Pentatonic Fluidity

My previous posts about Pentatonics focused on Kurt Rosenwinkel's ability to play them fluidly, through chord changes, without jumping around on the neck. His method consists of coming up with some random chord changes and then playing the appropriate Pentatonic scales as the chords go by rapidly.

So once you've gotten this together (you have been practicing this, right?) what's the next step?

Applying this concept over a real tune. If you don't do this, you're going to be stuck in abstract practice-land. And you don't want to spend too much time there–remember, the reason we're doing all this is to make music.

In the video below, I first demonstrate Kurt's method of playing minor Pentatonics over minor7 chords going up in whole steps starting on Bminor7. Then, I move on to playing Pentatonics over Coltrane's "Giant Steps." This is a difficult tune for any improviser, which is why I chose it to demonstrate the strength of this concept. The chart can be found below the video.

Now let's get to the music!

(Click on the image to see the larger version)

Some notes about the video:

For clarity's sake, the Pentatonic I'm using in both demonstrations is the standard minor Pentatonic known by most musicians: 1 b3 4 5 b7. Using notes, a C minor Pentatonic would be: C Eb F G Bb.

Many musicians think this is the Pentatonic scale, but Pentatonic just signifies a five-note scale. It could be any grouping of any five notes.

Some of you may wonder why I chose the particular Pentatonics I did for "Giant Steps." Without going into music theory, the answer is simple: these Pentatonics sound good over these chords. Why? Because they happen to contain a lot of notes from the basic chord, so I end up outlining the harmony clearly yet there are still some interesting color tones in there as well.

This is a pretty inside way of playing (here's more on outside playing) but it's a great start to getting this concept together. Here is the basic system if you're not familiar with it yet.

Over a minor7 chord, play the Pentatonic with the same root. So, over Aminor7, play A minor Pentatonic.

Over a dominant7 chord, play the Pentatonic a major 6th up/minor 3rd down from the root. So, over D7 play B minor Pentatonic.

Over a major7 chord, play the Pentatonic a major 3rd up/minor 6th down from the root. So, over Gmajor7 play B minor Pentatonic.

There are many more colorful approaches to improvising with this scale, but I'm purposely staying away from implying substitutions or upper structure sounds. My goal was to hew as close as I could to the basic harmony while utilizing only minor Pentatonic scales and keep it relatively simple. There's always time to make things more complicated.

And stay tuned- I'll demonstrate some of the more colorful approaches you can take with your Pentatonic playing in a future video.

Finally, and this is for guitar players, I purposely limited myself to a relatively small space on the neck (on other instruments, you could limit yourself to a narrow melodic range, say from middle C to an octave above that). This is to force me out of using the patterns I'm comfortable with, and into thinking in a more horizontal manner. I want to be aware of where I'm at, what's coming up, and how to get to the next note without necessarily using position playing. There's freedom in that limitation.

Hope you enjoy this one. It was a fun concept to explore.

P.S. A few of you have asked me about the backing tracks to this video. Here's a link. You'll need Apple's Garage band to use it.

[December 2, edited for accuracy: reader Animals2 on Harmony Central caught a discrepancy between blog post and Pentatonics used on the chart]


  1. Hey Sean -
    I loved your Giant Steps posting and will head home to try that tonight.

    I have been hung up on songs with more abstract changes (such as Giant Steps) for a while now. The reason is, I felt I needed to attack them more from chord tones exclusively to start. That's from studying with Bill Connors - he had me doing everything from the R 3 5 7 9, and everything in between is either 11, 13, or passing tones.
    It actually made everything so much more manageable, except when changes FLY by like on this tune at like 1 chord per beat.

    Applying the "minor pent." notes may be just the door I need to get the notes out in time. I hesitate to call it shortcuts, because I won't play the notes without knowing what their function is, but I think it will make the process faster.

    Oh another thing is - I can't be bothered to memorize changes which is why I carry the Real Book almost everywhere.

    Do you believe memorizing the changes to where you can play them backwards in your sleep is the better approach?

