5 Ways of Improvising Over Basic Chords + Pentatonic Scale Trick – Better Sax
Pentatonic Scale Trick - 5 Levels of Improvisation

5 Ways of Improvising Over Basic Chords + Pentatonic Scale Trick

Hey Everyone! Welcome back, today I’m gonna show you a few simple techniques for improvising over the classic soul standard “Ain’t no Sunshine” by Bill Withers. Plus, I’ll show you a neat little trick to make the pentatonic scale sound even cooler.

In this lesson I’m gonna be using the “Ain’t no Sunshine” backing track from BetterTrax.com. It’s part of the new collection called Groove and Soul Standards Volume 1. There is also a free PDF download to accompany this lesson in the Better Sax shed.

Open Your Ears – Listen & Memorize the Tune

When learning a new song the first step is always going to be learning the melody. The way you should do this is by listening to recordings of that song.

I promise, it’s not about finding the sheet music somewhere and reading it over. You’ll never truly learn a song that way.

Even if you’ve heard “Ain’t no Sunshine” by Bill Withers a million times, it’s going to be very good to go back and listen to this song with your saxophone out. You’ll want to learn the melody the way you hear it on the recording. 

The melody is an A minor pentatonic scale with the addition of one note – the second. There’s only a total of six notes in the whole melody, so it’s pretty easy to learn by ear.

I’ve already made a bunch of videos about this and I even have a free course dedicated to how to learn simple melodies entirely by ear. If you haven’t already gone through that course I highly recommend you do.

So once you’ve got the melody learned and memorized, the next step is to work out how to improvise over the chord changes.

“Ain’t no Sunshine” is a great track for beginning improvisers because the harmony is very simple. There’s only three chords in the whole song, and they’re very closely related.

Speaking in concert key we start with A minor for four bars, then we have one bar of E minor, one bar of D minor, and then back to A minor for two bars. That’s the whole structure form of the tune.

Static Pentatonic or Blues Scale

Now let’s go over a few basic tools you can use to improvise over this chord progression. 

The first and simplest, is going to be just to play the same minor pentatonic scale over all the chords. In this case, that will be your A minor pentatonic scale.

Now there’s nothing wrong with improvising over this tune that way, but it’s somewhat limiting because you’ve only got five notes to work with.

If you add to that minor pentatonic scale, the flat fifth, you get the blues scale. So, you could improvise over this chord progression just using the blues scale as well.

Again there’s nothing wrong with that but it is somewhat limiting and restrictive.

Modal Improvisation

Now let’s explore what happens when we play all of the notes that correspond to each chord. This opens up a few more colors to our pallet.

So the first chord is A minor. We’re going to play our A Dorian scale, which has a flat third and a flat seventh.

Now when we get to the next chord, which is E minor, you might think “oh we’ll just play the E Dorian mode over that one as well.” But we’re not gonna do that. In this case the E Aeolian mode is a better fit.

Let me demonstrate for you both possibilities between Dorian and Aeolian. Hopefully you’ll hear why Aeolian is a better scale choice in the context of a “Ain’t no Sunshine.”

Noticed that A Dorian shares the exact same notes as E Aeolian.

When we get to the four chord which is also a minor chord, we can go back into Dorian. 

This is the first time in the song that we’ve got a new note. The minor third of this chord is very important in determining the quality of this chord, and it is not in either of the two previous scales. It’s on this chord change here, that you’re going to want to accentuate this one. This is one unique note that doesn’t happen at any other part of the song.

If your having a hard time following along with all of the music theory terminology I strongly recommend you take a look at my Harmonic Foundation Course. It covers all of this stuff in great detail and will help you learn everything you need to get started improvising in all popular styles of music.

Different Minor Pentatonic Scale for each chord

At first, we said we could just use the E minor pentatonic scale over all of it… But what if we played a pentatonic scale that corresponded with each different chord.

So you can try playing A minor pentatonic over the A minor chords, E minor pentatonic over the E minor chord, and D minor pentatonic over the D minor chord.

Cool Pentatonic Scale Trick

And now for the cool pentatonic scale trick I promised you at the beginning of this lesson.

We can substitute the minor pentatonic scale starting on the fifth of a minor chord to get some more interesting sounds. 

So if I were to play E minor pentatonic over the A minor chord now we’re getting the fifth, the flat seven, the root, the ninth, and the 11th. 

If I apply this trick to the other chords I’m going to play B minor pentatonic over the E minor chord and A minor pentatonic over the D minor chord.

Final Thoughts on the Pentatonic Scale Trick

So to recap, we had a static pentatonic or blues scale, then modal improvisation over each chord, then a different minor pentatonic scale for each chord, and then the minor pentatonic scale starting on the fifth of each court.

With all these different techniques you can put together a solo that develops and increases in its complexity, simply by changing up your note choices as you go through.

Playing over a simple chord progression like “Ain’t no Sunshine” can be challenging for beginning supervisors because the harmony is so static but with a few simple tricks we can get a lot more variety out of essentially the same exact notes

Interested in more simple lessons like this? Check out the Easy Pentatonic Lick 1 and Easy Pentatonic Lick 2.

Let me know how your practicing is going in the comments below!

Also be sure to follow BetterSax on Facebook, InstagramLinkedIn, and YouTube to stay up to date with us for news, giveaways, and other saxophone tips and tricks

About the Author

As the founder of BetterSax.com Jay’s mission is to help developing saxophone players break away from traditional music learning methods and discover a more efficient, practical and fun way to become a Better Sax player. The BetterSax YouTube channel’s videos have been watched by millions and thousands of students have made meaningful progress on their instrument thanks to BetterSax courses.

Jay Metcalf


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