Improvising - Part One

Pentatonics -- They're Your Friends!

A few years back an "Unplugged" special on MTV featured a performer, his band, and a backup string quartet. At one point (while everyone was taking solos), the singer motioned for the string players to take a solo also.

And nothing happened! These string performers were great musicians -- but they didn't know how to improvise. It's not something a classically trained violinist is called upon to do that often.

Being a great improviser isn't easy -- but being a decent improviser isn't hard. You just have to know a few things about keys, chords, and pentatonics.

A pentatonic is simply a five note scale. We're interested in Major Pentatonics and Minor Pentatonics. In a major pentatonic, the five notes are: root, whole step, whole step, whole-and-a-half, whole, and finally root again (octave). Minor pentatonics are: root, whole-and-a-half, whole step, whole step, whole-and-a-half, root again (octave). (Note: I know these are six notes. I included the root twice, once as root, again as the octave. The actual scale is only the first five notes.)

For example, a G-Major pentatonic contains the notes G, A, B, D, and E. Interestingly enough, an E-Minor pentatonic contains the same five notes -- but it starts on a different root -- E, G, A, B, D! If the first note after the root is a whole step, it's a major pentatonic. Country and folk music commonly use major pentatonics. If the first note after the root is a step-and-a-half, it's a minor pentatonic. Rock and roll and blues generally use minor pentatonics.

Let's look again at the G-Major pentatonic -- G,A,B,D,E. These are the three notes in a G-Major chord (G,B,D), plus a second (A) and a sixth (E). The E-Minor pentatonic contains the four notes in a minor seventh chord (E,G,B,D) plus a fourth (A). More on these later -- you don't need to remember them right now!

If you pick up your instrument and play the five pentatonic notes, you might think it feels exotic -- perhaps a little Asian -- and you'd be right. Pentatonics are featured in Asian music. The appeal is more global, though. If you ever listen to someone "scat-singing" -- or if you pretend to play "air guitar" and sing a solo to yourself -- the odds are you are singing pentatonics!

(Ever watch Beavis and Butthead? When they sing "air guitar", they're singing pentatonics.)

So how exciting can five notes be? Well, Led Zepplin's Jimmy Page has done pretty well -- and he's noted as being mainly a pentatonic player! How about that lead player in that country band you heard last week? Odds are he was playing G-major pentatonics. How about the monster riff leading off Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water"? Another pentatonic. Stevie Ray Vaughn was another tremendous guitar player who relied on pentatonics -- in fact, virtually every good guitar player uses them.

And so can fiddlers! (and horn players, and woodwind players, and keyboard players, and ...)

On to Part Two ...