‘Whoops’ Arithmetic

Cheeky, but can't really argue with that!

Cheeky, but can’t really argue with that… It’s certainly a different approach to the problem, and I like to think Pythagoras would have been amused.

or how to play major 7ths on dominants without getting fired.

There’s a point in Miles’ autobiography where he recounts arguing with Charlie Parker. Bird told him you can play any tone on any chord, Miles disagreed and was proven wrong at the gig they went to that very night. On a blues. Miles admitted it but, being a typical musician, qualified the point and fluffed his own feathers a bit by saying “he bent the note”.

Here’s a little trick I use quite often. It’s a little bit more modernistic than what Bird had in mind, I suspect, but the principles are the same. It demonstrates pentatonic ambiguity, structure and parallelism, and it’s a great way to show that you can play any tone on any chord if you take the right approach. It’s also dead easy to remember and use.

We’ll be deliberately playing a major 7th on a dominant chord during a major II V I cadence… and it’ll sound good…


Gm7 C7 FM
We’re going to start by playing G minor pentatonic over the first chord and end by playing A minor pentatonic over the last one (nothing too damaging to the ear or sanity in either of those).

Why A minor pentatonic over F major 7? Well, it nicely outlines a major 9th chord (with added 6th). No root, but so what? Ambiguity is part and parcel of the pentatonic sound, so a good way of considering options is not to worry about what’s missing and concentrate on what fits.

The obvious approach would be to look for something to play specifically over the middle chord C7. But we’re not going to treat it as C7, we’re going to think instead purely in terms of its identity as “the middle chord” in this context.

So let’s try simply filling out the pattern of scale types we’ve chosen and play Gm pent, Abm pent then Am pent over the progression.

Now I don’t think you’ll ever read a book that gives Ab minor pentatonic as an option over a C7. But it works in this context. In fact, it works rather well – here are the tones of Abm pent analysed over C7:

Ab is the #5 …cool
B (Cb if you prefer) is the major 7 …whoops
Db the b9 …cool
Eb the #9 …cool
Gb the #11 …cool

So we effectively turn the chord into C7alt and get 80% cool to 20% whoops, which is pretty good “whoops arithmetic”. But even the whoops sounds cool because of the pentatonic scale scheme we’re using over the whole cadence. It’s about the journey across all the chords. Speaking of journeys…

Don't worry about the calculus, just look at it and consider the concept of lateral thinking...

As the denominator approaches zero, the result approaches infinity. But don’t worry about the calculus, just marvel at the student’s quite literally lateral thinking…

The highway that’s the best isn’t the only route. And I’ve nothing against Flagstaff and Oklahoma City, but it’s only a matter of opinion that it’s the best…

Actually what we have here is outside (or bitonal) playing. The harmony is II V I, and you’re playing II Something Else I. You are substituting the tension of an outside sound for the tension of the dominant. The starting point and destination are the same, you’ve just chosen to take a different route.

Since pentatonic scales are ambiguous, and since dominants are so alterable, you tend to get a rather “friendly” type of bitonality with this approach. You can do it on other chord types too, but dominants are the best place to start playing around with this sound.


Of course, “whoops” isn’t really so terribly new. In fact, some might argue that jazz is really just “whoops” music anyway…

You’ll hear “whoops” moments sometimes with bebop players – certain shapes that are “mostly right” just kind of “came out” on their instruments. Don’t get hung up on such details and try to make the “whoops” notes right by analysis after the fact – when transcribing, understanding the intention is more important than slavishly following every note.

Anyway, this approach demonstrates how thinking in terms of overlaid structures can make just about anything work, and make it rather hard to sound “wrong”. Dominants are the most alterable chord type, so you can analyse any gapped scale as “mostly” right over a dominant. But you can do it with other chord types too.


There are plenty of different ideas along the same lines. How about F# minor pent over C major? Gives you a nice full Lydian sound but with an oddity – what you could think of as an altered root – C#. Again – 80% cool to 20% whoops. And you can mitigate that “whoops” note by thinking, again, in terms of the structural overlay in context.

Try playing the most horribly inappropriate pentatonic over a given chord. The more you play around with pentatonics, the more you realise that their inherent ambiguity gives you a percentage game where just about the worst result you’ll get is a 60:40 cool-to-whoops ratio and/or a substitution by other means. And if you play with conviction and move around by some kind of scheme laid on top even the whoopses get unwhoopsed. Furthermore, because the pentatonic scale has such a distinctive identifiable structure and sound, a specific scheme (such as the up-by-semitones GmPT-AbmPT-AmPT motion we looked at above) isn’t actually even necessary.

Of course, we’ve only considered possibilities using just one pentatonic per chord…

Have a play around with this stuff and let me know what you think.

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Posted in a) Soloing Scales & Modes
4 comments on “‘Whoops’ Arithmetic
  1. Adam Cole says:

    Good stuff from the patron saint of pentatonics! Of course, you can always treat a major seventh as a passing note…Over a C-dominant seventh, start with B and then play a B-flat, then a g, g#, a…Or doesn’t that count?

    • Jason says:

      Hi Adam.
      Anything counts if it sounds good.
      See also Ellington (two kinds of music – good and bad) and Louis (what’s folk music? Never heard of horse music). Even Cecil Taylor (I don’t hear right and wrong anymore, I just hear sound).
      I find it interesting that the commonest bebop passing tones on m7 and 7 chords are actually the most “wrong” notes you can play over those chords.
      Point here is that you don’t even have to use the most horrible notes as passing tones or worry whether they fall on weak beats. You can combine chromaticism with PTs if you want, and it’ll sound great. But you can also ring those “wrong” notes out, loud and proud!
      This kind of thinking is also great for getting people out of their fear of making mistakes. And perhaps counter-intuitively, the more you explore being weird, the stronger your melodic conception gets.
      (Now, I must get onto the church about that stained-glass window…)

      • Adam Cole says:


        In my ongoing quest to discover why my “brilliant” solos don’t sound anything like bebop, I found something that relates. I was studying Bud Powell’s opening in the alternate take to “Reets and I” on “The Amazing Bud Powell” First chord is an F-major (6th?) His solo lick starts right on the 1 with an A-flat, going to an A (Here…eighth notes: A-flat A E E-flat D C A F / E D E A —— E D ) That’s when I noticed that a lot of bebop solos begin right on the strong beat, on a dissonance like a minor 6th, altered 3rd, or a tritone, and then resolve by the end. The dissonance adds the impetus for movement, with the next dissonant line coming so quickly after the resolution that it’s an incredible tease. So if I learn to start on a dissonant note, right on the 1, I have a better chance of creating something interesting in the moment. The caveat, I really have to know where to go from that note! Oh, well, guess I better PRACTICE.

  2. Paul Sorensen says:

    Too much concern with 1. right and wrong notes 2. arithmatic 3. Modes, 4. Upper and lower structures, etc. etc. Clogs up the mind! Tonal center or “key” we’re in should be the focus.
    All notes you play will have relevence to the tonal center, and since it is sometimes shifting around a great deal you need to have this framework established in your brain. There are only 12 notes. You can either stick close to the framework ( chord changes ), or go outside a little or a lot, but usually come back inside to the framework to let the listener know that you know where you are at, and give everyone a soft landing and sigh of relief!

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