There’s no good improviser in any style of music who hasn’t spent time mastering their pentatonic scales.
The question, as always, is how do we master them and make them work for our own playing?
The Pentatonic Pitfall
Many beginning improvisers immediately start working with basic patterns and simply aim to rip through them as fast as possible, usually starting the pattern on the tonic of the chord at hand. They take this one pattern and then work it through all the keys, one at a time.
This can definitely bring some flash to your playing, but if you want to bring the depth that you’ll need to really use them to create melody and weave them through chord changes, you’ll need to not only learn to match them with chords, but also find common tones that allow you to move from one to another smoothly through these chords. Advanced players are often able to weave between multiple pentatonics over a single chord as well.
Connecting Pentatonics to Chord Changes
Here’s a simple way of learning to do so which will not only get you deeper into the world of pentatonics, but will also help you master the entire range of your horn and get you thinking in a way that’s less tonic-centric.
- Pick any pentatonic scale and start it from the bottom of your range, not necessarily on the tonic. For example, rather than start on low C for the C pentatonic scale, start on low Bb, which is the 5th note of that scale.
- Play the scale all the way to the top of the horn.
- Once you get to your top note, switch to another pentatonic scale to work your way down.
- Repeat and try to work your way through as many keys as possible (including the ones where you’re less comfortable!).
Start by connecting scales that have common tones, and as you get more comfortable you can switch keys randomly and stop thinking of using common tones as a connection. More experienced improvisers can also apply this method to practicing their pentatonic pattern of choice.
Let’s Try It!
I’ve attached a basic example where I’ve marked each pentatonic scale that I use in order to help players who might be new to them. In the example, I’m only working with minor pentatonics. Feel free to do the same with the major key scales as well.
As always, I welcome your questions and comments below, and wishing you all enjoyable, mindful, creative and productive practice.
Learn with and Listen to Sam
Sam Sadigursky is currently offering online lessons through Skype and private lessons in NYC. He has given improvisation clinics across the U.S., is a regular guest professor at Hunter College, and currently performs internationally with Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Folklore Urbano, and others. His new book, 12 INTERVALLIC ETUDES for Saxophone, is available here. His albums can be purchased at http://samsadigursky.bandcamp.com. To find out more, visit SamSadigursky.com.