June 24th, 2016

Killer Triadic & Pentatonic Concepts Made Easy: A Lesson With Kenny Garrett

By Forrest

Kenny Garrett Triadic Concepts

Kenny Garrett is an incredible musician. He’s arguably had one of the largest impacts on alto saxophone since Charlie Parker…

In fact, when he started to gain popularity, most every alto player in the world had to rethink their concept.

All of a sudden, copying Charlie Parker didn’t seem that cool anymore.

But the thing is, Kenny Garrett built his unique style using the jazz language of his heroes. Besides his huge beautiful dark one-of-a-kind tone, that’s why it sounds so awesome.

Because he mixed his own unique style with the bebop language, it sounds like a natural and progressive evolution of the music.

Today we’ll have a listen and a look into what makes some his lines tick…

Getting into Kenny’s head

It’s always difficult trying to understand a modern player by listening to them play on their own esoteric compositions.

What’s easier?

Studying their playing on a standard or a tune you’re ultra familiar with.

In this lesson, we’ll check out what Kenny plays on the Charlie Parker tune Ornithology, which is based on the tune How High the Moon.

Here are the chord changes to Ornithology so you have an idea about what’s going on with the harmony if you’re not familiar with the tune.

Listen to Kenny Garrett play Ornithology and how effortlessly he weaves through the chord changes and commands the direction of the entire band.

Every phrase he plays has intent behind it and leads perfectly into the next one.

And, somehow he naturally takes his lines to some foreign sounding places that sound incredible.

But as you’ll see, they’re not so foreign. In fact, after this lesson you’ll be able to use the same strategies that Kenny Garrett is using to achieve some of these really cool sounds!

Using the 2 triad, the tritone triad, and creating strong sequences

Listen to Kenny at 1:11 play the following line:

Kenny Garret line 1

First at full speed…


And now at half speed…


In the 4th measure, he begins to take the listener on a journey. It’s completely unexpected, yet it doesn’t sound out of place.

How does he do it?

First off, let’s dissect what he’s doing here…

Over the ii V in the 4th measure, we’re headed back to the top of the form, and he uses an Ab triad over the entire measure.

Kenny Garret line 1 Ab triad

This is the tritone sub (Ab) of D7 and it’s a great concept for you to use.

All you have to do is use the triad of the tritone sub. That’s it. That’s all he’s doing here and it sounds amazing!

But where does he take it?

Rather than resolving to the G major at the top of the form, he moves up from the Ab triad to an A triad:

Kenny Garret line 1 A triad

This is what I call the 2 triad because it’s the triad built on the second of the key, so in G major, the second is A, hence it’s an A major triad.

The 2 triad gives us all sorts of colorful notes: the 9th, #11th, and 13th.

That’s a pretty sweet deal just for thinking of a simple triad!

And he’s really thinking of the A triad in the measure before as well, just the top part of it, the 5th and 3rd without including the root.

Any time you want to spice up a major chord, the 2 triad is there to save the day.

But is that all?

Is there anything else holding this line together?

Well, I’m glad you asked. Yes, there certainly is.

One of the strongest things holding this line together is the use of a repeated rhythm. Call it a sequence, motivic development, or whatever you want.

The point is that when you repeat a clear definitive rhythm while applying other melodic or harmonic devices, the repeated rhythm acts as the glue holding it all together.

Kenny Garret line 1 sequence

So don’t just use these concepts…use them in a strong way.

Practice ideas

  • Play over a blues and before every resolution, use the tritone triad as the basis for your melodic line
  • Play over a blues and over each instance of the I and IV chords, use the 2 triad in a melodic way
  • Play over a tune you’re working on and try to “setup” the 2 triad with the tritone triad

How to use pentatonics like a bad@$$

Pentatonic scales are one of the first scales improvisors learn and most people think of them as a fairly basic concept.

Or, they might be something you started studying later on in your musical development and you have an array of intricate patterns and shapes you think you need to practice…

I can relate to both of these experiences. I first learned some pentatonic licks early on and soon realized they didn’t quite sound as good as I might have hoped.

And then later, I studied books that had endless pattern of pentatonics, but no matter how much I practiced them, they never really sounded musical or lyrical. They just sounded technical, like a machine.

Kenny Garret uses pentatonics perfectly and in a more simple way than you could ever imagine.

