The pentatonic scale is one of the most frequently used and commonly taught scales on the guitar. Over the past fifty years countless books have been written in an attempt to teach the fingerings and practical applications of the major and minor pentatonic scale for guitar. Guitarist and educator Russell DeCorteâ€™s book Pentatonic Soundscapes Version 1.0 sets out to strike new ground in the realm of pentatonic scale pedagogy and application.
Chapter 1: In the Beginning
The first chapter of Pentatonic Soundscapes begins with an explanation of the five modes of the major pentatonic scale and how this scale relates to the minor pentatonic scale. Some readers may find that the textual explanation of this relationship is a little too short; DeCorte's intention is to provide the reader with a minimal amount reading work and have the student focus most of their attention on playing these concepts on their instruments. By choosing to place all of the material presented in this chapter into a practical, functional context, the reader can immediately jump into learning to play any and all of the given examples.
DeCorte also gives practice guidelines during the opening page of this chapter. He reminds the student that it will take focused practice to thoroughly learn to play all five of the pentatonic modes and that they need to learn these scales in all twelve keys. As well, DeCorte provides the student with the goal of being able to play all five modes of the scale in sixteenth notes at mm=60 before moving onto the next section of the book. While he does not mention it in the text, it is also assumed that the student should be able to perform the different pentatonic scales from memory before moving on to the next section of the book.
There is also a short paragraph that talks about how to use these different scales in an improvisatory manner. Since all of the scales are written in the key of C, to make it easy for the beginning student to read and learn them, DeCorte gives harmonic applications of these scales relative to that key. This section of the introduction is purposely short as DeCorte reminds the student that the important idea at this point is to physically learn to play each scale. Applying these scales to songs and chord progressions will be dealt with in more detail later on in this chapter and in subsequent chapters.
The rest of the first chapter deals with the concept of â€œpentatonic scale superimposition.â€ In general terms this section of the chapter outlines different ways in which each of the five pentatonic scales can be applied to different chords and progressions. DeCorte approaches this concept from two angles in the given examples.
In some of the examples DeCorte simply presents a given scale in ascending fashion to give the student the basic idea of the harmonic function of that scale in relationship to a certain chord. What makes this part of the chapter so effective is that in other examples DeCorte composes lines and phrases that can be used in a practical situation over these same chords.
These lines use patterns and sequences that are common to the jazz and fusion idioms and the diversity of rhythms used in each example will help the student learn to hear each scale and superimposition within a working line of music, not just a technical example.
DeCorte also gives examples from his own approach to improvising using these chords. The tune that he discusses is the familiar jazz standard Alone Together, where DeCorte presents different ways in which he would take these musical examples and apply them to this tune on the bandstand. Again, this section of the chapter is effective in its presentation of the pentatonic scales in a real-world situation.
Chapter 2: Sequences and Patterns
The second chapter of the book deals with the application of common sequences and patterns to the major and minor pentatonic scales that were presented in the first chapter of the book. The chapter opens with an explanation of the nature of patterns and sequences, how they can be numbered, and then how this line of thought can be transferred to the guitar in a practical manner.
The first few examples in this chapter will be fairly easy for any advanced-beginner guitarist to learn and apply to their own playing. Though, after the second or third example even an intermediate player will have to work to fully get these examples under their fingers.
The musical examples are all written out, as all examples in the book are, in standard notation and tablature. DeCorte also gives the numerical notation for each sequence to help the student to memorize each pattern, allowing them to focus on the neck of the guitar rather than the written notation. At the end of the first half of this chapter DeCorte provides the reader with nineteen more examples that the student can practice through any of the five pentatonic scales they have learned up to this point.
The second half of the chapter deals with applying these patterns and sequences to the full range of the guitar. DeCorte gives two examples of how the student can link each of the five pentatonic fingerings across the guitar to cover the entire neck with each sequence. This is a key step in the evolution of any improvising guitarist and will probably be the section of the book that the reader will spend the most time mastering. Spending the time to master this section of the book will make it much easier to apply all of the licks and patterns presented in later chapters.
The second chapter finishes with DeCorte presenting an exercise to the student that will allow them to play the pentatonic scale in all twelve keys in one position. Readers who are familiar with the teachings of Tal Farlow or Jack Grassel will know this approach as the â€œsix-fingerâ€ method. Though, while Farlow and Grassel focused on seven note scales and modes when teaching this approach, DeCorte sticks to the pentatonic patterns used in this book which provides the reader with a new twist on a tried and true pedagogical technique.
Chapter 3: The Others
The third chapter of Pentatonic Soundscapes is the shortest section of the book but contains very valuable information for the reader. This chapter deals with two concepts, the altered pentatonic scale and artificial harmonics in the style of Lenny Breau and Ted Greene as applied to pentatonic scales.
The altered dominants used are similar to what Gary Keller talks about in his scale book for jazz musicians, though in this case DeCorte presents them in a manner strictly for guitarists. He also discusses how to finger these scales, how they relate to the previously learned pentatonic scales and how they can be applied to practical situations. Musical examples are also given using lines and phrases from DeCorte's own playing.
The section dealing with artificial harmonics presents practice material for any reader that is interested in applying this technique to the pentatonic scale. DeCorte uses musical examples that were inspired by Ted Green and Lenny Breau, where the student is to alternate playing a fretted note and a harmonic as they ascend and descend the scale. This technique is also called â€œharp harmonicsâ€ and can add a new level of harmonic sophistication to any solo, introduction or chord melody.
Chapters 4, 5 and 6: A View from the Side, Handling Common Progressions and Transcription Excerpts
The final three chapters all combine to form a larger section that presents the student with performance examples taken from DeCorteâ€™s playing and transcriptions he has done of famous players such as John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner and Peter Bernstein.
These chapters also present material intended to help the reader add slurs to their pentatonic scales as well as how to properly pick through each example in order to maximize right-hand efficiency. These chapters will be some of the most enjoyable sections of the book for the student as this is where the rubber really meets the road. Students who have mastered the material from the first half of the book will now be able to fully grasp how each of these examples were built and how they can be applied to their own solos.
I recommend Pentatonic Soundscapes for advanced beginner to intermediate level students who are looking for new source material in their study of the pentatonic scale. Guitar teachers will also be able to use this book in their studios as a guide, and for the examples, when teaching the major and minor pentatonic scale to their students. The very reasonable price of this book will also make it an attractive buy for any guitarist as they look to expand their pedagogical library.