String Theory is a bi-annual publication intended for guitarists who are interested in all aspects of music theory, specifically as it pertains to the guitar.
If you are a guitar principal here at Berklee then you undoubtedly are aware that you will be asked to learn four unique yet essentially relevant 7 note scales and their respective modes during your first four semesters of private lessons. Major scales are required of level 1, Melodic Minor scales for level 2, Harmonic Minor scales for level 3 and Harmonic Major scales for level 4. In essence what you are being asked to do is to learn 28 individual modes! (4 scales, each containing 7 modes = 28 modes) If that seems like a daunting task then I ask you to consider a different approach and option for understanding and playing these four scales at least initially. Play the pentatonic version of the 7 note scale.
If you were to compare in G major the 7 note Major scale (G A B C D E F# G) with the 5 note Major Pentatonic scale (G A B D E) you will find that scale degrees 4 (C) and 7 (F#) are missing from the Major Pentatonic scale. Most experienced guitarists have some working knowledge of pentatonic scales and are probably aware of the differences between the major scale and the major pentatonic scale but I bet few have ever considered what type of pentatonic scales result from extracting the 4th and 7th degrees from the Melodic Minor, Harmonic Minor and Harmonic Major scales. The basic premise of this discussion is to derive and construct a pentatonic scale from each of the four primary scales required as a guitar principle here at Berklee.
A major pentatonic scale contains a Root, major 2nd, major 3rd, perfect 5th and major 6th. There are no 4th or 7th scale degrees in a major pentatonic scale. This is a significant point. Eliminating those two notes from the 7 note major scale allows a player to use the pentatonic scale in any major key situation regardless of which mode or modes may be in operation. The 4th and 7th degrees are basically the main characteristic notes to be found in each of the three major modes. Ionian is characterized in part by the perfect 4th or sus4. Lydian is characterized by the raised or #4th and Mixolydian contains a b7 creating a dominant 7 chord sound. With the elimination of the 4th and 7th degrees you essentially have a scale that has no avoid notes, notes that have a hard time resolving or otherwise create some amount of dissonance. The remaining notes work harmonically over any major key tonality regardless of which mode is occurring whether it be an Ionian, Lydian or Mixolydian playing situation. I call the pentatonic scale the “parachute” scale…when in doubt bail out with a pentatonic scale. If you get lost while improvising simply find a pentatonic scale that fits.
*As you can see in the chart below the notes of a G major pentatonic scale are found in each of the three major scale modes, Ionian, Lydian and Mixolydian.
When you take out the 4th and 7th degrees of the Major scale you get the Major Pentatonic scale . When you do the same with the Melodic minor scale you get what is called the Melodic minor or Kumoi pentatonic scale. The name Kumoi comes from Japan. Pentatonic scales represent the most fundamental type of scale in Japan’s traditional music and you will hear an inherently Japanese vibe when playing the Kumoi scale. The Harmonic minor or Hirajoshi scale is another Japanese pentatonic scale. The Gm Hirajoshi scale is the basis of the tuning for the 13 string Koto, a traditional instrument mostly played by women. The 13 string Koto is tuned from strings 1 – 13 as follows:
(D(8va) G A Bb D Eb G A Bb D Eb G A)
I studied the 13 string Koto in Rokakoen Japan in 1996 with Michiyo Yagi at the Office Sound Pot school of music. She is an amazing artist and she recently released her 12th album Into the Forest. (see below for an article about Michiyo)
The Harmonic Major scale pentatonic is a more jazz related sounding scale. The b6th giving the major tonality an altered feel.
Check out the PDF file charts below of each of the four pentatonic scale fingerings.
G A B C D E F# G = G Major compared to G A B D E = G Major Pentatonic
G A Bb C D E F# G = G Melodic minor compared to G A Bb D E = G Melodic minor or Kumoi pentatonic
G A Bb C D Eb F# G = G Harmonic Minor compared to G A Bb D Eb = G Harmonic minor or Hirajoshi pentatonic
G A B C D Eb F# G = G Harmonic Major compared to G A B D Eb = Harmonic major pentatonic
Use these pentatonic scales in the same manner that you would use the full 7 note scales. Play them in modal situations instead of the full scale. Having only 5 notes creates a more open and angular sounding line. You can get creative and use these pentatonics over any of the diatonic chords from the aforementioned scales above. The sky is the limit as to how to use them and what you can come up with harmonically so experiment with them.