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Finding That Jazzy Sound

by Tom Swan

Ever wonder how the great jazz masters get that jazzy sound in their solo work? There isn’t just one answer, but here’s a great technique for adding the flavor of jazz to your playing using only standard and widely-taught pentatonic patterns that you may already know how to play.

The great news about this technique is that, by simply overlaying two common minor pentatonic patterns, you easily derive a new scale in the same key as the first pattern (I’ll use A-Minor here) but with added notes for a more "outside" kind of sound. Since you already know the fingerings of the original pentatonic scales, there are no new patterns to learn. You just have to learn how to play two scales on top of each other as I’ll explain.

At the same time, with this simple method, you can also derive all major scale fingerings, including all modes such as Dorian and Mixolydian, in all twelve keys without having to learn any new scales. An impossible promise? Not at all — this method really works. All you need are your minor pentatonic shapes. If you already know them, even if only kinda-sort-of, you are ready to roll.

In this article you learn how to pair two of the standard five pentatonic scale patterns (see Learning Pentatonic Scales) and easily create all major scale fingerings plus all modes such as Dorian with no other scales to study or memorize. This is also a fast and easy-to-master skill that can jazz up your minor pentatonic solos without requiring you to learn new scales.

Starting Patterns

Start with the minor pentatonic pattern that most guitar players learn early in their studies (see Figure 1). I call this a "one on six" pattern because it begins with the first finger on the sixth string (1:6). This locates the root note of the scale --in this case the note A at the 5th fret (colored red in the score). Because the patterns are all movable, to play in a different key, simply start on a different root note.

A-Minor 1:6 Pentatonic Pattern
Figure 1. Figure 1. A-Minor 1:6 Pentatonic Pattern

Next, examine another A-Minor scale pattern (see Figure 2). This new pattern attaches to the first pattern on its lower side, sharing common notes at the fifth fret. The scale is still A-Minor but play it starting with your fourth finger on the sixth string (4:6).

The pattern in Figure 2 begins a whole step below A — on its flat seven, or G — with finger 2. The scale still begins with finger 4 on A. If you find this confusing, remember that a scale pattern is like a map or guide to all of the scale notes that are within reach, even if that means starting the pattern from a different note other than the scale’s root.
A-Minor 4:6 Pentatonic Pattern
Figure 2. Figure 2. A-Minor 4:6 Pentatonic Pattern
It’s a good idea to play around with this scale to become familiar with its sound, especially if you are new to pentatonics (five-note scales). I like to record a simple one-chord "vamp" in a loop — Am7 for example — and then play the scale on top.

Going Outside to Play

A few years ago at jazz camp, I learned a neat soloing trick: For a jazzy sound with almost no extra effort, simply play any minor pentatonic scale one whole step above the current key. For example, in A-Minor, play a B-Minor pentatonic scale using the same pattern as the first scale but a whole step higher. Depending on the song or progression, this may not always sound good — use your ears to check whether the results are acceptable. But in many cases, playing "outside" this way simply by moving a scale up a whole step adds a little off-color dissonance to note choices and can help lend a jazzy feel to solo lines.

By "key" I mean the key of the moment — A-Minor in this case — not necessarily the key of the song, which might be different. The key of the moment is the root of whatever chord or chord-progression you are focusing on right now, and it generally follows the song harmonies.

Try this trick with the same 1:6 pattern from Figure 1 but a whole step higher with your index finger now at the seventh fret. Played over the same A-Minor vamp from before, the new B-Minor scale sounds decidedly different, with more dissonance than with the A-Minor scale tones. Play bits of one scale and then the other over a backing track to compare their sounds.

While sounding jazzier, or at least a bit shadier, this way of injecting outside sounds into a solo can seem "chunky" and the fingerings can be awkward to play. Being composed of scale fragments stitched together — a bit of A-Minor, followed by B-Minor, followed with some more A-Minor, and so on — melodic fluidity may suffer. For a smoother result, we need to melt the two scales into a new scale that mixes the notes from both.

Overlaying the Two Scales

Return again to our first A-Minor (1:6) pentatonic scale (Figure 1). The goal is to find a B-Minor scale (the one we just played a whole step above) that overlays the first scale at the same fifth fret position.

Remember from before that you played the second scale pattern (4:6) for A-Minor attached to the low side of the first pattern (Figure 2). Do the same now with the B-Minor pattern (4:6) but with your pinky finger on the seventh fret. Now the B-Minor scale overlays where you formerly played A-Minor using pattern one (1:6).

Watch the video if the foregoing explanation isn’t crystal clear. The goal is to overlay A-Minor (1:6) with B-Minor (4:6) with the fingering hand fixed at the fifth fret position.

