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Minor Pentatonic Chord Progressions

In the minor pentatonic scale lesson we learned the intervals that make up the scale and that it's basically a minor scale that will work over minor chords. However, it also works over sequences of chords (chord progressions).

In most cases, as long as the chords used in the progression lie within the same key (more on this in a minute!), you can use the same root minor pentatonic scale throughout the entire progression.

First, we need to understand the theory behind what makes a chord progression suitable for playing minor pentatonic...

Building minor pentatonic chord progressions

In a minor key context

The primary function of minor pentatonic is as a stripped down alternative to other minor scales (e.g. natural minor, harmonic minor, Dorian etc.).

As the "rules" for minor pentatonic are exactly the same as for natural minor, I recommend looking over the natural minor scale progressions lesson for an overview of using minor pentatonic over minor key progressions.

In a major key and blues context

Unlike other minor scales, minor pentatonic is often used in a major key context, such as in blues or rock and roll.

In a blues context, the chords used can be symbolised as  I  IV  V (1 4 5).

This means we're using three major chords, including a major tonic (I) which defines the key of our chord progression and the root of our minor pentatonic scale.

Here's a video I uploaded to the YouTube channel that introduces the essential I IV V concept on guitar...

Now, if we're playing minor pentatonic over this sequence, the best way to support its sound is to use dominant 7th chords on each position...

I7   IV7   V7

Dominant 7th chords give this sequence more of a bluesy feel that really brings out minor pentatonic's character.

For example, if the tonic chord was E7, this is the sequence we'd have...

E7   A7   B7

E minor pentatonic would be our scale, even though the tonic makes this a major key progression! It's just one of those dissonances (between the major and minor 3rd) that actually sounds good and gives it that bluesy sound. Using dominant 7th chords "softens" the harshness of this dissonance.

In the key of D major (and therefore D minor pentatonic would be our scale), we'd have...

D7   G7   A7

Same sequence, different key. Get to know the sound of these chord relationships and you'll know when minor pentatonic is an option for your solo.

Of course, a typical progression might move between these chords in a different way, such as...

I  IV  /  I  /  I  /  IV  /  IV  /  I  /  I  /  V  /  IV  /  I  /  V

That's a typical rock and roll progression over which minor pentatonic would typically be used (as well as extended blues guitar scales).

So, in a nutshell, minor pentatonic works over minor key progressions in exactly the same way natural minor does, but it also works over those 3 chord I IV V major key blues chord progressions.

You should explore these relationships in your own time, but below is a table showing you how the minor pentatonic root would change depending on the key your 1 4 5 progression is in. Notice how key, and therefore the root of our scale is defined by the tonic (I) starting chord.

Key & Scale Root I  IV  V
A A  D  E
B B  E  F#
C C  F  G
D D  G  A
E E  A  B
F F  Bb  C
G G  C  D

Minor pentatonic over the V chord

Even if the progression doesn't follow the traditional blues 1 4 5 sequence, you can still use minor pentatonic over the V (5) chord of a progression, before the resolution back to a major or minor tonic.

For example, a common resolution sequence is ii V I (2 5 1), and while the root minor pentatonic scale of that key wouldn't work so comfortably over the ii chord, it would work nicely over the V and I or i chord.

Some examples of how you might negotiate this:

Root ii V I Progression Scale over the ii chord Over the V and I chords
A Bm / E7 / Amaj B Dorian/A major A minor pentatonic
B C#m / F#7 / Bmaj C# Dorian / B major B minor pentatonic
C Dm / G7 / Cmaj D Dorian / C major C minor pentatonic
D Em / A7 / Dmaj E Dorian / D major D minor pentatonic
E F#m / B7 / Emaj F# Dorian / E major E minor pentatonic
F Gm / C7 / Fmaj G Dorian / F major F minor pentatonic
G Am / D7 / Gmaj A Dorian / G major G minor pentatonic

Remember, this also works for a minor tonic as well. Taking the G root from the table - Am / D7 / Gm.

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