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Modal Pentatonics

Introduction to modal pentatonics

Yes, I know. Yeah, you don't need to tell me. OK ok, I know it's weird... yes, I have actually written a new article that is not an essay or rant of some kind. I am actually writing about something gasp guitar-related! After you have rubbed your eyes now, let's jump right in...

Modal pentatonics - believe it or not, I had never heard about these until I started studying at the GIT even though I had been reading a bunch of instructional books, magazines and stuff. But, once I was introduced to them, they made perfect sense to me.

They also helped me quite a bit to get into those mysterious "modes" everyone was talking about. In fact, I think they can be helpful to get into the modes for many other people as well. Especially since there seems to be a lot of confusion about the modes (and everyone seems to be convinced that he or she HAS to learn them ASAP).

So what are they?

OK, I'll try to explain it in a simple fashion. All you "musical scientists" out there must forgive me if I simplify things a bit too much. I am simply trying to explain it in layman's terms, and I hope it works.

As you probably know by now, you get a regular major pentatonic by removing two notes from each octave of the major scale... the 4th and 7th. In the key of C, that would mean we take out the F and B in order to get the C major pentatonic.

Now, if you remove the exact same notes from the relative minor scale, you get the minor pentatonic. In the key of C, A minor is the relative minor, and if you take out F and B, you get the A minor pentatonic. (the one everyone seems to know).

Check out the TAB below for more clarification:

OK. I think this is still pretty simple to understand, and I am certain that most of you had figured this out anyway.

Now for the leap of faith. I guess most of you aware that the minor scale could technically be seen as a mode of the major scale. It might make it easier if I throw in the term "aeolian", which is another name of the minor scale, and the name of the sixth mode.

C Major: C D E F G A B C
A Minor: A B C D E F G A

Now, I said before that if you take the 2nd and 6th note out of the minor scale, you get the minor pentatonic.

Now here is the big question: What happens if we take the 2nd and 6th note out of all the other modes as well?

What we get is *drum roll MODAL PENTATONICS.

Further explanation

Indeed, pentatonic versions of all our modes. And in my opinion, those pentatonics bring out the sound of the respective mode a bit better than the whole mode played with all notes included. Let me explain:

Take Dorian (and we'll stick to the key of C major for all these examples).
D Dorian is a mode of C major. The notes are D E F G A B C D.

If we take out the 2nd and 6th note, we get something we can refer to as "D Dorian pentatonic".

The notes that are left are D F G A C D


Yes, you're correct, those are the same notes as the D minor pentatonic (obviously, as the only difference between the D minor scale and the D Dorian Scale is that D Dorian has a Bb instead of a B, on the 6th degree. And we took out the 6th degree in both cases).

Although that is some valuable information, it's not that much of a big deal yet... after all, many of us have tried to use the D min pentatonic over a C major scale progression (or a D Dorian one, but I'll get to that later)
The same happens when we look at the next mode of C major: E Phrygian.

If we take out the 2nd and 6th tone, we get E G A B D E .

Which is... a pentatonic with the same notes as the E minor pentatonic.

Again, valuable information if you are currently getting into modal improvisation ("Hey, over an E Phrygian chord progression, I can simply use the E minor pentatonic...").

But now let's get to the real interesting stuff: the next mode, which is F Lydian....

The other modes

F Lydian: F G A B C D E F

Take out the 2nd and 6th note, and you get F A B C E F.

Which IS NOT the F major pentatonic (F G A C D F). Instead, this one is quite unlike our major or minor pentatonic.

Try playing it (in each of the examples, I have provided a small segment of the respective modal pentatonic, and a full pattern that covers all six strings). I am sure you have heard people refer to the lydian mode as "oriental" or "mysterious sounding". Well, I think this "Lydian Pentatonic" brings out that sound quite a bit!

In fact, whenever I play that, or hear it, just this lydian pentatonic played ascending or descending without any phrasing or licks, I immediately think of Joe Satriani and Steve Vai and some of their melodies ("Answers" and "Feathers" by Vai, or "Flying In A Blue Dream" by Satch, which are both based on the lydian mode).

