Do you really know the pentatonic scale?

Most guitarists learn the Pentatonic Scale as one of the first things they ever learn on the guitar, and most of the time it is not a scale that we think too much about when we use it. It’s just the pentatonic scale and it’s something that is in our ears and fingers for years. And that is even if we are already for the rest playing music with extended chords, altered dominants etc.

In this lesson I am going to take apart the pentatonic scale and look at some of the things that you can find in there since that might yield some new ways of using it by combining what you know of the pentatonic scale and what you know about improvising with chords and arpeggios.

The Pentatonic Scale

The pentatonic scale that I will spend time on in this lesson is this D minor pentatonic scale:

Do you really know the pentatonic scale ex 1

If you try to remember all the exercises you have done in a pentatonic scale you will probably find that they are all sequences and groups of notes (3 and 4 are very common) more than they are praciticing specific structures that could be seen as a chord.

Diatonic chords in the Pentatonic scale

In a major scale we create chords by stacking diatonic 3rds. A diatonic third is basically a just a note followed by the note 2 steps higher in the scale. If we build chords in the scale like this we get this scale exercise:

Do you really know the pentatonic scale ex 2

To get a better overview of what these arpeggios are you can play them as chords (the pentatonic scale is very forgiving with it’s 2 note per string fingerings) and that will give us the following set of chords that are “diatonic triads” in the pentatonic scale.

Do you really know the pentatonic scale ex 3

As you can see the “triads” that we build are almost never consisiting of actuall 3rd intervals and especially the 4th is much more present in the chords which is why we get stacks of 4ths (the sus chord inversions).

The chords we have are then Dm, F, Gsus4, Csus4, Dsus4 which you could consider the diatonic triads in the scale.

Even if it is possible to play this in a position like I did in example 3 it is very useful both for comping and for using them as arpeggios to practice these on a string set like shown in example 4:

Do you really know the pentatonic scale ex 4

It is worth while to keep in mind that if you can use the pentatonic scale to play a solo over a chord then probably the chords in example 4 are good for comping over that chord. Maybe try out example 4 over a Bb bass note to get a Bbmaj7 sound.

Open voiced diatonic chords

Now that we have 3 different types of chords: major, minor and sus4. We can start getting more out of the chords by playing them as open voiced triads. The easiest place to start with making open voiced triads is to take example 4 and then lower the 2nd note an octave. If you do that you will get the following chords:

Do you really know the pentatonic scale ex 5

With open voiced triads you get a lot out of inverting them, because they contain a lot of quite large intervals. To just cover that I’ve written out a set of inversions for each type of the open voiced triads:

Do you really know the pentatonic scale ex 6

Do you really know the pentatonic scale ex 7

Do you really know the pentatonic scale ex 8

Practicing these open voiced triad inversions is a great thing to put to use with pentatonic scales and they are also great for right hand accuracy and technique since they contian a lot of irregular string skips.

If you want to check out open voiced triads in more detail you can also have a look at this lesson: Open Triads in Solos

Shell voicings in the pentatonic scale

One way to think of the D minor pentatonic scale is to think of it as a Dm7 arpeggio with an added G. Since the Dm7 chord is to be found in the scale we can of course also use a Dm7 shell voicing and try to play that through the scale.

I have written this out in example 9. The most logical starting point seemed to be the standard Dm7 shell voicing in the 5th fret. From There I take it through all 5 degrees of the scale to get some other voicings. Some of the voicings have nice seconds in them and can be put to good use in any situation where Dm pentatonic is an option.

Do you really know the pentatonic scale ex 9

If you want to know more about using shell voicings as arpeggios you can also check out my lesson on this subject: Shell Voicings as Arpeggios

A few examples

All three examples are basic II V I progressions in the key of C, so Dm7, G7alt and Cmaj7. They should illustrate how you can use some of the arpeggios and structures cover in the first part of this article.

The first example is using the open voiced triads, and more or less just playing the first two arpeggios from example 5, which are a Dm and then an inversion of a Csus4 (or an open voiced Fsus2 if you will). From there the line descends down the scale and continues to a G7 alt line that is based around an AbmMaj7(9) arpeggio that then is resolved via the Ab to the 5th(G) of C.

Do you really know the pentatonic scale ex 10

Using the “diatonic triads” from example 2 in a similar basic way is also a very useful. In the 2nd line I start of with an A and then go into the F major 2nd inversion and G sus 4 triads from example 2. On the G7alt the line is using the Bb min pentatonic scale. First a stack of 4ths from Bb, which would be the same as the Dsus4 triad in example 2.  Fromt here it descends down the scale and resolves to the 7th of Cmaj7

Do you really know the pentatonic scale ex 11

The third example is mixing up the open voiced  triads and stacks of 4ths. First an open voiced Csus4 triad followed by a Gsus4 triad. From there it continues with a basic line on G7alt that is build around an AbmMaj7 arpeggio that via an chromatic approach resolves to the 5th(G) of Cmaj7

Do you really know the pentatonic scale ex 12

Some of the chord names that I end up using in this lesson like the Gsus4 and the Dsus4 are maybe not the best names to describe the sound that you have at your disposal with these arpeggios, but it is still very worth while to use this approach to get some new arpeggios and melodic structures out of the pentatonic scale. By looking at it in the same way we would the major or melodic minor scale.

I hope that you can use the material that I went over here to get some new ideas and make some good surprising lines using pentatonic scales.

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Do you really know the pentatonic scale

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