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Improvising - Part Two

Pentatonics -- How and When

We've just explored "what" a pentatonic is. Nothing much to it -- it's hard to get simpler than a five note scale!

Let's see how to use a pentatonic. We're going to use a country-style major pentatonic for this exercise -- we're also going to assume you're playing a fiddle.

We've seen that a G-Major pentatonic scale contains the notes G,A,B,D, and E. We've also seen this built as a step, step, step-and-a-half, step, and a step-and-a-half.

It's nice to know the notes involved in the scale -- but you really don't need to do so!

The reason you don't need to know the notes is because you're going to play patterns, not notes!

On the four "GDAE" violin strings, your G-Major pentatonic pattern is:

E: 0--3-5
A: 0-2--5
D: 0-2--5
G: 0-2-4
In this notation, "0" means play the open string, "1" means finger the first half-step, "2" means finger the second half-step, "3" means finger the third half-step, etc.

This means:

On the E string: play the "fifth" half step (an A), the "third" half step (a G) and an open string. Use your second and third fingers.

On the A string: play the "fifth" half step (a D), the "second" half-step (a B), and an open string. Use your first and third fingers.

On the D string: play the "fifth" half-step (a G), the "second" half-step (an E), and an open string. Use first and third fingers.

On the G string: play the "fourth" half-step (a B), the "second" half-step (an A), and an open string. Use first and second fingers.

Obviously you don't play a massive chord with all these notes at the same time -- you'll combine these notes in various ways as you improvise.

Let's give it a try -- start with the "A" on your E string and work your way down. It'll sound like this.

That's playing a G-Major pentatonic. Let's dress it up a bit -- we'll skip the high "A" and start with the "G" on the "E" string. We'll follow the same notes almost all the way down, but we'll "fiddle" around with the last few notes. It'll sound like this. Again, we're playing ONLY the notes in the G-Major pentatonic scale.

Okay, now let's put together a country-style solo using ONLY the notes in a G-Major pentatonic scale. It'll sound like this.

Try to do the same thing yourself -- take it slow, use all four strings, and mix in the G-Major pentatonic notes any way you feel. Don't worry about the names of the notes -- just "fiddle" around with the pattern! When you find a particular pattern of notes that you like, you'll discovered a "lick"!

Furthermore, you're playing G-Major pentatonics and you're playing in the key of "G". That's what the band means when they holler out "jam in G" -- you can play G major pentatonics and you'll sound good most of the time!

The key of G works really well for violin -- the pentatonic scale patterns are easy to use. G is also an easy key for banjo, mandolin, guitar, and voice! If you wanted to practice and learn only a single key, G is a good choice!

What are other easy violin keys? Try the key of D. In D-Major, the pentatonic fingering looks like this:

E: 0-2--5
A: 0-2--5
D: 0-2-4
G: --2-4

Note you don't use the open G string -- but the pattern is still similar to the G-Major pattern. In fact, note how the G-Major patterns have simply "shifted" over a string! Don't want to make a "sweeping generalization", but I seem to see D-Major a lot in Celtic and Irish music.

Another popular country/folk key is C. The C-Major pentatonic pattern looks like this:

E: 0--3-5
A: 0--3-5
D: 0-2--5
G: 0-2--5
The pattern is still similar to the previous two keys. The two previous keys had an open string "root" (G and D). C does not -- unless you're using a five string violin with a "C" string. In that case, the extra string would look like:

C: 0-2-4

Just like the G and D strings in the key of G and D!

Let's also look at the key of A. If you remember how the "D" patterns simply shifted over from the G patterns, you should expect the "A" patterns to do the same!

E: 0-2--5
A: 0-2-4
D: --2-4
G: --2-4-6
Note how we've added the "sixth" half-step on the G string!

Finally, let's take a look at the key of E. The patterns will be:

Okay, enough for playing while a single chord sounds. What happens when the band changes chords?

Okay, Let's see how these patterns work when you change keys. Suppose you're playing in A and the chord changes to D.

In A, you'll play:

In D, you'll play:
VERY similar. Furthermore, if you continued to play in A when the band changed to D, you could "slip" in the two differences (the C# on the G and the A strings) and get away with it!

Finally, the band switches to E before bringing it home. In E, the patterns are:

Again, very similar to A and D. Again, you could probably simply continue to play in A and you wouldn't sound too bad (however, you would sound better if you threw in the different E notes).

This chord progress of A, D, and E is the famous I-IV-V progression (also called a "three-chord progression") that darn near every country song uses. Doesn't matter what the root is, the second chord is a fourth away and the third chord is a fifth away.

In G, the I-IV-V chords are G,C,D. In D, the I-IV-V chords are D,G,A. In C, the I-IV-V chords are C,F,G. We've seen all these pentatonic patterns -- with the exception of F. However, we've also seen you can probably get away with playing the "root" pattern when the band switches to the IV chord.

Of course, if you wanted to do it "right", you might want to build the pattern for F. Let's build this pattern "by the note". We want the three notes in an F major chord (F,A, and C), plus the second (G) and the sixth (D).

These patterns will work for most country/irish/bluegrass fiddling. Granted, great players "stray" from these patterns -- but we're not trying to be great right now, we're just trying to be! Major pentatonics will give you enough to join the game -- and that's what you need to start!

On to Part Three ...

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