I think that the sound of that pentatonic gives the listener the essence of the mode. A lot of people seem to be confused if they hear the regular lydian scale played ascending or descending, as it still sometimes sounds like a major scale played from its 4th degree to the octave of that.

In this case, due to the notes which we left out, the sound of the mode is pretty well.

Let's move on to Mixolydian, the next mode. The root in our example would be G.
G A B C D E F G.

Take out the 2nd and 6th degree, and you get the mixolydian pentatonic: G B C D F G.

Same as above... the mixolydian sound immediately becomes obvious (at least to me, and back then the whole modes-thing was still a big riddle to me). When I hear this one, I immediately think of Jeff Beck and melodies like "Freeway Jam" (one of the best and easiest-to-remember examples of a "mixolydian melody")

Aeolian is our next mode, and we have covered that one above... A Aeolian (minor): A B C D E F G A, A Aeolian / minor pentatonic: A C D E G A.

And finally, the last mode, B Locrian: B C D E F G A B.

Take out... blah blah, and you get B D E F A B.

Quite a weird one, as the root of our "mother scale" (C Major) is excluded from it. The result to me sounds both a bit mysterious, and a bit odd.

Those chord-thingies

Now, how to apply them?

Well, of course you could start of by using each one of those pentatonics over a static chord i.e. D Dorian over a static Dmin (or Dmin7), or F Lydian over a static Fmaj, or Fmaj7

(Here are the triads of C major again, if you're not familiar with how they are derived, check out [l=http://www.ibreathemusic.com/browse/index.php?what=author&aid=1]Guni's articles[el] about chord scales: C-Dm-Em-F-G-A-Bdim-C, or as 7th chords: Cmaj7-Dm7-Em7-Fmaj7-G7-Am7-Bm7b5)

Now, I think it's even more interesting if you try to bring out the sound of each mode not only with the scale you use, but also with the chords you use in the background. And you can go beyond just strumming one static chord, by doing this:

As our starting point, we take the three major triads of the major scale. In C, those would be Cmaj, Fmaj and G maj. Now let's turn that into a 2 bar progression: half a bar of G, half a bar of F, one bar of C. (or, one bar of G, one bar of F, two bars of C, to get a 4 bar progression).

If you use the C major scale (or C maj pentatonic) over those, you'll essentially get a good representation of the "major sound". If you use the modes (or modal pentatonics) over it, the results may vary.

I think that one thing that a lot of people forget about, or do not figure out, is that it's not only the scale you use that creates a modal sound, but also the chords you use that scale over. Now, let's use those slash chords (slash chords are basically chords with a bass note that is not part of the chord, or at least not the root of the chord. If you i.e. See Dm / C, it means "Dminor chord over a C bass note". C is usually not part of the chord. Or D/F#... Dmajor triad over F# bass note. The F# is the third of the chord, but in this case, we have the F# (or another one) in the bass, as the lowest note. That's it in a nutshell.)

Now, let's take the chord progression above (G F-C) and add a D bass note to each one. So we get G/D F/D C/D.

Now, record yourself playing those chords over and over, or use a keyboard or sequencer to create a loop of them, or have a friend play them for you... or use Powertab to create a loop with a piano or string sound. (Adding a bass in powertab or with your keyboard will be even better... try adding the bass note in static 8th-notes).

And then... play the D dorian pentatonic (or, if you prefer to think of it that way, the Dmin pentatonic) over it. I think you'll see that that gets out the dorian sound a bit better than just playing a full dorian scale over a min chord.

Chords for other modes

Here is the same thing for E Phrygian, the bass note for all chords is E now...

Now, let's get into F Phrygian...

...and don't forget that you can apply this "trick" to your songwriting as well. Others have done before. One of my favorite chord progressions to jam over using the lydian mode or lydian pentatonic is this one:

Without further ado, a "mixolydian chord progression" (again, dear music scientists, please excuse me for terms like that... I am sure we can discuss all this stuff for hours and argue about terms like that, but what I am trying to do here is to write an introduction to modal pentatonics.)

