One of the first scales many guitarists learn is the minor pentatonic scale.
Though it is a staple of the rock and blues worlds, many guitarists tend to leave this scale behind when they begin to explore the jazzier side of the music world.
While there are a number of scales and modes one needs to learn when studying jazz guitar, we don’t need to forget the material we’ve learned in our rock and blues playing when jumping the fence to the jazz world. In today’s lesson, we’ll be looking at three jazz pentatonic licks that you can use in your playing, all of which will allow you to keep the minor pentatonic scale in your vocabulary—even though you’re not using it in a rock or blues context.
So grab your axe, dust off those classic pentatonic box patterns, and let’s explore!
Jazzy Pentatonic Pattern 1
The first pattern we’ll look at is a descending idea that runs through the entire scale, in this case, Pentatonic Box Pattern 1. The crux of the pattern is that you ascend the “right” side of the scale, G-C to start, and then descend the “left” side of the scale, A-E in the first group of four 8th-notes. This idea of playing the “right” side of the fingering up and the “left” side of the fingering down continues until you run out of room and hit the tonic note, A, on the sixth string.
Playing the pentatonic scale in this way tends to hide the scale a bit, as you are playing larger intervals than once would expect from a pentatonic scale, and therefore it’s a great way to solo with this scale but not overdo it with the sound of the scale itself.
Jazzy Pentatonic Pattern 2
The second jazzy pentatonic pattern we’ll check out is an ascending three-note pattern that uses the formula note-2 up-1 down. This means you start on the note A, skip a note to go up to D, then go down to the note you skipped, C. You then continue this pattern up the “left” side of the scale only, so just the notes you would play with your first finger in the pentatonic box 1.
The cool part of this pattern is that you are grouping your melody notes into 3’s, but you are playing 8th-notes, which are a two-note rhythm. When doing so, you create a “hemiola” effect, where the time signature and barline are hidden a bit by the pattern being playing in this fashion. Another easy way to use the pentatonic scale without sounding too much like the scale itself, due to the larger intervals and the rhythm vs. notes effect that occurs in this pattern.
Jazzy Pentatonic Pattern 3
The last jazz pentatonic pattern we’ll take a look at uses a bit of an advanced technique called “side stepping.” This is where you play two pentatonic scales 1/2 step apart, moving between the two as you work up your line. You can see this in the pattern below, where I move between A and Bb pentatonic over the Am7 chord throughout the lick.
For this example, and to keep things simple, I’ve moved between scales every two beats, so a symmetrical rhythm. But, as you get more comfortable with this approach, you can move between each scale whenever you please, as long as your ears tell you it’s cool and you resolve it properly. Here’s a sample of side stepping applied to an Am7 chord. It’s a bit “outside,” so if it’s not for you right now, leave this one and come back to it at a later time in your development when “outside” starts to sound a bit more “inside.”
After you’ve learned any/all of the above jazzy pentatonic patterns, here are some of my favorite ways to practice these licks further in the woodshed.
1. Sing the root of a given chord and play the related pentatonic pattern on top of this root.
2. Play a given chord and sing the related pentatonic pattern on top of this chord.
3. Put on a one-chord vamp, such as Am7, and jam over that chord using the pentatonic patterns as the basis for your lines. Repeat this in 12 keys.
4. Solo over ii V I chord progression in 12 keys using these pentatonic patterns as the basis for your lines.
5. Put on a backing track for a tune you know or are working out and use these pentatonic patterns as much as possible in your lines over this tune.
We often shy away from the pentatonic scale when we dig into building our jazz-guitar chops. But, as you can see from the above examples, when used in the right way and with the right patterns, the pentatonic scale we all know and love can suddenly produce new sounds and sound hip in a jazz context. Do you have any questions or comments about these jazzy pentatonic patterns? Share them in the COMMENTS section below.
Matt Warnock is the owner of mattwarnockguitar.com, a free website that provides hundreds of lessons and resources designed to help guitarists of all experience levels meet their practice and performance goals. Matt lives in the UK, where he is a senior lecturer at the Leeds College of Music and an examiner for the London College of Music (Registry of Guitar Tutors).