    Rock on,

  2. Thanks much.

    I know exactly what you're saying. I too went through the thinking-about-every-note phase and it nearly killed my playing. I spent a lot of time just playing chord tone solos (I still work on it from time to time) but you inevitably run into the problem you talk about on more "modern" tunes, especially at up tempos. It becomes impossible to manage all that at high speeds.

    Minor Pents aren't a shortcut, they're another tool in your belt. The beauty of this particular exercise is you actually ARE playing, essentially, chord tone solos, just chord tone solos with a lot of the extended notes. For instance, over that Ebmaj7, I'm playing G minor Pentatonic-- G Bb C D F, or, the 3rd, 5th, 6th, 7th and 9th of an Ebmaj7. It's magic. I have the 3rd and 7th in there, arguably the strongest harmonic notes besides the root AND I've got some juicy color tones as well. That's pretty nice.

    I purposely avoided, for this exercise, implying even more advanced harmonies so the player could get these sounds in their ear as they're a bit more friendly, but you can take this very, very far out if you want to.

    At this point, I've managed to stop obsessing about every note I'm playing and instead I'm just more _aware_ of where I am on the neck and the notes I'm playing at any given time. Instead my focus is on looking for strong notes to resolve to on strong beats or at the starts/ends of phrases.

    And that's where the memorization of changes come in. Sorry, but I think it makes all the difference in your playing. You can internalize a lot more if you're not staring at a page and instead you're able to focus inwardly or look at the neck.

    Glad you dug the video.

  3. Hi Sean! I was checking out your chart on Giant Steps and was first a little confused, but then I see yo mean MINOR pentatonics, and not major pentatonics. Was clear at first. I recently did a video lesson on pentatonics where I include altered pentatonics (variations on major pentatonics). Cool video and cool stuff. Keep it going!

    Evan Tate

  4. You're right Evan-- that could be more clear on the chart. I think I'll fix that and repost it. My thinking was a person would read my whole post and know I was talking about minor Pents, not the Major. But, one shouldn't ever assume...

    Thanks for pointing that out.

  5. Been working on this Sean. Ain't no getting around it: the song is fast and refuses to be played slowly.


  6. Hi Sean!

    I just discovered your blog, thanks for your time and energy -- the articles are really helpful and inspiring. Sometimes it's hard to focus on important things while practising (I hate that 3 a.m. lost-in-some-bizarre-chords syndrome;-), your approach helps to get back on track.

    Do you have any advice on breaking the awareness barier - after a while of a conscious "tool-based" improvisation (e.g. using some relative structures, such as the pentatonics or mi7 chords, or just scales), I tend to follow some notes or lines instinctively of which I know they will sound good, but this kicks me out of control, I get lost in the changes, get emotional. Or I could call it the pendulum problem - either I think of the changes, or I feel them. How to excercise maintaining the balance between instinct and control? One of the ways would be, as you wrote - using structures that let the brain breathe while still providing interesting harmonic content...

    Also, I agree that progress hapens when you learn how to isolate problems in your playing and work on them with custom exercises. I'm still wasting so much time playing useless stuff!

    BTW, there's a huge book "Pentatonic Scales for Jazz Improvisation" from the Ramon Ricker series, but be warned, you can quickly get lost in the forest of inside-outside continua of scales ;-)


  7. Hey Pawel--

    Sorry for the slow response, I only saw your comment today. I just set up the site to email me when someone comments so I shouldn't have that problem again. Hopefully you're still out there...

    I really like the way you talked about "the awareness barrier." This is something I think about and work on all the time.

    There's three ideas you brought up -- the bigger issue of "the awareness barrier", the more specific problem of getting lost in the changes, and the dichotomy between thinking/feeling changes.

    As far as the awareness barrier is concerned, there's no better and faster (and sometimes painful) way to discover problems in your playing than by recording yourself. The recording never lies. Also, if you're recording yourself, you're going to be a lot more in the moment because you're aware someone, or something is listening to you besides yourself. You'll feel a lot different as you're playing and treat it more like a performance instead of practicing. You don't have to record your whole practice but even just a part of it can be very helpful.

