Guitar Hacks: From Pentatonics to Modes in 5 Minutes

pentatonics and modes guitar lesson

This is a common problem among guitar players: they get very good at getting some great licks and runs from major and minor pentatonic scales, then decide to learn modes and it all goes to shit. This is mainly because guitarists believe that to learn modes you need to adopt some other method such as the CAGED or 3NPS patterns. In doing this, their chops go back to zero because the plethora of new patterns bear no relation to the pentatonic ones they know and love, are very clunky, and harder to get under control. So, what if there was a way to keep playing pentatonics but have them sound like modes instead? Read on…

Need to Know
All you need to know to really take advantage of this insightful lesson are your major and minor pentatonic patterns, as well as your major scale patterns. Don’t worry if you don’t know them like the back of your hand yet as a fair idea of where the notes are in any major scale will be enough to understand and apply the crux of this lesson. If you don’t know your major scales yet, read on too because this will give you a reason to learn them.

Modal Theory
The theory behind the modes gets unnecessarily complicated by guitarists and guitar teachers alike. All you need to know for this lesson is that if you start and end a major scale on any note other than its root, you get a mode. For example, if we start the C Major scale on D, we get the following notes: D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D – or D Dorian; if we start it on E we get E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E – or in other words, E Phrygian and so on.

Let’s stick with C Major as our example key. Here are the diatonic chords:

C | Dm | Em | F | G | Am | B°

The diagram below shows all the notes in C Major on the fretboard up to the 22nd fret. In the key of C Major, we have three minor chords: Dm, Em and Am, and if you look closely at the diagram, C Major also contains D Minor Pentatonic, E Minor Pentatonic and A Minor Pentatonic – ALL FIVE SHAPES FOR EACH SCALE. You’ll see box 1 for each scale highlighted below, but all five shapes are there.

In the key of C Major, we also have three major chords: C, F and G. If you look closely at the diagram below you’ll see box 1 of F Major Pentatonic, G Major Pentatonic and C Major Pentatonic!
Of course, the other four shapes for the major pentatonic are also there. You probably never noticed this because when you make the switch from pentatonic patterns to 3NPS or CAGED patterns, this whole relationship between pentatonics and major scales gets lost.

What Can I Do with This Information?
The difference between a pentatonic scale and a major scale is two notes, so with this information you can happily play D Minor Pentatonic, and if you know your C Major Scale, add in the two other notes and you have D Dorian. Play E Minor Pentatonic, add in the other two notes and you’re playing E Phrygian. Play A Minor Pentatonic, add in the other two notes and you’re playing A Aeolian. All without using cumbersome 3NPS or CAGED patterns – and I bet you’ll still sound good!

The same is true of the major scales. If you play C Major Pentatonic and add in the two other notes you have C Ionian (C Major Scale); if you play F Major Pentatonic and add in the two other notes, you are now playing F Lydian. If you play G Major Pentatonic and add in the other two notes, you’re playing the gorgeous G Mixolydian mode.

How Do I Use This in Other Keys?
If you want to transfer this information to another key, simply make a note of the diatonic chords as follows. Let’s say our new key is F Major:

F | Gm | Am | Bb | C | Dm | E°

We have three minor chords (pentatonics) – Gm, Am, and Dm, and three major chords (pentatonics) – F, Bb, and C. When you add the other two notes from the F Major scale to any of these pentatonics you’ll get:

F Ionian | G Dorian | A Phrygian | Bb Lydian | C Mixolydian | D Aeolian

The modes will always be in the above order in any key.

What about the Locrian Mode?
We didn’t cover the Locrian Mode in this lesson because a) the other modes are way more useful, and b) it’s not really based on a minor or major pentatonic.

Remember that you can still think pentatonic here and when you know where those two extra notes are add them in sparingly at first; knowing that you have all five pentatonic shapes (major and minor) to fall back on should you feel lost. Have fun and make some music!

FREE EBOOK: This lesson is included in our free pentatonics eBook along with 9 others – pick up your copy here.

About Graham Tippett 300 Articles
Compulsive guitar blogger and writer of many innovative guitar books.

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