Pentatonic Scales by Major Third

Lately I’ve been spending considerable practice time on pentatonic scales. So named because it has only five notes, the pentatonic is as basic a scale as you can get. Its fundamental use for jazz improvisers is to provide a down-homey sound that’s great for playing the blues and a lot of gospel and contemporary praise music. Lacking a major scale’s handle-with-care tension tones of the fourth and raised seventh, the pentatonic furnishes a steady supply of consonant notes that work with pretty much any diatonic chord. It’s hard to go wrong using a pentatonic scale!

But once you start exploring its more complex applications, the pentatonic scale becomes more demanding. It is used freely as a source for angularity and a tool for outside playing, and you have to work out its possibilities in the woodshed if you want to use them skillfully in performance.

penta-mode-4-by-maj-3rdThe two exercises shown here take the fourth mode of the pentatonic scale and move it by major third. This approach spotlights tone centers that divide the octave into three equal parts. (Click on the image to enlarge it.)

The exercises don’t lay easily under the fingers at first, but stick with them and you’ll soon be ripping through them with Breckerish velocity. Remember, the key is to memorize these patterns as quickly as possible so you don’t need to look at the written notes. Since each exercise takes you through three tonal centers, you’ll need to transpose the material by half-step three times in order to cover all twelve keys.

Get cracking–and have fun!

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  1. Nice. Can you please elaborate on why the fourth mode in particular? and also, how do you apply these in a progression? Thank you

  2. No particular reason why I chose the fourth mode other than that it’s not the first or the fifth mode, both of which I’m personally more familiar with. The exercises I share in this blog are typically material I’ve been working on myself, and I picked the fourth mode to break myself out of more familiar modes of the pentatonic scale. I could as easily have chosen the second mode, which I’ve also been working on a bit, but I’ve been more invested in the fourth mode at the moment, so that’s what I’ve passed along.

    Applicationally, these exercises will probably work best for outside playing over modal music and tunes with relatively static harmony such as the blues. Now that I think of it, since they’re based on root movements of a major third, you could also use the descending sections with Coltrane changes by shifting the barlines two beats to the right. For tunes with fast harmonic movements, these exercises aren’t likely to work well in change running, not if you’re looking for precise realization of harmonies; if you find an instance where they fit, it’ll probably be specific to the tune. But if you want to break out of the box and offer your listeners an aural surprise, this would be one way to do it. The big thing is, you’ve got to take the material and work out your own applications by logic and by trial-and-error.

    Incidentally, while I’ve adopted Dan Haerle’s use of the word mode in referring to pentatonics, my friend Kurt Ellenberger makes a good case for thinking of them as inversions rather than modes in his book Materials and Concepts in Jazz Improvisation. I normally don’t care much about theoretical fine points, but I may adopt Kurt’s use of the term in the future. In any case, if thinking of the fourth mode as the third inversion makes life easier, do so. Whatever works best for you, that’s my philosophy.

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