Last updated on March 23, 2020
I often get students who like the idea or the sound of modes but are put off by the theory, and as modes are a fundamental part of soloing in many styles, I try to teach them without explicitly saying, ‘Ok, today we’re going to learn the modes,’ or something equally as daunting. So, how do you learn modes without learning modes?
Well, you’ll be surprised to know that there are a whole host of great players that use modes very effectively without really knowing (or being able to explain) the theory behind them. Slash is a great example of this, as well as John Mayer and many more. What they do instead is home in on a particular sound, which we could call Lydian or Mixolydian for example, but to them it’s just a sound and they know where to find it on the fretboard.
Therefore, in this lesson we’re going to use the Dorian mode ‘by accident’ as if you’d stumbled across it by doing to the following.
The Dorian mode/scale is used a LOT in rock, blues, and especially jazz. In fact, as minor scales go, it’s probably second only to the minor pentatonic scales, which incidentally is all we need to know to bring out the Dorian mode.
Let’s say you’re playing over an Am/Am7 or even an Am9 chord and the A Minor Pentatonic scale isn’t quite cutting it—you want something more interesting to play. This is where the Dorian mode comes in handy.
Our good old A Minor Pentatonic scale contains the intervals 1, b3, 4, 5, b7 as shown in the diagram:
Our Dorian mode, however, is a seven-note scale and contains the intervals 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6, b7.
There are a couple of things we could do here.
The first would be to just add the missing intervals (2 and 6) to our minor pentatonic scale:
What could go wrong?
Here’s where a lot students get put off because we’re now dealing with a 7-note scale, there’s a lot more information to take in and make musical, and our user-friendly minor pentatonic box has now become somewhat cumbersome with the addition of another 5 notes. This inevitably leads to running up and down the scale pattern and bidding farewell to all the cool stuff we could do with just the minor pentatonic scale.
What to do instead
What we could and should do instead to bring out those Dorian flavors is to simply play B Minor Pentatonic over our Am/Am7/Am9 chord.
Yes, it happens to contain all the missing intervals and some other useful stuff.
Let’s take a look.
If you remember, our Dorian mode contains the intervals 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6, b7.
A Minor Pentatonic contains the intervals 1, b3, 4, 5, b7.
And B Minor Pentatonic contains the intervals 1, 2, 4, 5, 6.
Therefore: Am Pentatonic + Bm Pentatonic = A Dorian
What you can do here is play a little Am Pentatonic then move into B Minor Pentatonic, then combine them. I’m sure you’ll agree that playing box 1 of the minor pentatonic then moving it up 2 frets is far easier, and involves far less thinking, than trying to conjure up the Dorian mode then make music out of it on the fly. Here you just have to remember one pentatonic pattern that you probably already feel pretty confident with.
Try it out and see what you can come up with, bearing in mind that you’re playing the B Minor Pentatonic SHAPE but relating all your licks and runs to A.
Here are the two scales overlapping so you can have a reference to work from for interval choice.
If you want to go deeper into the Dorian mode and learn how to use it as an entire improvisation system, check out our latest book: The Dorian Improvisation System.