Minor Pentatonic Over Major Chords
Question by Panos
(Athens , Greece)
Can I use minor pentatonic to solo over major chords and progressions? And if yes what is the relationship between the key and the scale that I should use?
Yes, you can play minor pentatonic over major chords and chord progressions... if it sounds good.
Ultimately, let your ears be the judge of what you can and can't do. I'm not here to tell you what to play, just to guide you ;)
Blues is the most common example of minor pentatonic being used over a major key progression (the 1 4 5 progression - that's E A B in E major).
Now, if you've studied music for any length of time, you'll probably have been conditioned never to mix your major and minor 3rds.
However, blues and jazz have been ignoring this "rule" for over a century.
It's this discord/dissonance between the minor 3rd of minor pentatonic and the major 3rd of the root/tonic chord that supports the indescribably soulful "bluesy sound".
Of course, the tonic chord in a major key blues progression is nearly always a dominant 7th chord (e.g. E7 in the key of E major).
This flat 7th helps to "soften" the harshness of this major/minor 3rd clash.
Even so, the minor 3rd will often be quickly resolved to the major 3rd for a stronger feeling of resolution, but when held it's not actually an unpleasant dissonance, as many blues lovers will tell you!
So, that's blues. When else can we use minor pentatonic over major chords?
The answer is simple - whenever it sounds good to you.
I often hear minor pentatonic being used in a major key progression, but it works best when you mix it with a more natural, major scale.
For example, I might close a major soloing phrase with a little minor pentatonic run, to catch the listener off guard, to add variation and interest etc.
I think this works especially well if you play minor pentatonic over the V (5) chord, just before the resolution back to the tonic (1) chord.
For example, play C (yes, C, that's not a typo!) minor pentatonic over G major before the resolution back to C major...
G7 / Cmaj
When the chord changes to Cmaj, hit that major 3rd of C major for the resolution and your "outside" pentatonic lick will be pulled into context.
It'll have what I call "retrospective appeal". That means it requires some kind of contextualisation (e.g. resolution) after you've played it to fully appreciate its role in shaping the harmony.
It can work to spice things up a little. Experiment.
What I would NOT do (personally!) is play minor pentatonic over an entire diatonic progression like this...
Cmaj7 / Em7 / Fmaj7 / Dm7
Playing C minor pentatonic over that very natural major key progression would probably just sound like one big musical mess!
C MAJOR pentatonic, however, would be the natural choice of pentatonic scale.
So, in summary, in a major context, minor pentatonic works best over...
1. major key blues progressions (1 4 5)
2. dominant 7th tonic chords
3. just before resolving to the major 3rd of the tonic
I'll post some audio examples when I get the chance.