Regarding minor, we all know quite a few examples of minor chord progressions, or songs in a minor key we could jam over ("Lady In Black", "All Along The Watchtower", "Stairway To Heaven", "Nothing Else Matters" and about a billion others), but for the sake of continuity, let's just stick to our previous chord proggie and change the bass note to A)

And finally, a locrian one...

This is a very basic approach, and I definitely would like to encourage you to be a bit more creative using slash chords and experimenting with bass notes. I am sure you noticed that even though the triad-progression was the same in all examples, simply changing the bass note (not even mentioning the use of different modal pentatonics over them) changes the sound of the progression quite a bit.

Many great songwriters use this to great effect, like i.e. Steve Morse, Pat Metheny, Eric Johnson, Phil Collins amongst others.

So bear that in mind, and maybe with this short introduction to slash chords and applying them to modal playing, hopefully I was able to give you some ideas you can use.

Some licks and conclusion

Now let's get back to our modal pentatonics and the patterns I gave you. I strongly recommend to stick to one or two patterns at first, and explore these new sounds thoroughly before you go through the process of learning a whole bunch of new patterns for these pentatonics.

(Once you wanna get into that, it might be a good idea to draw the patterns onto a piece of paper, and compare them to the pentatonic patterns you already know. Sometimes, there's only a small change required to turn a pattern of the major pentatonic into a pattern of a modal one. And keep in mind that the Dorian pentatonic and the Phrygian one have the same notes as some minor pentatonics (i.e. D Dorian Pentatonic = D minor, E Phrygian Pentatonic = E Minor Pentatonic)

So let's stick to the ones I showed you above, and see what we get.
I decided to not give you a bunch of licks or anything, and instead encourage you to try to really improvise and play melodically using those pentatonics, as they should be considered more than just a few patterns to shred on.

So use chord progressions like the ones above and try to create something musical, use those pentatonics to create melodies and create interesting sounds.

Also, you can apply a lot of the licks and sequences you used for the regular major and minor pentatonics and apply them to those modal ones... more on that in a sec...

This one, in F lydian, sounds pretty exotic to my ears, a bit Vai-like, and sounds very lydian... try using it over the "lydian chord progression".

This next one is exactly what I mentioned above: a regular sequence (see my [l=http://www.ibreathemusic.com/browse/index.php?what=author&aid=2]scales workout articles[el] for a closer explanation on and more examples for sequences applied to pentatonics). This one is the "2 down, 1 back up" sequence that you have heard a bunch of times. When applied to the G mixolydian pentatonic, it results in quite a different sound...

Here is a pedaltone-style lick utilizing tapping, played along the B-String. The scale I used is the B Locrian pentatonic.

Here is one of THE standard blues licks (pretty much everyone knows it), applied to the F lydian pentatonic (bar 1) and the G mixolydian one (bar 2). Using different modal pentatonics over changing chords might be a good introduction for soloing based on chords, adjusting to each chord. So try playing bar 1 over an F Major chord, and bar 2 over a G major one...

Here is the final example. It again utilizes playing along one string, which is a good way to "see" the degrees and intervals of any given scale physically. This one is a bit Vai-ish again, as it involves sliding up and down between the notes along the string. I again used the F lydian scale.


As mentioned above, I didn't intend to give away too many licks, as I think that the whole subject is enough to swallow for now (especially if you haven't heard of modal pentatonics before).

And once again, I recommend you experiment a lot and play around with these sounds. If you have tried using modes before, this might be a refreshing change. If you haven't, this might be a good introduction to the topic before you get into the "full" modes.

Those modal pentatonics are a great way to get some interesting (modal) sounds even though you're technically simply using notes from the plain major scale (while leaving out others).

I hope you enjoyed this one, and I hope it was interesting for you...

HERE is the ptb-file for this article.

This article can be read online at http://www.iBreatheMusic.com/article/178
Eric started playing the guitar at age 10. He attended GIT and studied with Scott Henderson, Brett Garsed, Dan Gilbert amo. Eric is involved in several bands and recording projects and his instrumental debut - Hidden Creek - plus his instructional book Talking Hands - A Guide To Contemporary Lead Guitar Techniques is available HERE
Visit his website at www.ericvandenberg.net

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