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I am having difficulty trying to get any kind of benefit from practicing major and minor pentatonic scales to use for improvisation. The problem is that the 1,2,3,5,6 shape in the hand is not particularly useful to produce a melodic line. I must, therefore try to remember which notes are in the scale which due to its asymmetric form always creates problems especially when descending. For instance if I start on the 3rd of the scale, the form is then 1,3,4,6,7. Or on the 2nd it would be 1,2,4,5,7.

Am I thinking about this in the wrong way or is this a difficulty most people have when using pentatonics?

  • Comes this down to a specific instrument or is this instrument independent? I play the piano and the pentatonic is the one which feels - at least to me - the least difficult. – Olli Dec 6 '19 at 12:02
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    Also i dont understand what you refer to with "the from is then 1,3,4,6,7". could you explain that? – Olli Dec 6 '19 at 12:03
  • Let's assume we're working with the CMaj pentatonic scale (C D E G A). If you want, you can think of the C as step 1, the D as step 2, the E as step 3, the G as step 4, and the A as step 5. You can define the scale steps/degrees based on their position in that scale. Instead, it looks like you're thinking about the notes based on their position in the full CMaj scale. (G is step 5, etc.) That's fine, but if you start the pentatonic scale on E (giving E G A C D), continue to think of C as the root of CMaj. So E G A C D is 3-5-6-1-2 not 1-3-4-6-7. – jdjazz Dec 7 '19 at 17:02
  • If you're in CMaj and playing the CMaj pentatonic scale, then you want to continue thinking of C as the root despite where your lick/scale pattern may start. The scale steps don't change simply because we start playing the pentatonic scale on a different step. This will be a much simpler way to think about things, and it should make memorizing the pentatonic scales easier. If it's helpful, play a C in the bass with your left hand, and then try out different pentatonic patterns that start on different scale degrees. That may help you think of each pattern in terms of C as the root. – jdjazz Dec 7 '19 at 17:04
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Here are some common ways jazz students practice pentatonic scales and learn pentatonic licks:

  • Transcribe jazz solos that utilize pentatonic scales and practice those licks in all 12 keys (for piano: Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner, etc.).
  • Write out random number chains like 425354121534 and then play the corresponding tones from the pentatonic scale (GDAEAGCDCAEG). Try different octaves for the notes until you find a lick you like. You can also try on different rhythms.
  • Instead of transcribing a full solo from a pentatonic master, transcribe just the rhythms. Then practice filling in those rhythms with pentatonic scale patterns, random number sequences, etc.
  • Practice pentatonic scale patterns. For example, a really common one is broken "thirds": 1-3-2-4-3-5-4-1-5-2 etc. Once you master this, try varying the pattern. For example, you could alternate ascending/descending broken thirds: 1-3-4-2-3-5-1-4-5-2. These are just examples, and you can come up with many more scale patterns.

The notes in the pentatonic scale don't change based on the first scale step we play. For example, in CMaj, the typical major pentatonic scale is C-D-E-G-A. Starting on D, the notes are D-E-G-A-C. The typical Cmin pentatonic scale is C-E♭-F-G-B♭. (There are other versions of the pentatonic scale--you can search the site to find some examples.)

These practice techniques will improve your memory of which notes are in the scale, but for the sake of efficiency, it's worth improving your knowledge of which notes are in the scale before you start practicing these techniques. To help, go to the piano and push down all of the notes in the pentatonic scale at the same time. Then play the notes one-by-one (1-2-3-4-5). Then move the bottom note up an octave and repeat--depress all of the notes at the same time, then play one-by-one.

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