Kurt's Sonic: Goes Pentatonic

While looking at seminars on YouTube I came across this one of Kurt Rosenwinkel filmed in Italy.

In it, he talks about something I heard him discuss in a master class he gave a number of years ago while I was at Berklee-- the idea of playing "through" changes. At the time he was talking about his song "Cubism" that he had written using all 12 keys in order to force himself to improvise through them. The idea intrigued me and I ended up writing the song "Absolute Convolute" using the same idea.

Though any great improviser plays through chord changes, perhaps even coming to this naturally after years of practice and performance, it's rare you hear a professional musician talk about a method or practice technique in order to get there. Kurt clearly thinks about what it is he wants to be able to do and then devises ways to accomplish it. That's a good habit to get into.

Here's the seminar. Below it I have a transcription I made of the first minor Pentatonic example he gives at about 39 seconds into the video:

The transcription of the line at about 39 seconds in:

(click on chart to see full-size)

Great, right?

Notice how he's not jumping around to different positions on the neck each time he announces what Pentatonic he's playing. He just grabs the next available note from the scale and continues from there-- that is playing through changes.

This is not easy to do. It's challenging for any instrument but especially on stringed instruments that deal with positions. The challenge on guitar especially is to not start each key change on the root or move to comfortable positions but to stay relatively close to where you are on the neck and just shift to the next scale. Kurt does this beautifully. You're looking at the result of hours of practice here.

Is it hard? Yes. Is it doable? Definitely.

I think I might be most impressed with his ability to speak while playing this line. Improvising while talking takes practice. Maybe that's my new regimen...

Mads has a nice blog about Kurt's music that addresses this seminar as well. Check it out: themusicofkurtrosenwinkel.blogspot.com

How do you practice this? Unless you're already prodigious at quickly switching between Pentatonic scales, I would suggest breaking things down.

Set your metronome to a comfortable tempo for you to play the scale, then:

1. For guitar, start with one key and every measure move to a different position in order to make sure you're comfortable playing in all of them. On other instruments, make sure you're proficient in playing the Pentatonic scale through the full range of your instrument.
2. Add another key. Every bar, switch to the other key. Example-- Bar 1: C Minor Pentatonic. Bar 2: A Minor Pentatonic. Bar 3: C Minor Pentatonic and so on.
3. Add a third key and continue the method.
4. Try it over a pattern like Kurt has done-- chords going up in Major Seconds -- or chords going up in Major Thirds, Cycle of 4ths etc.
5. The real world challenge! Try it over a song like a blues, "Cherokee", "All the Things You Are" or "Giant Steps".

You can see the possibilities for this are virtually limitless, the idea is to get comfortable wherever you are on your instrument so you can play what you want, when you want. This is always the goal, everything else is just a way to get there.

Bonus Bonus:
Here's my song "Absolute Convolute" mentioned above with a chart. There are 12 bars and every bar is in a new key. It starts in the key of B and goes through the cycle of 5ths (B, E, A, D, G, etc.). I've put the key of every bar below each staff and the analysis (at least the way I like to think of it) above the staff in red.

(click on chart to see full-size)

Though you could probably get this together relatively quickly, it's difficult with this much static tonality (just the Major key) to play musically, at least I find it to be. When my group plays this live, I always have a mixture of excitement and dread.

Easy to play, difficult to master. Enjoy.


  1. Dude I tried to comment when you first put this up but my pentatonic hand bitch slapped me down...
    thanks for taking the time to write it out for us who have the patience of fleas.

  2. Thanks for the transcription. I am wondering each time I sea Kurt Rosenwinkel what fingerings he chooses. So it would be great to write it. He plays first a horizontal line on the neck. There are always a lot of possibilities for playing a line on guitar. And what interests me the most is to understand what fingerings he uses on scales and paterns. It seems so natural when you see him...

  3. I think what you're seeing really is the horizontal connection of the patterns everyone learns when they learn scales like Pentatonics. He has the same notes on his neck you do, he's just not playing patterns up and down but connecting them horizontally as well.

    I have a video of Pat Metheny playing arpeggios in a very horizontal way. I'm going to transcribe that and post it as well so it will address that issue.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!