    When you listen back and you notice, "Hey I got lost there," -- what was happening? Is it a part of the tune or progression you've always been a little shaky on? Then isolate that section and work it out. Were you going for something that you didn't quite have a handle on and got distracted by it? You can fix that too working out your idea whether it's fingering or the scale or chord or whatever it was.

    Recording yourself is a way to give yourself an honest assessment of your playing. This is way too hard to do when you're playing and in the moment.

    Regarding getting lost in changes -- when I get lost, it happens either because I don't know the changes well enough, or like you, my focus goes off the changes and onto the lines I'm playing and I stop listening. I then suddenly realize I'm playing out of time or I've forgotten the next chord or I'm on the wrong chord.

    Being an improvisor takes a lot of mental discipline and focus, and if the primary part of your attention is focused on that sound you're hearing in your head and your fingers are following where your ear is leading, if you don't have the chord changes absolutely flowing through you, you can get lost very easily.


  8. [ PART TWO ]

    I can only speak for myself but a major problem that I had was, I was relatively intelligent and could learn and understand new concepts fairly quickly but I hadn't learned how to play a tune. I know that sounds simplistic but it's true. I had jammed with friends, played in ensembles, performed with my group but I really didn't have a strong sense of what it takes to play a song top to bottom from memory. To have truly internalized a song. It's not easy.

    What I do now is divide my practice time between "tool-based" improvisation ideas like you said, AND just playing a tune or two by memory, by myself with a metronome. Don't even have the sheet music around. Just you and the instrument and the metronome.

    For me this has been a huge boost to my focus and accuracy. When I do this, I play relatively straight, maybe a substitution here and there, but I play the tune down. Head, a couple of chourses and head out. Just like a performance. If you can do that, by yourself with just a metronome, I can promise you your focus and accuracy will improve and you'll have less problems of getting lost. It's a skill all to itself.

    And doing that takes care of the third issue you brought up, feeling vs. thinking changes. I think that's a false either/or situation you've set up. You can have your cake and eat it too! You can think about the changes AND feel them and it becomes natural once you know a tune or chord progression inside and out.

    I hope this helped. I tend to over-explain things so here's the short answers to your questions if you don't have the time to wade through my answers:

    1. Record yourself.
    2. Play tunes by memory with a metronome.
    3. See number 2.

    You'll get better if you do this stuff.

  9. Hi Sean,
    Thanks for taking the time to share your insight it is greatly appreciated. I know the pentatonic scales and most others for that matter. My struggle comes in the form of my phrasing. Any suggestions on methods of practice and exercises to help me become more creative in my phrasing?
    Thanks for any input.


    1. Hi Warren-- without hearing you play it's a little hard to know exactly how to fix the problem, or even if there is one. Sometimes our perception of ourselves is very flawed.

      I can generalize though with a couple of recommendations.
      1. Record yourself soloing and listen back. Is it good? Is it bad? If it's good, what's good about it? Do more of that. If it's bad, what's bad about it? Do less of that. You have to police and edit yourself, no one will do it for you.
      2. Listen to other instruments than your own. If you play guitar, listen to sax and piano players. But ESPECIALLY any kind of horn player-- they have to breathe when they play so they naturally have breaks in their playing, something guitarists and pianists tend to have problems with.
      3. If you admire someone's playing, figure out what it is that you like and articulate it. "They have great chops." "They're so melodic." Then work on those things in your playing.
      4. Learn other people's solos. Even more importantly-- learn melodies of songs and play then on your instrument as if you were singing them yourself. Play them like a singer would sing them.
      5. Sing along with your solos. This is a good habit to get into so that you're not just running your fingers around. It will make you hear what it is you're playing and create a connection to your musical self and away from your intellectual self.
      6. Make sure you're listening to music and great players, it will inspire you and you'll want to emulate them.

  10. Hi Sean
    Thanks for the good advice. I'll get to work on it.


  11. please, please! more videos (or posts). i love it!!! thanks a lot