grand scheme of things by reviewing some seven note minor scales.
First up, the Aeolian Mode, also known simply as a minor scale. The notes in F Aeolian are: F, G, Ab, Bb, C, Db, and Eb. In the example below, you'll see a very similar diagram as the one above, but with the all the notes of an F Aeolian scale filled in.
If we remove the 2nd (G) and 6th (Db) of the F Aeolian scale, we're left with an F Minor Pentatonic scale. You should notice that the five box positions of F Minor Pentatonic fit nicely over the F Aeolian scale.
Aeolian is the sixth mode of a major scale, and there are two other minor modes within a major scale: Dorian and Phrygian. It just so happens that the only difference between Aeolian, Dorian, and Phrygian are the 2nd and 6th scale degrees.
In other words, an F Aeolian and F Dorian share 6 out of 7 notes. The only difference is that an F Dorian has a D natural, while F Aeolian has D flat (D is the 6th note of an F scale). Similarly, F Phrygian shares 6 notes with F Aeolian, but has a G flat instead of G natural (G is the 2nd note of an F scale).
If that last paragraph confuses you, ignore it for now, but know this: F Minor Pentatonic can be played over the F Aeolian, F Dorian, and F Phrygian modes. Even though those are three different types of F minor scales, they all include the notes of F Minor Pentatonic.
If you'd like to learn more about modes and how they apply to the guitar, check out my 7 Scales/Modes for Guitar lesson. Hopefully that'll help.
Creative Applications for Minor Pentatonic Scales
If there are three F minor scales that share the notes to F Minor Pentatonic, what other scales include those notes, and more importantly, over which chords can we play the same scale? We'll start with the obvious and less creative solutions and work our way into more interesting territory.
We know F Minor Pentatonic works in F minor scales, therefore it must work with an F minor chord. The diagram below shows an Fm7 chord with an F Minor Pentatonic next to it. Notice how each note is labeled. Every note is a chord tone except for the Bb, which still sounds good (or consonant) over the Fm7 chord.
This diagram also shows the F Dorian mode, which you can compare to the Aeolian above, and the corresponding box positions. (If you'd like to see the F Phrygian diagram, click here.)
Here is an example of an F Minor Pentatonic being played over an Fm7 chord. I'll let the chord ring out for a bit longer so you can practice over it as well. Pay close attention to the sound of each note against the chord as you play.
What about chords with roots other than F? That's an excellent question. Actually, that's the purpose of this lesson. Sorry for taking so long to get here.
As a young guitarist I would have haphazardly choose different chords and see if F Minor Pentatonic worked. A smarter way to do this is to move counter-clockwise around our Circle of Fifths. The Circle of Fifths is a great tool for practicing scales or working through an exercise like we're doing today. It simply gives us a pattern to follow. And so, from F, let's move over to Bb.
If Bb is the root of our chord, how does this effect the notes of our F Minor Pentatonic scale? While the actual notes--F, Ab, Bb, C, Eb--stay the same, their relationship to the root of the chord change. Over an F chord, the F was the root. Over a Bb chord, the F is now the 5th. Make sure you understand that or you'll be lost for the rest of the lesson!
The diagram below shows a Bbm9 chord with the F Minor Pentatonic next to it, but this time the labels for each note have changed. What this means is that when you play F Minor Pentatonic over a Bb minor chord, you'll be highlighting the root, 5th, minor 7th, 9th, and 11th (or 4th).
I've also included a fretboard diagram of Bb Aeolian (aka Bb minor) and the F Minor Pentatonic box positions. This time, however, notice how the labels on the dots for the box positions have changed?
Here is an example of an F Minor Pentatonic being played over a Bbm9 chord.
Another common mode used with a Bbm9 chord is Bb Dorian, so to make this lesson extra thorough, here's a diagram showing the Bb Dorian mode along with the F Minor Pentatonic scale. It's very similar to the diagram above, with the only difference being the placement of the 6th scale degree--which doesn't actually effect our F Minor Pentatonic scales. Down the road, however, you'll realize these pentatonic scales can act as framework for your other scales, and as you fill in the additional notes of other scales you'll need to know the difference between the Aeolian and Dorian modes.
