Using Pentatonic Skeletons to Make Modes Musical


Modes can be tough. We spend hours practicing them in hopes they help get us those more sophisticated colors for our improvisations and compositions. I have, however, found a problem that a lot of students who come to me face: when they go to solo, it sounds just like how they had practiced. It sounds like they’re just running up and down scales.

Matt had written a great blog post before called How to Create Melodic Guitar Solos, where he shows how to build scales from triads, as opposed to the popular 3NPS positions and CAGED positions. In this blog, I wanted to add to this idea by showing another skeleton we can build scales off of that almost every player knows how to already use: the pentatonic scale.

I have a lot of students who can play very musically inspired ideas using the Minor Pentatonic scale especially. It’s mostly used for blues and rock, but you can get a lot of music out of that simple scale, as my students have demonstrated. However, once we start talking about something like Dorian, or Mixolydian, they all of a sudden become unmusical scale running zombies.

To combat this, I show my students that all 7 of the Major scale modes are actually just either the minor or major pentatonic shapes with a few extra notes added. Let’s take a look at a G Dorian Scale to demonstrate this. But first, let’s just look at a normal minor pentatonic scale in the key of G.
g minor pentatonic scale guitar

This probably looks familiar to most people. Now, let’s add some notes to make G Dorian. The added notes will be in red.
We can get into all of the theory behind what makes this scale a Dorian scale, but for now, this is just an easy way to learn the shape. If you want to try G Dorian over a chord or progression, just go to your G Minor Pentatonic and start adding the red notes. It’s that easy to start.

Really, you’re only adding two notes, but those two notes just show up in different octaves. This remains true for every shape we’ll look at.

You can make two other modes off of the minor pentatonic shape.

Here’s Phrygian:
And here’s Aeolian or Minor
You can get the other 4 modes from a skeleton of the major pentatonic scale. Here’s what the skeleton looks like. G Major Pentatonic
Again, a lot of you already probably use this. Let’s add some more red notes for the appropriate modes:

Ionian (Major)
And here’s the dreaded Locrian. Some of my students prefer to use a minor pentatonic skeleton for this, since Locrian is definitely closer to a minor tonality than a major, but I think it fits nicer in a major skeleton. In fact, I really just think of the Ionian mode and add a note a half step below the root. Use whatever works best for how your brain ticks.
So how do we actually go about using all of this? I saw a lesson from a favorite guitarist of mine, Guthrie Govan, who is known for making “shred” musical, and I think the way he described this process hit the nail on the head. He said these things shouldn’t be like an on-off light switch, but rather a fader or dimmer light switch.

What he meant was that you shouldn’t be playing in minor pentatonic, and then all of a sudden you flip a switch and go into “Dorian mode” which is a completely separate entity. You should blend the two ideas of playing together, slowly.

For example, try taking a go-to minor pentatonic lick of yours, and rather than ending on the note you normally do, find one of the notes that we added to the skeleton. Maybe in one of your quick minor pentatonic runs just add some of those modal notes. You’ll be surprised at the new colors your solos will have.

This is a simple idea, but can be a very powerful one for people trying to get their feet wet with some modal tonality.

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About the Author
Mike Lowden has been playing the guitar for as long as he can remember, and enjoys playing every type of music that he can get his hands on. Mike has education from the Berklee College of Music, and studied Jazz at the University of Akron. Now the guitar instructor and co-owner of Falls Music School, in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, his mission is not only to teach music students at the school, but also through online content. Feel free to contact Mike here.

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