Visualizing Scale Patterns

The hard part in playing overlayed scales is simultaneously visualizing both the scale you are playing and the next one coming up, all the while seeing the entire combined scale as a whole. Try to develop the ability to "see" scales this way, and to shift your focus between scale patterns on the fretboard and in your mind as though the note positions had landing lights built into them.

Practice playing the two minor scale patterns while keeping your hand relatively in the same position. You now have both scales directly under your fingers, but because you are still alternating between the two different scales — A-Minor and B-Minor — that chunky feel remains.

Switching between the two scales, though, is now much faster because you no longer have to move your hand up a whole step to play B-Minor. This observation leads to the final step in the method which is to meld the scales into a single new scale that you can still visualize as being composed of the original two pentatonics but that now sounds consistently whole.

First, however, you must be able to play each scale separately and switch between either at will. A few practice suggestions follow. Do them in the listed order:

  • Play A-Minor (1:6) from the lowest up to the highest note

  • Play B-Minor (4:6) down from highest to lowest note

  • Play B-Minor (4:6) up

  • Play A-Minor (1:6) down

  • Play B-Minor (4:6) up on strings 6-5-4 (first half)

  • Play A-Minor (1:6) up on strings 3-2-1 (second half)

  • Play B-Minor (4:6) down on strings 1-2-3

  • Play A-Minor (1:6) down on strings 4-5-6

After these steps become second nature, try playing both scales on sets of two strings at a time. For example, alternate between A-Minor (1:6) and B-Minor (4:6) but limit your playing to the D and G strings. This practice method clearly identifies shared and unique notes between the two scales, and helps improve your overall visualization skills.

Completing the Merger

Now for the final step. When you are comfortable playing the two scale patterns at the same relative hand position (the fifth fret in this case), start with your index finger on the lowest note (A) and then do the following repeatedly until you reach the top:

  • Play the next closest note, A-Minor (1:6) or B-Minor (4:6)

In other words, for the entire scale, select the next note to play from either scale, whichever note is closer. Most of the time, this means switching scales in your mind for every new note, but in some cases two adjacent notes might be from the same scale.

The result is a new scale that combines all of the notes from both scales, A-Minor and B-Minor. Some notes overlap; others belong to one scale but not the other. Go slowly. It’s a lot easier to do than these words may suggest, and with a little practice, you should be able to easily play the resulting merged scale (see Figure 3).

Dorian A-Minor
Figure 3. Figure 3. Dorian A-Minor (G Major)

Our new derived scale is called the Dorian-Minor scale, which you can substitute anywhere you might ordinarily play a 1:6 minor pentatonic scale. Dorian sounds jazzier than its plainer pentatonic cousin in part because it effectively combines the tones of A-Minor with B-Minor. It’s also easy to memorize, having three notes per string, except for the two on the A string, and also because of its regular repeating pattern of whole and half steps.

You may be surprised to learn also that the newly merged scale is actually the full G Major scale. That’s right. Simply merging two minor pentatonic scales effectively derives one of the standard major scale fingerings that guitar students typically struggle to master.

Music Theory Corner
Combining the A-Minor and B-Minor pentatonic scales to derive G Major works because the minor scales contain notes from the second (Dorian) and third (Phrygian) modes of the G Major scale. But you don’t need to know any of that in order to play music!

What’s more, all other scale modes are readily available in the derived pattern — D Mixolydian for example — as they are with all major scales. Just play the same pattern from Figure 3, but start and stop on D wherever you find that note in the pattern.

Remember that you can move the scales described here to new positions, and in that way play them in all 12 keys.

Learning Pentatonic Scales

If you need some help learning standard pentatonic scale patterns, select the following link to view or download a PDF file with all of the common fingerings including the two patterns used in this article. Because pentatonic patterns are well explained in countless books and videos, I don’t describe them further here.

Finishing the Puzzle

In this article, you learned how to combine two minor pentatonic scale patterns, A-Minor and B-Minor, into a new pattern, Dorian A-Minor, which shares the identical notes of G Major. But that’s only one fifth of the puzzle. To derive all Dorian-Minor fingerings (along with all major scales) up and down the fretboard, you must now pair the remaining four pentatonic patterns, a task I leave to you.

To accomplish that mission, it’s useful to realize that the five pentatonic patterns join together at their edges with common notes, and that the circular order of the patterns remains the same in all keys. For that reason, you have to complete the puzzle only for A-Minor and B-Minor. To play major scales and modes including Dorian-Minor in other keys, just shift the merged patterns left or right — all of the relative fingerings remain exactly the same in all 12 keys.