There's one more instance of a Bb chord where I commonly play F Minor Pentatonic, and that's a Bb9sus4. Many people write this chord more simply as Ab/Bb (Ab triad over a Bb bass note), but the complete chord would also have the 5th, or F.
Here's the diagram demonstrating this relationship. The only difference between this and the previous two examples is that we're using a Bb Mixolydian mode. The relationship between the notes of the F Minor Pentatonic scale and the root of the chord remain the same.
Here is an example of an F Minor Pentatonic being played over an Ab/Bb chord.
Let's continue around the Circle of Fifths to Eb. If Eb is the root of a chord, the relationship to the notes of an F Minor Pentatonic scale are: 9th (F), 4th (Ab), 5th (Bb), Major 6th (C), and Root (Eb). Within those notes we find an Ebsus4 chord (root, 4th, and 5th). The diagram below outlines this, and again reflects the changes to the box pattern labels.
Here is an example of an F Minor Pentatonic being played over an Ebsus4 chord.
Back to the Circle of Fifths, next up is Ab. Now, Ab has a special relationship with F minor--it is the relative major key. In fact, F Minor Pentatonic and Ab Major Pentatonic share the same notes. Therefore we ought be be able to use this scale over an Ab major chord.
The diagram below shows an Ab Ionian scale, which matches the F Aeolian scale above (because they are relative major/minor scales). The only difference is the relationship between the notes of the scale and the root of the chord.
Here is an example of an F Minor Pentatonic (or Ab Major Pentatonic) being played over an Ab6/9 chord.
Next let's move along to a Db root. This is where things really start to get interesting. You ought to understand how this process works by now, but I want to point out that unlike all the previous examples, F Minor Pentatonic does NOT include the root of this chord.
Here is an example of an F Minor Pentatonic being played over an DbMaj9 chord.
And finally, we arrive at Gb. Again, no root present in the F Minor Pentatonic. Playing a minor pentatonic from the 7th of a Lydian chord (major chord with a raised 4) is ultra hip. You'll hit all the colorful chord tones and upper extensions, while leaving the root and 5th to the bass player.
Here is an example of an F Minor Pentatonic being played over an GbMaj9(#11) chord. Just for fun, I played the exact same melody as I did over the Fm7 example. Notice how the character changes?
If you were to keep working around the Circle of Fifths, you'll have trouble finding usable chords or applications. If B were the root, for example, you end up with some kind of BMaj13(b5,b9). I can honestly say I've never come across that chord in my years of playing some of the most harmonically uninhibited music imaginable. I'm sure it's happened, but it's a rarity.
Finally, one chord I did not mention is F7. If you were playing a blues in F, you'd probably play a lot of F Minor Pentatonic or the closely related F Blues Scale. I didn't create an example for this for two reasons: 1) This is usually how people first learn to use minor pentatonic scales, and 2) it doesn't fit our formula of matching chord tones to notes of the scale. But it is a completely viable, common use for F Minor Pentatonic.
Let's summarize the ways we used the minor pentatonic scale in this lesson:
- Minor Chords: Starting on the Root or 5th
- Suspended Dominant Chords: Starting on the 5th
- Suspended Chords: Starting on the 9th
- Relative Major Chords: Starting on the 6th
- Major 9th Chords: Starting on the 3rd
- Lydian Chords (Major Chords with #4): Starting on the major 7th
Introduce these into your playing one at a time. For a while, every time you improvise over a minor chord, use a minor pentatonic starting on the 5th of the chord. Soon you'll be able to effortlessly switch with the minor pentatonic built on the root. Then begin looking for opportunities to use the other applications, and mix it up with other scale or arpeggio patterns you may be practicing.
Speaking of practicing, I'll leave you with a jam track. The progression will also give you a workout through 8 different minor pentatonic scales. For an added challenge, try playing the whole thing in one position, forcing yourself to use whichever pentatonic box pattern is closest to that position.
Happy practicing! Please feel free to ask questions or leave comments below.
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