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How using the wrong pentatonic scale can actually sound great

Led Zeppelin
(Image credit: Jay Dickman/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

In this column, we’re taking a look at the use of the tonic Major Pentatonic scale over the I and IV chords in the key of C. Note that using the C Major Pentatonic over the C Major 7th chord has a very different effect to using it over the F Major 7th chord. This is because the notes of the Major Pentatonic exert different tensions over the different chords.

If overused, C Major Pentatonic over C Major 7th can be a somewhat bland sound. Using F Major Pentatonic on top of F Major 7th obviously has the same relative effect, but if we use C Major Pentatonic here instead, the sound becomes much more interesting. 

Note that this omits the root of the F Major 7th and makes for a more interesting line through the changes. One way to make any scale-based line less predictable is to omit one or more notes – this means that you’ll get wider and less obvious intervals. And in a way this is what a Major Pentatonic represents – the Major scale minus the 7th (and also the 4th, too).

Our examples start by using the Pentatonic with the same root as the underlying chord. As we progress, we mix up the use of F Major Pentatonic and C Major over the F Major 7th chord. After illustrating this concept, we add chromatic passing notes to link the different scales. If a note of one scale is followed by a note of the other scale a tone away, the gap can be filled with a chromatic passing note.

Our final example uses a device called sideslipping, where we insert a set of notes a semitone away from the scale – this is generally used by moving exactly the same pattern of notes up or down by a semitone to create harmonic tension. 

While this sounds like a purely jazz-derived technique, check out Jimmy Page’s solo on Rock and Roll by Led Zeppelin for a chromatically ascending pattern. If the first and the last group of notes are inside the harmony, the chromatic movement is just heard as a momentary tension, and sounds great. 

Get the tone

Amp settings: Gain 6, Bass 5, Middle 7, Treble 7, Reverb 3

As we reference the solo in Led Zep’s Rock And Roll, let’s go for a bridge pickup tone that’s pushing a small amp’s front end just enough to make the tone sing. Jimmy tended to switch between Les Paul and Telecaster, so humbucker or single-coil will work equally well. Use the above settings as a guide but do resist too much gain as the sound will simply turn soggy.

Example 1. Switching pentatonics

Check out the different tensions over the chords, with F Major Pentatonic then C Major Pentatonic over F. Note how using C Major Pentatonic is more colourful.

Example 2. Using bigger note leaps

Example 2 uses the obvious Pentatonics over the chords. However, I deliberately wove a line with some unexpected leaps to create ear-grabbing interest. This necessitated position shifts, while the use of hammer-ons, pull-offs and slides breaks up the articulation.

Example 3. Creating different tensions

Here’s C Major Pentatonic over both chords. Notice how each chord creates different tensions for the scale. I used bends to add a flowing rootsy Vince Gill vibe.

Example 4. Chromatic passing notes

Our fourth example mixes the two approaches on F Major 7. The first time round we’re using F Major Pentatonic, while the second time we alternate the two options but linking the scale with chromatic passing notes (shown as three ‘cpn’ in the notation) to create a slinkier, slightly jazzy edge.

Example 5. Chromatics plus bends

This example also uses chromatic passing notes to spice up the action - notice that these passing notes are marked ‘cpn’. However, rather than the jazzy approach of Example 5, here we add bends and slurs to make the line a little more flowing, perhaps with a more ‘fusion’ sound.

Example 6. Filling the gaps

Here we again alternate the two Pentatonic scales over the F chord and the use of the chromatic passing notes again, adds forward motion. Don’t think of it as a theoretical exercise, more like simply filling the gap between expected scale notes.

Example 7. ‘Outside’ pentatonics

Here we are side-slipping by employing ‘outside’ Pentatonics. What we’re doing is momentarily using Pentatonic patterns that are a semitone away from patterns derived from the scale (the same shape, just a fret apart) to create tension against the chords. Jazz musicians do this a lot and it’s a great device to learn.

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