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How to Use the Pentatonic Scale in Jazz Progressions

I remember the first time I walked into my freshman Jazz Ensemble class at Berklee College of Music. I’d been a sloppy pentatonic blues player pretty much my whole life up to that point, picking up some tasty licks here and there to get by in a few other genres.

In the classroom, there was another guitar player, a piano player, a drummer, a bass player and our teacher, who was standing at the head of the room, examining his pupils as we walked in.

Without speaking, he placed sheet music on the music stands in front of us, revealing the chord changes and melody for the classic jazz standard "On Dolphin Street." He sat at the piano and began to play the chords; as he did so, he turned his head to look at me.

“You. Go ahead and take a solo.” I feverishly searched for a root note that made sense of where my favorite pentatonic shape could fit over this array of complicated harmony. This was definitely no “slow blues in A” that I considered the pinnacle of guitar-improvisation canvases. Needless to say, I stumbled through about eight bars of what some might have mistaken to be a guitar getting its strings yanked off before my teacher stopped playing and moved on to his next victim.

It was a learning experience that humbled me, but it also helped me realize I had lot to learn. One thing I did have going for me, though, is that the pentatonic scale could have worked—and will work—over virtually any jazz progression. As you’ll see in the video below, you just need a few adjustments to translate your knowledge to the sometimes intimidating genre that is jazz.

Tyler Larson is the founder of the guitar-centric brand Music is Win. His insightful, uncomplicated guitar lessons and gear demonstrations along with entertaining, satirical content about life as a musician receive tens of millions of video views per month across social media. Tyler is also the creator of the extremely popular online guitar learning platform, Guitar Super System. A graduate of Berklee College of Music, Tyler has been teaching guitar for over a decade and operates a production studio in Nashville, TN.