Minor Pentatonic Scales for Improvisation

While the primary goal of most beginning jazz improvisers is to learn to “play the changes,” pentatonic scales can be a wonderful way to begin focusing on elements of improvisation other than just the notes. In some contexts, pentatonic scales can allow the improviser to be guided more by ear than by thought, and to focus on tone production, rhythm, and creating melodies that make sense before taking on the task of “making the changes.” 

The minor pentatonic scale is essential in blues music, a root of jazz, and therefore is very prominent in traditional jazz improvisation. 

One major benefit of using pentatonic scales to improvise is that on some chord progressions, pentatonic scales create little to no risk of playing a “bad” note. Of course, quality judgements are subjective, but the idea is that no matter what note you play in some contexts, it won’t sound “wrong” to most people. 

Some common songs allow the improviser to use only one pentatonic scale for the entirety of the chord progression. One of the most common examples of this is a simple 12 bar blues progression, which accommodates a “minor pentatonic” scale from the root of the blues progression.

The minor pentatonic scale can use any note as its root. It is a five note scale comprised of the root, minor 3rd, 4th, 5th, and minor 7th. It can spread over any number of octaves so while it only has five different notes, one pentatonic scale can cover the full range of any instrument.

The F minor pentatonic scale is a wonderful scale to learn as you begin working on improvisation in a jazz context. It works as the basis of a solo on a large number of jazz standards and pop tunes as many usually played in key of F, including… 

  • Watermelon Man
  • Straight, No Chaser (any 12 bar blues in F) 
  • Song for my Father (listen for some variations) 
  • Cold Duck Time 
  • Just the Two of Us
  • Moanin’ 

The following is an 8 bar excerpt from Dexter Gordon’s solo on Watermelon Man from the 1962 Herbie Hancock album “Takin’ Off” - This excerpt, and most of the solo, uses only the F minor pentatonic scale (the portion shown here begins at 3:24 in the recording).

You might notice that the above example has a “bluesy” feel to it. This use of the minor pentatonic has its roots in blues music and therefore tends to lend itself to a blues sound. In the next lesson we’ll look at expanding the minor pentatonic scale into a blues scale by use of the blue note.