Last updated on January 29, 2019
Parallel thinking is a great weapon to have in your improvisational arsenal, not least because it allows you to get out of your own way and go straight to what you want to play, rather than fishing around for modes and scales. By parallel thinking I mean treating any mode as a scale in its own right, as oppose to indulging in theory-inducing calculations to find the right major (parent) scale to play starting on a different note. As you get into more complex music that doesn’t fit nicely into a pentatonic box, or one key, you’ll want to have quick access to a variety of scales without tripping over yourself to get to them. Parallel thinking could be the added dimension your playing needs.
Once you get your head around the fact that you can play all the different modes simply by starting any major scale on any note other than the root, your improvisational prowess is stepped up a gear, and you gain a certain amount of freedom on the fretboard… IF you know your major scales in all 12 keys. If I want to use C Dorian, for example, I simply play the Bb Major Scale starting on C and bang – C Dorian; but what if my knowledge of Bb Major is a little shaky? In turn, my knowledge and use of C Dorian is also going to be a little shaky… so what’s wrong with this picture?
My knowledge of C Dorian depends on my knowledge of Bb Major.
This might work well in keys you constantly use such as C, A, G, E, and D (no coincidence), but when it comes to fairly common modes found within fairly uncommon keys, problems arise. Granted, it’s exactly the same major scale pattern in all keys, but those less common keys will throw you off.
One way to mitigate this is parallel thinking.
As far as scales and modes are concerned, this involves learning/knowing the modes off the same root: C Ionian, C Dorian, C Phrygian, C Lydian, C Mixolydian etc., plus any other scales you want to learn, instead of the diatonic C Ionian, D Dorian, E Phrygian, F Lydian etc. The advantage here is that you go straight to a C Dorian pattern (or set of intervals) that starts on C rather than Bb, which affects your choice of notes much more than you’d think. If I’m improvising using C Dorian, I want to be thinking how everything relates to C, not Bb.
Let’s say you want to use C Phrygian and C Aeolian in a solo to add some variation over a C Minor chord. In the parallel system, the only difference between these two scales is the 2:
C Phrygian – 1, b2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7
C Aeolian – 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7
On the fretboard, it looks like this:
Start this pattern with your fourth finger on the root on the A string and notice how it fits snuggly into your hand, and gives you easy access to all the notes in the scale. Move it around to different keys and delight in knowing that you didn’t have to do any major scale headache-inducing calculations to do so. When coming up with comfy scale patterns, avoid starting on the low E string (no one starts a solo there), and use the top four strings mainly—as you would in a real solo. What you’re looking for here are ‘realistic’ scale patterns rather than ‘scale book’ ones. If you’re looking for a reference for these kinds of patterns, check out our latest book, ‘From Scales to Solos – Zonal Improvisation on Guitar’, which takes the zonal approach to 15 of the most common scales.
If you’re not quite ready for parallel thinking, check out these articles to get you making music from the parent scale idea: