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I've learned both diatonic and pentatonic scales across the fretboard but when I go to solo, it sounds so much better to me if I use the pentatonic as a base and then pepper in some of the diatonic notes instead of just using the diatonic scale. Why is this the case? And when would I actually use the diatonic scale (besides old Christmas/Church songs like silent night and god rest ye merry gentlemen - which I somehow always end up playing when I play the diatonic scale).

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    'Sound so much better'? Only so if the player hasn't much of a clue what each note represents! 'Safer' rather than 'better'. – Tim Apr 15 at 5:52
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The general answer is that pentatonic scales avoid some of the dissonances against the chords that occur naturally in the diatonic scales.

For example, suppose you're playing over a C Major chord. Choosing to play a C Major pentatonic gives you the three chord tones, C E G, which are guaranteed to sound good, plus D and A, which are the chordal 9th and 6th, respectively, and sound pretty good against the chord. However, the diatonic C Major scale includes F and B, both of which create fairly harsh dissonances if not used carefully.

A full answer to the question is highly dependent on the specific chord(s), scale(s), and larger musical context, but the general answer provides a roadmap: pentatonics will tend to contain fewer dissonances against the underlying chord.

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  • This is good info thanks. So do people not generally use the diatonic to solo or do they use the diatonic but know in their head which notes to avoid? That sounds like it would be really hard to improvise on the spot – dcw6751 Apr 14 at 19:29
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    @dcw6751 Pentatonic versus diatonic depends somewhat on the style of music, but when using diatonic scales, one might start out having to think about which notes to avoid, but eventually you develop an intuitive feel, and your ear tells you without needing to think about the specific notes being played. It's also less a matter of avoiding the notes as knowing how to use them: for example, as passing tones or decorative tones, as mentioned in the original question. – Aaron Apr 14 at 19:31
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    @dcw6751 Aaron is absolutely correct. Many rock players, Santana and Terry Kath, among others, use all 7 notes. – user3235 Apr 14 at 19:44
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    @user3235 - there are twelve notes available, and that's before microbends. And most decent rock players - and most musicians - will use all of them, not just 7. – Tim Apr 15 at 5:50
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    I'd say you don't learn what notes to avoid, It's more likely you learn what notes to use. For example, you when know the chord you are playing over, you know the notes from it's arpeggio are the safest ones. 9th, 11th and so on -- less and leass safe. And another thing is rythm. When you land some risky note on stressed bit, you get dissonant sound. When you play the same risky note? for example? 1/8 before a stressed bit and lay something safe on the bit, you're safe – ba3a Apr 15 at 16:59
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Pentatonics are so much safer! The two notes that are most likely to sound out of place in any chord sequence are the two omitted from the diatonic set - 4 and 7. A tritone apart (both ways).

Those two notes are far more likely to clash with any chord likely to appear in common chord sequences. Without them, tunes using pentatonic notes do sound a little bland, but all of the five notes fit with pretty well whatever diatonic chord sequence is being used.

EDIT: noticed it's guitar tagged. There is a simple pattern of notes which is easy to remember and play on guitar - it's both major and minor pentatonic notes within the same pattern - all spanning three frets, and obviously dependent on where up the neck it's used for soloing in specific keys. True, there are other patterns involving the pents, but this particular pattern is probably the best known (and used) by guitarists.

That in itself is a very good reason it works, as the pattern is so simple, and all notes fall comfortably under the fingers, with no need to slide up/down to another position. That, along with the other points, is one main reason it's often the go-to for solos on guitar.

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    Pretty much impossible to play a wrong note if you're sticking to the pentatonic scale in fact. Not always super exciting, though... – user45266 Apr 15 at 1:34

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