Creating Chords from Major and Minor Pentatonic Scales

When applied to a major scale and its relative minor, the following pentatonic scale formulas

Pent formulas

produce the same set of notes:

F – G – A – C – D

D – F – G – A – C

These notes are typically used by guitarists for soloing over chord progressions. They can, however, also be used for creating chords which, in the right context, can be used in both major keys and their relative minors.

Creating chords from the major and minor pentatonic scales gives a connection between the vertical aspects of harmony and the horizontal aspects of melody. This means that, especially for beginning guitarists, it is often easier to create fills and embellishments since there are only five notes to choose from; also, unlike other scales and modes, the pentatonic shapes can be easier to visualise; extending simple harmonies can be easier when using the pentatonic scale shapes as all of the notes work with the various harmonies; and, chord knowledge is increased, since these chords can be used in either a major key or its relative minor.


Looking at the notes of the F major pentatonic scale,  F – G – A – C – D, we see that, collectively, they form an F6add9 chord.


Also contained in this note collection is:

F major – F – A – C

F6 – F – A – C – D

F9 – F – A – C – G (with the seventh omitted)

Fsus2 – F – G – C


Already we can see that the F6 chord contains the same notes as a D minor seventh chord – D – F – A – C, while the F6add9 chord contains the same notes as a D minor eleventh chord, with the ninth omitted – D – F – A – C – G.


Other chords contained in the D minor pentatonic scale are:

D minor – D – F – A

Dsus4 – D – G – A


If we look at the five pentatonic shapes in F major


Pent shapes

we can see that the F6add9 shape, shown earlier, corresponds to part of the pentatonic shape at the seventh fret.

Also, the following chord shape,


which can be heard as either a Dm7 or F6 chord, belongs to the pentatonic shape at the tenth fret.

As you can see, the ability of these chord shapes to work in either F major or D minor is very useful for increasing our chordal vocabulary. As mentioned earlier, it is the context which will determine the correct label for these chord shapes. Because both the F6add9 and the Dm11, with ninth omitted, contain all of the notes in the F major/D minor pentatonic scales, we can play any group of notes from the pentatonic scale shapes when we want to suggest these chords, or any of the other chords listed above. For some note combinations, however, the correct label will need to be clarified by the context.

For example, other harmonies contained within the five-note F/Dm pentatonic group include G7sus4 – G – C – D – F. But, if we play this note combination unaccompanied in the following position


it sounds ambiguous; it doesn’t really sound like an F major chord or a D minor chord, this despite all of the notes coming from the same F/Dm pentatonic note group. If we play the shape with a G note in the bass it will sound like a dominant chord, and if we play it with a D note in the bass the minor eleventh sound begins to emerge. Other factors such as duration and rhythm also have a role in determining what overall sound is produced by any given set of notes.


Looking at the first bar of the introduction to Satin Doll, played by Joe Pass,

Satin Doll

we can see that, with a single note exception, all of the chord shapes correspond to different F/Dm pentatonic shapes.

The first chord is taken from this pentatonic shape

12th shape

the second chord, except for the E note, is taken from this shape

10 shape

the third chord is taken from this shape

7 shape

and the final chord, except for the E note, is taken from this shape.


3 shape

Notice that the third chord is the same shape we initially labelled as an F6add9 chord. In the context of the ii – V – I progression of the Satin Doll intro, however, it sounds as part of the overall D minor sound of bar one. The E notes of chords two and four are found in all D minor scales, here, they substitute for the F notes found in the pentatonic scale shapes.


In the opening of Song for my Father, played by George Benson, all of the chord shapes, except for the grace note slides and the final E flat seventh chord, are found in the F minor pentatonic shapes (the grace note chords have been omitted from the tablature so that it is easier to see the shapes).

Song for my father

The chords move between root position, first and second inversion and partial fragments of an F minor seventh chord while the single notes connect the chordal statements. All notes are found in the A flat major/F minor pentatonic scales

A flat – B flat – C – E flat – F

F – A flat – B flat – C – E flat

and all of the chords and notes are derived from these three scale positions.

F minor