  4. I suppose, because it's hard to see it on the video, he first begins to play the horizontal line in Eb minor pentatonic using this fingering :
    1(E string), 3, 1(A sting), 3, 1(D string), 2, 4, 1(G string), 3, 1(B string), 4, 2(e string), 4...
    And it's not the way I worked pentatonics. I use only 1rst and 3rd fingers to play this kind of patterns.
    But it interests me to know what fingerings he uses when he plays horizontal lines which come after this one.
    It's not easy to figure it. For exemple, with a F minor pentatonic, most of guitarists learn th five patterns with 2 notes per string : on 1rst position (fingers 1, 4, 1, 3, 1, 3, 1, 3, 1, 4, 1, 4) ; on 3rd position (fingers 2, 4, 1, 4, 1, 4, 1, 3, 2, 4, 2, 4) ; a pattern begining on 5th position and finishing on 6th position (fingers 2, 4, 2, 4, 2, 4, 1, 4, 1, 4, 1, 3) or only on 6th position (another fingering : 1, 3, 1, 3, 1, 3, 1, 3, 1, 4, 1, 3) ; on 8th position (fingers 1, 4, 1, 4, 1, 3, 1, 3, 2, 4, 1, 4) ; on 10th position (fingers 2, 4, 2, 4, 1, 4, 1, 4, 2, 4, 2, 4).
    That said, some of the guitarists I saw played them like that. Others recommand to play them using only 1rst and 3rd fingers most of the time (for a strongness of legato playing) or played always 1st and 3rd fingers when there is an interval of major second on the same string and 1rst and 4th fingers when there is an interval of minor third on the same string.
    But it is very difficult to play horizontal lines on guitar neck with only this patterns, when there are a lot of chord changes. The reality is that there are 12 positions on guitar (on 13th position, you've got the same pattern as on 1rst position) for playing horizontal patterns, so 12 different fingerings. And for some of them, you've got some choice between fingerings. And this fingerings are valuable going up to down and back, but if, for exemple, you play an interval of 4th, you've can play it rolling the same finger to the next string on same fret or you can use another finger (i saw Kurt doing live). If you add some the horizontal possibilities connecting the patterns, there are a lot of way playing the lines you transcribed. And when you join another chord, you can sometime choose an alternative finger which make the jump to the next scale easier. So the fingerings he uses seems not as evident as you said for me.
    That's what interests me. To see the choices he made (the most interesting for me is when he stays on the same position).
    That's why the ted green methods (Jazz guitar single note soloing vol. 1 & 2) have been so important for me : they show valuable choices of fingerings on single lines on chord progressions (but there are no pentatonics !).
    Sorry for my english level : I'm french.

  5. some mistakes in this post. You must read :
    "But it is very difficult to play VERTICAL (staying in the same position, or in the same area) lines on guitar neck with only this patterns, when there are a lot of chord changes. The reality is that there are 12 positions on guitar (on 13th position, you've got the same pattern as on 1rst position) for playing VERTICAL patterns, so 12 different fingerings. And for some of them, you've got some choice between fingerings. And this fingerings are valuable going up to down and back, but if, for exemple, you play an interval of 4th, you [ ] can play it rolling the same finger to the next string on THE same fret or you can use another finger (i saw Kurt doing IT live)."

  6. You're English is perfectly understandable and I understand what you're saying.

    It's clear to me Kurt has spent a lot of time studying Pentatonics, and you've noticed that in the way he plays them-- I noticed that too.

    I worked a lot on Major scales when I was first learning guitar seriously. I know the patterns every one knows but I also connect them horizontally without even thinking about it. My ears and hands guide me when I'm working with them.

    I can't do that with Pentatonics as easily. I still think about it when I'm doing it. I'm pretty close but I haven't fully integrated the horizontal connecting of them effortlessly. It just takes time I think.

    I know this is a totally non-technical answer, but sometimes that's all it is, time and work.

    If you wanted to devise a system to shorten the amount of time it would take you, I would recommend taking the Mick Goodrich approach and practice playing them on one string only, then add a second string, etc. This forces you out of position playing and makes you rely on your ear and learning the patterns in a different way. That's always a good thing.

    1. First of all, I'd just like to congratulate you for this blog, it's just great to take the time to make all this work and valuable resources available to everyone. Thank you so much.

      Reading your reply and how you talk about connecting major scales effortlessly, one question springs to mind: why pentatonics ? It's also the first thing I thought when I read that Kurt must have spent quite some time getting his pentatonic playing together.
      Sorry it if seems obvious to seasoned improvisers... but it kind of eludes me.

      Naturally I understand it may simply bring variety and colour into one's playing, but considering the effort required, surely there must be a more elaborate reason to this question. Maybe you could shed some of your knowledgeable light on the matter ?



    2. Now the question is : how do I know whether you even got a chance to read my comment... :-)

    3. Hey Guillaume, thank you for your kind words. I just got back from being on the road for a week so I'm catching up on everything.

      To answer your question as briefly as possible, The Major Pentatonic scale (and its related Minor Pentatonic scale -- same scale just starting on different notes) differ from other scales in that there are only 5 notes as opposed to the typical 7. Further, the Major Pentatonic drops the 4th and the 7th scale degree which tend to be difficult notes for beginning improvisors to navigate successfully making just about any note you play a "good" note.

      Furthermore, The Major and Minor Pentatonic substitute well for other scales and are GREAT tools for beginning to get a handle on outside playing.

      To sum up-- Pentatonics offer tools for beginning improvisors all the way to advanced and as you say, bring a really nice variety and color into your playing that typical playing of the other scales don't.

      Hope that helps.

    4. All to often guitar players forget that the 5 note scale can be and has been the most powerful and useful and popular ear satisfying for the listener.....scale for guitar. Its all about mastering the launguge of it. Miles davis alway was in aw of hendrix...he exspresed so much with 5 notes. Its not how many notes or right notes you play its how you play them. Reading music is a great tool but listeners dont give a shit if you can read....its what they hear and what moves them. Saying something that people understand like louis armstrong is what is most important. Good lesson. I heard and related.

  7. over which chord do you play these changes?

  8. how would be the progression in a blues?