Pentatonic Ideas

One of the things I have found intriguing about Woody’s use of pentatonics is the way he combines different pentatonic scales together in various rhythmic groupings. There has been much written about how pentatonic scales can be used over certain chords (for example, see Jerry Bergonzi’s Pentatonics book) – however, I have recently been thinking about situations where two pentatonic scales a certain interval apart could be used.

  1. Pentatonic scales a semitone apart – This is a classic device of ‘side-stepping’, creating tension by slipping out of key with the underlying harmony before resolving back in the home key. Woody uses this idea frequently – for example, see his solo on If where the entire solo is built around the juxtaposition of the ‘inside’ B flat pentatonic scale and the ‘outside’ B pentatonic scale. Pentatonic scales a semitone apart can also be used over a V-I resolution creating a tritone substitution – for example, a D flat pentatonic can be played over a G7 chord resolving to either a C or D pentatonic over the Cmaj7 chord.
  2. Pentatonic scales a major 2nd apart – These can be played over a maj7 #11 chord, the two pentatonic scales combined actually create a lydian mode (for example, C and D pentatonic scales create C lydian mode).
  3. Pentatonic scales a minor 3rd apart – These can be used over a dominant 7th flat 9 chord – for example, the linking of C and E flat pentatonics will include all the notes of the C mixolydian mode plus an Eflat (the flat 9). The four pentatonic scales coming from the same diminished axis (eg. C, Eflat, F# and A) can also be combined together in the same way the four triads from a diminished scale can be combined over a dominant chord. Finally, switching between pentatonic scales a minor 3rd apart can be a way of playing outside, superimposing a fresh set of chords.
  4. Pentatonic scales a major 3rd apart – It was Woody’s linking of the E flat and B pentatonic scales in tunes such as What Is This Thing Called Love and Rosewood that got me thinking about how various pentatonics can be linked together. In both cases, he uses scales a major 3rd apart to leap outside the changes, possibly influenced by the Giant Steps changes of John Coltrane. He also uses common tones to link the two scales together – for example, the major 3rd of the C pentatonic becomes the root note of the E pentatonic a major 3rd up. The idea can be extended to include all pentatonic scales on the same augmented axis (eg. C, E and G#).
  5. Pentatonic scales a perfect 4th apart – Woody also uses this idea frequently as these two pentatonics combined create a very strong dominant – tonic effect, strongly outlining a tonality. Sometimes this outlined tonality fits with the underlying harmony, sometimes it doesn’t.
  6. Pentatonic scales an augmented 4th apart – These can be combined over a dominant chord, alternating between a simple, unaltered dominant sound and a heavily altered tritone substitution sound.

This covers all possible combinations as pentatonic scales a perfect 5th apart have already been covered talking about those a perfect 4th apart, those a major 6th apart by those a major 3rd apart and so on. All of these combinations have their uses, and I have been practicing the ability to link scales together at will and in a variety of rhythmic groupings as Woody did. I do, however, still have a lot of work to do to get these down.

What have I been practicing?

Here is an idea of some of the things I have been working on in my practice, and ways in which I need to develop further.

  1. Sound – Woody’s sound is one of the things that attracts me most to his playing. I have been playing long note exercises, really focussing on the sound I am making. My aim is a full, fat sound in all areas of the instrument. I have also been working on vibrato exercises and gradually I hope to include more vibrato in my playing. I have also been attempting to include a wider range of articulations and inflexions into my playing. The way for me to tell if these exercises are helping my sound is to record my playing and I hope to be doing this with a band very soon.
  2. Time/feel – I have been working a lot with a metronome on the Herbert L. Clarke Technical Studies book, trying to increase the speed and regularity of my fingers and tongue on basic scale and arpeggio exercises. I feel my articulation has improved since I started working regularly on these exercises, but I still have some way to go until I can match Woody’s articulation skills. My aim is to slowly keep on notching up the metronome markings once I have mastered the previous mark, and to keep on pushing myself by playing at fast tempos. I had a gig in Liverpool last week with the band Marley Chingus which was a real workout for me as they like to play tunes at incredibly fast tempos – however, attempting to play at fast tempos is part of the process of improving and I feel it was very beneficial for me.
  3. Pentatonic scales – I have been working with Jerry Bergonzi’s Pentatonics book, trying to gain fluency with the various patterns he mentions and working out in which contexts various pentatonic scales can be used. I have also been practicing the ability to link together pentatonic scales a certain interval apart in various rhythmic groupings, and I have been studying various contexts where these linked pentatonic scales could be used – I will go into this in more detail in a future post as my ideas are still crystallising. Again, I feel I have improved in this area and pentatonic scales are now an essential part of my improvisational vocabulary. I now need to gain even more fluency, especially when linking scales in irregular rhythmic groupings.
  4. Outside playing – I have been attempting to play outside the harmony a lot more than I used to, and I have been trying out a few ideas, with mixed results. This is the area where I need to put in the most thought in the upcoming weeks and months. The pentatonic approach seems to be to be a fruitful one, especially the linking together of scales a minor or major 3rd apart. I also need to try out the idea of using bebop language in an unconventional manner, as Woody did on his solo on Zoltan. To judge my improvement in this area I really need to record my playing and then transcribe what I played, analysing it to see what I did in what context, and picking out the ideas that worked best to develop further.