Where to use Pentatonic Scales

In this lesson we investigate the concepts of "Harmonic Drilling" and "Harmonic Simplification", and how these affect our melodic choices when using Pentatonic Scales.

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Video Transcript:

Harmonic Drilling VS Harmonic Simplification

    Whenever you have to choose a scale, a mode, an arpeggio or any melodic structure over a certain harmonic context, you need to make a decision: Do I treat every chord change as a separate harmony, or do I choose a key center and consider a whole series of chords as a single harmony? Both choices can sound excellent if used tastefully and in a way that fits the style. A bebop jazz player for example would be using more the first choice, harmonic drilling, to outline the sound of every chord, something essential in the musical language of that style. A blues-rock player on the other hand would more often choose simplification to create melodies that are more loose and cool. But still, there are times when both these choices would be useful in all styles. So let’s not be lazy and let’s look at both:

Harmonic Drilling:

    In it’s simplest form, this would mean that for every minor chord you use the corresponding minor pentatonic, and for every major chord you use the corresponding major pentatonic. Now there are cases where this would not work, just because the underlying mode does not contain a pentatonic scale, but let’s not get into too much theory right now.  In most cases this is fine.

    This is essential for songs with unrelated chord changes. I have my younger students practice this a lot when preparing for TRINITY College Rock and Pop grade exams, because the improvisation section in the higher grades is exactly like that: constantly changing chords and keys.

Playing pentatonics over chord changes is a fascinating subject, and I get into it in the later lessons of SFS Pentatonics. In the video I play an example of this concept, using a key cycle backing track from the EMP backing track library.


Harmonic Simplification:

    Harmonic simplification works in songs, or sections of songs where all the chords are diatonic or, in other words, come from the same key. What you do then is to choose the main one, usually the tonic chord, and play just the melodic structures that fit that one.

    A very common example of this is Blues. Most players just play the main minor pentatonic or minor blues scale over the whole 12 bar progression, even though they could choose to follow each chord change specifically. This may seem as less sophisticated and simplistic, but that’s not true. Granted, switching scales would be harder and it does need a lot more more practice, but it doesn’t always sound better. It all depends on the context and the style. In fact, many guitar masters have absolutely no mastery over harmonic drilling, and still sound great.

    Most popular styles of music use mainly diatonic chords, so you can use this approach and sound great. In reality, as you practice this modal, one scale approach, your ears end up taking control, and you end up manipulating your melodies to fit the changing chords, either consciously or subconsciously.

    In the video you see me playing an example of harmonic simplification, using an A Aeolian backing track from the EMP backing track library. This changes chords, but the main chord is obviously A minor. Based on the chord changes, I could switch to F major and G major for two beats whenever those chords appear, but I choose to just play the A minor Pentatonic or blues scale over the whole thing.


    That’s it for now. In the next post we are going to talk about which modes you can use pentatonics over.

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    Thanks for watching, and remember: Enjoy your practice, and be effective!