Have a listen to the line below and make sure to listen to it before looking at the line (1:24 in the recording).

Kenny Garret line 2

First listen to it at full speed…


And now at half speed…


I’ve listened to this solo for years and I can honestly say that before I transcribed this line, I thought it was something much more complex.

It sounded so awesome and authoritative, I thought it had to at least be some sort of substitution…

But no…

All he’s doing is thinking of the minor pentatonic and playing a clear phrase moving up and down it:

Kenny Garret line 2 pentatonic

So what’s the takeaway?

Don’t overthink it.

Use the minor pentatonic built from the V7 chord’s ii chord pair (In other words, if you saw the dominant chord in a ii V, what would the ii chord be? Bb minor for Eb7)

And sometimes, using pentatonics in a simple way is super effective.

Practice ideas

  • Play through a tune you’re working on and over each dominant chord play the minor pentatonic of the ii chord pair
  • Experiment with simple pentatonic shapes and aim to find a shape that is melodically strong and sounds good to your ear.

Using the 3 triad and triad pairs in a lyrical way

If you’ve been improvising for a while, then you’ve certainly heard about triad pairs. They’re constantly talked about as if they’ll solve all your musical woes and that they’re the key to creating beautiful lines.

Sorry to be the one to tell you, but it’s not that easy.

No single device is going to be the end-all-be-all and if there were such a device, it most certainly wouldn’t be triad pairs.

Nevertheless, as we’ll hear in a moment, they can be used beautifully.

Listen to Kenny Garrett play the line below (1:34 in the recording)

Kenny Garret line 3

First at the full tempo…


And now at half speed…


At this point, Kenny takes his triad concept to the next-level. Now he’s not only using the 2 triad, but he’s mixing in the 3 triad to form a “triad pair”:

Kenny Garret line 3 triad pairs

Using the 3 triad (B in G major) is not easy because it uses the #5.

It can sound totally out of place if you can’t hear the sound in your mind.

To use both the 2 triad and 3 triad like Kenny Garrett is doing you have to train your ears to hear the sound. It’s that simple. It’s no coincidence we go over these in great detail within The Ear Training Method. If you can’t hear it, you can’t play it.

Or, you can, but it’ won’t sound right…

But besides actually hearing the sounds of the chord-tones as they relate to the tonic, in this case G major, you have to learn how to use the triads in a way that smoothly flow from one to the next.

Kenny Garrett teaches us how to do this if we look closely…

But before we get there, note that over the G minor chord, Kenny is using a Bb triad.

So we have even one more triadic tool to add to the list: the 3 triad on a minor chord – Bb major triad on G minor.

Kenny Garret line 3 triad on minor

Back to how Kenny flows from one triad to the next…

He doesn’t just come right out and play the triad pair, he sets it up. Each triad smoothly leads into the next.

First, the tonic triad, G. It moves effortlessly into the 2 triad from the 5th of the tonic triad, down by half-step to the 3rd of the 2 triad.

Then he moves by whole-step down from the 3rd of the 2 triad to the root of the 3 triad.

And finally, he repeats the shape he plays using the 3 triad (1531 of B) with the 3 triad over minor (1531 of Bb).

Kenny Garret line 3 sequence

There’s certainly a lot going on here! But we can take advantage of some of the underlying concepts he’s using. Here are a few things to focus on:

Practice ideas:

Pick a tune you’re working on and…

  • Setup the 2 triad over a major chord (more dissonant) by starting your line with the tonic triad (less dissonant)
  • Setup the 3 triad over a major chord (more dissonant) with the 2 triad (less dissonant). Notice the pattern?
  • Play the 3 triad over every minor chord
  • Practice weaving between triads as Kenny does in the previous example

Acquiring killer triadic concepts, pentatonics, and bebop language

Clearly Kenny Garrett has done his homework. If you listen closely to all the examples presented and the entire solo, you’ll notice that he’s basically doing one of three things most of the time:

  1. Using triadic concepts in an extremely effective way
  2. Using pentatonics in an extremely effective way
  3. Using standard bebop language heavily shaped and influenced by his particular style of articulation and unique tone

He’s an absolutely amazing musician and there’s a lot to learn from him. Study these examples, bring them to the practice room, and in time, you’ll hear Kenny’s triadic, pentatonic, and bebop language concepts in your own playing!

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