The following article is an excerpt from my book, “Recycling in Jazz Improvisation” which can be downloaded as a pdf in my Books section of

There has been a lot of great information written about the use of the pentatonic scale in jazz. My intention here is not to detract from any of it but hopefully through the use of recycling, simplify how one thinks about applying these scales.

Instead of learning twelve major and twelve minor pentatonics wouldn’t it be nicer if we could learn twelve pentatonics and apply them in 24 situations? Actually, recycling the major pentatonic would result in many more than 24 applications.  Using a major pentatonic as a minor pentatonic or over a minor chord is simply a matter of understanding the scales’ inversions. (See Ex. 7) In Example 7, you can see that the notes in a C major pentatonic work very nicely over A minor. So, instead of thinking of an A minor pentatonic, when I see a minor chord I can now think, “Play the major pentatonic that starts on the 3rd, which in this case is C major.”

The power of pentatonic scales is their ability to take the player to further harmonic extensions while still maintaining a motivic structure of which the listener can identify.  Another way to think of this is that using pentatonics in a certain way can progress the player from playing “inside” the chord structure to playing “outside” the structure and back again.  Understanding the order of pentatonic usage from inside to outside on any given chord is the first step.  I have included examples showing this hierarchy on the three major chord functions; major, minor and dominant.  (A player can of course take this further and use pentatonics that explore the further reaches of the described tonality but the examples I site maintain at least one of the fundamental chord tones; root, third or seventh.)  (See Ex. 8)  Again, the key to simplifying this process is being able to identify chordal intervals and say, “I am going to play the major pentatonic that starts on the ___ of the chord.”

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